BEIJING — Women meeting here over the weekend capitalized on a rare chance to lobby government officials face-to-face and openly discuss the disparity between their legal equality and their daily disenfranchisement.

Their agenda covered such sensitive topics as mandatory early retirement for women, a paucity of women in leadership roles, the lack of protection for victims of domestic violence and the special vulnerability of the nation’s minority women.

Presentations and discussion in Beijing this year were sometimes passionate, sometimes reserved. While a high government official made a strong public statement about trafficking in women and children last Thursday, another asserted Friday that the government’s recent campaign to curb organized crime was effective. Even so, several women questioned from the floor about why the “buyers” of women for prostitution or marriage are not being punished as the government helps free some women from exploitive situations.

“Our Constitution stipulates that men and women are equal–we have equality in the basic laws–but the fact of equality is a very long process,” said Li Qiufang, a leader of the All China Women’s Federation, whose Women’s Studies Association organized the meeting with the support of the United Nations. “We’re trying to push the government to make greater efforts.”

“The debate is very reflective of China today,” said Joan Kaufman, a reproductive health program officer at the Ford Foundation’s office in Beijing. “Contrary to what many people believe, there’s a lot of public discussion of some very difficult issues.”

The meeting here was held to prepare for the nation to be represented at the Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York beginning June 5. Women on every continent have convened regional meetings in recent months to assess women’s progress since the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Some of the most passionate remarks were on the subject of women in leadership roles. Luo Huilan, chief of scientific research at China Women’s College in Beijing, echoed remarks from a scholar at the Central Communist Party School when she decried the slow progress of women’s ascendance in government leadership.

“We’re going to send out the outcry to increase women’s participation and eliminate discrimination,” Luo said. “As the pace of our change from selection to election gets faster, we have to break away and make gender awareness a penetrating issue.”

Figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics show that women constituted 22 percent of the National People’s Congress in 1998 – a figure that has remained roughly the same for 20 years. In the Central Committee of the Communist Party, women’s participation has dropped steadily to just 7 percent of the total, from a high of 13 percent in 1973. Women in provincial leadership posts remain below 15 percent, according to one presentation.

Luo also spoke of the devastating effect that China’s early retirement age for women has on the influence of women working in the government and in state-owned enterprises. Women must retire five years earlier than men in most arenas–at age 55 instead of 60 in some government offices, and at 50 instead of 55 in some state-owned companies. At the same time, women’s life expectancy has increased during the past decade, to 73 years.

“Especially as we streamline the government and as we are restructuring our economy, this double-standard. . . is going to cause unimaginable damage to women,” Luo said.

In the area of domestic violence, women from a range of organizations and disciplines discussed priorities for the next five years. Judges, attorneys, legal service centers and hotlines talked about establishing a nationwide network of cooperation with the state Public Security Bureau to bring police protection to women throughout China. Only a few areas offer such protection now.

“It’s very important to lobby the government officials and the justices,” said Wang Xingjuan, a longtime advocate for battered women who spoke at the meeting. “The NGOs (non-government organizations) are very small and very few, but if we get together the strength is bigger.”

Just four groups exist in China to serve battered women and address their complex legal and emotional needs, Wang said. Evidence provided at the meeting also showed that few women in China — who comprise one-fifth of all the world’s women — can expect protection from thepolice or understanding from the judges who must approve an application for a divorce.

Throughout the conference, women from minority areas in China spoke out about their specific concerns. Poor rural women in the Southwest Chinese province of Yunnan, which borders Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Burma to the East, and Tibet in the North, are the most vulnerable totrafficking for prostitution in Southeast Asia, and have some of the poorest health status of any Chinese. Other minority groups are also often targeted for trafficking and suffer appalling poverty in the countryside.

“The women in my province live a farmer’s life, tending to cows and horses far away from each other and they move from place to place,” said Tuo Lie Wu Han, a Communist Party official from the Northwest province of Xinjiang, where many Muslims live. “China has made great progress, that’s true, but in the rural places far away from the central government, the problems still exist

“This meeting is very important because we have a chance to tell our leaders about the problems we are having,” she added through an interpreter. “The government policy actions now are not enough.”