"Equality, Development, Peace" theme of UN Women's Conference
Joe Courter & Jenny Brown
The UN Association and the Ba'hais of Gainesville presented a welcome back program September 26 for Gainesvillians who attended the 1995 UN Fourth World Congress on Women's Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum in Beijing, China. The NGO Forum was held in conjunction with the fourth meeting of governments around the world on the question of women, but it was the NGO forum that received most of the press coverage in the U.S. Thirty-five thousand women attended and there were additionally about 1,000 reporters. Although press coverage here was overwhelmingly critical of China's provisions for the conference, the women who went from Gainesville had the opposite reaction, and were surprised to see the U.S. newspaper coverage when they returned.
All the speakers, in sharp contrast to U.S. media coverage, found the efforts of the Chinese commendable. Nancy Sever, who went to the NGO Forum with the Gainesville UN Association delegation, spoke about the incredible amount of coverage and transcribed material made available by their Chinese hosts; a daily newspaper about the women's forum, a special edition of China Daily on the forum, and the regular China Daily, all available each day. Polly Doughty said that when the "20 pound" package of materials arrives that she and her husband Paul sent back, they'd get a display together for the Civic Media Center ( 1021 W. University Ave.) so the citizens of Gainesville can read it.
Elizabeth Gillette, also with the UN Association, summed up the feelings of most with regards to China's role in hosting the conference. "We have to remember that the UN Forum on Women was held in a developing country. Yes, there were problems, but they did a wonderful job. How could the United States host 35,000 women plus 1,000 reporters and not run into any problems? There were no rapes that I heard of, no assaults, no robberies; yes, security was strict, but I thought that was for our own protection. ... What really didn't hit home until I experienced it was the discrimination against women in the media.
"Hillary Clinton came and it was a rainy cold morning when she was to talk. The women realized that the chances of our getting in there to hear Hillary were basically nil, but we stood outside on the steps and in the courtyard in front of the conference center anyway.
"We had the normal crowd compression as more and more women wanted to come in. One woman, I don't know who she was, said, "We want Hillary!" And immediately the crowd turned to her and she said, "Let's show Hillary what we can do"--and everyone began singing "We Shall Overcome"--which was a theme song of the conference. And these women from different nations began singing their own national songs, and others taught us national chants. It bonded us together in a unity I've never experienced before.
"What did the press say? It reported "mob behavior" I never saw this "mob behavior". I never saw the pushing ... you know, women against women."
Local community organizer Nkwanda Jah, director of the Cultural Arts Coalition, went to China with a forty-member delegation organized by the New York-based Rural Development Leadership Network, a group which included Mexican farmworkers from California, five Native American tribal representatives and representatives from the Southern Federation of Cooperatives, which works in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Jah found both the orientation period in California and travel with this group enlightening, which only increased once in China among the world delegations. Their group led 12 workshops at the conference. In participating with women around the world she noticed, "They talked about a lot of the same issues we talked about, but the only difference was, they were calling their struggle 'human rights' and we in this country keep referring to it as 'civil rights.' I think that we could be more in tune with the rest of the women and the people of the world if we called it what it was--human rights."
Jah mentioned that members of her delegation got some access to U.S. officials while in China and took the opportunity to discuss their problems at home. "Our delegation had the opportunity to meet with the U.S. government delegation to the world forum: Secretary Shalala, people from the Environmental Department and an assistant from Clinton's office. They said they were very happy to meet with a group of farmworkers who were talking about environmental issues, about being sprayed with insecticide, about illnesses they had because of the chemicals the corporations use to spray the fields, how some of them would leave their babies at the end of the row because they didn't have childcare. There were Native American women there who had small farms and they talked to them about the needs they had." [The officials] said they were glad to meet with us because the information doesn't filter up."
The issue of Chinese security was also addressed by Nkwanda Jah, who said the security was, and in fact, not as severe as she experiences at events in East Gainesville, where she's had to ask the police chief not to send so many cops. And she pointed out that the Gainesville police are big intimidating guys with guns strapped to their legs, where the Chinese were smaller and unarmed. And as she put it, we've got metal detectors in our schools "and they say that's for our safety, so I'll assume that's what the Chinese thought, too." She also noted that many of the security guards were women.
The Chinese had many college students and others present to assist with translations and logistics and many Chinese were also present as conference attendees, including women who were doctors, mayors, and Jah met a delegation of Chinese women farm workers.
Many of the attendees from Gainesville felt that they'd been part of an extraordinary event, where important and lasting contacts had been made.
Nkwanda Jah and Elizabeth Gillette will speak about the conference at the Civic Media Center on Monday, October 30 at 8 p.m. and many of the Gainesvillians that went to China will speak on a panel at the Reitz Union Ballroom on Monday, October 23, at 7:00 p.m. sponsored by UF Women's Studies. Some conference attendees will speak at the Gainesville Area NOW (National Organization for Women) meeting Thursday, October 26 at 7 p.m. at El Indio Restaurant on N. Main St. in the Gainesville Shopping Center.
Women in China
Chinese women are noted for having made great advances in the last half-century, most stemming from the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Women, who under the feudal system were owned as property by their families or husbands, and had no political rights or property rights, gained the vote, constitutional equality, the ability to control their own reproduction through contraception and abortion, the right to own property, the right to choose who and when they would marry, their own names, the right to divorce, and the right to equal education. Many traditional clothing restrictions, including footbinding, have been abolished. Urban women in China now make 77 yuan for every 100 men make, and in rural areas women make 81.4 yuan for every 100 men make, according to government figures. Materials from the conference report that Chinese women earn on average 40% of the income in the couple. About 20% of Masters Degrees and 10% of Doctorates are awarded to women. About 20% of the delegates to the National People's Congress and 15% of the members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee are women, and in China's 30 provinces there are 18 women governors or vice-governors. In addition, health care, which was not available to the poor majority in China before the revolution, is now available to everyone for free, making women's lives easier.
Nkwanda Jah, center, speaks about her experiences at the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Paul Doughty (at left), and Lois Libby (at right) also attended the conference and spoke about it at a September 26 forum in Gainesville.