Charlotte Bunch

Washington, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–As delegates from around the world gathered in New York to take stock of progress made on international women’s rights over the last decade, one change is already clear: their mood has turned from hope to frustration.

The reason? The changing political and economic dynamics in the United States and around the world has set back the effort to improve the lives of women, according to participants at a United Nations meeting to review goals to achieve women’s equality laid out a decade ago at a world conference in Beijing.

Some 6,000 representatives from governments and women’s and human rights organizations and are taking part in the two-week conference, held Feb. 28 to March 11.

Since the decade since the goals were adopted in Beijing, the world has seen an explosion of terrorism, and, simultaneously, a rise in levels of militarism and religious fanaticism. At the same time, the global economy has deteriorated, which has undermined women’s advancement around the world.

A tangible reason for the mood change–at least at according to some participants at the anniversary conference currently underway in New York City–is the fact that a religious conservative administration in the United States has taken over from a more secular one.

“It’s about night and day,” said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She attended the original Beijing conference and came to New York to assess progress since then.

“In ’95, women felt like we were advancing on women’s rights,” Bunch said. “We felt very hopeful; but now the world feels much less hopeful.”

A White House spokesperson, Maria Tamburri, said President Bush has “a consistent record . . . in advancing women’s rights around the world.” She pointed to the government funding of programs aimed at preventing rape, sexual exploitation, the spread of HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. “The most visible success story,” she said, “is Afghanistan, where millions of women, oppressed by the Taliban, stood in line to vote for the first time in their country’s history.”

Betsy Apple, a conference participant and deputy director for the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an international group based in New York, says the U.S. government is “suspicious” of the women’s rights platform outlined in Beijing. “They want to assert ownership over this document since it wasn’t theirs to begin with,” she said.

U.S. Introduces New Amendment

The new atmosphere was evident immediately, when the U.S. delegation interrupted the first order of business with an attempt to change the Beijing platform–a one-page document–with an amendment stating that it did not create the “the right to abortion” or “any new human international human rights.”

The move threw the gathering into turmoil. The overwhelming majority of government officials in attendance objected, preferring instead the original version that treats abortion as a public health issue. It states that abortion should be safe where legal and that criminal action should not be taken against women who undergo the procedure.

More than 40 federal lawmakers sent a letter asking Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge the delegation to support the platform in its original form.

Faced with the widespread opposition (only a few countries, including Eqypt and Qatar, supported the amendment), the head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Ellen R. Sauerbrey, agreed to drop the amendment on the grounds that its essence was already included in the original platform.

But the fracas caused many to accuse the Bush administration of using the international women’s rights forum to advance their own religious conservative agenda and using the abortion language as a stalling tactic to prevent the conference from moving forward.

“It isn’t appropriate, it isn’t necessary, and it has held up” the conference, said Claire Hoffman, communications director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a London-based group that promotes sexual and reproductive health. “It means that everyone is having to lobby and put their efforts into trying to put pressure on the United States to withdraw their amendment and there is no time for looking at progress and strategy for the next decade.”

The fight over abortion had its start long before the first day of the conference.

Maloney Asks to Attend As Delegate

Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic member of Congress from New York, got a taste of it at the beginning of the year, when she asked the administration in letters and phone calls if she could participate in the conference–held in her own congressional district–as a member of the U.S. delegation.

She had done so at the original conference in Beijing, when she co-chaired a bipartisan congressional delegation of four lawmakers–two Democrats and two Republicans, one of whom was Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, the leader of the anti-choice coalition in the House of Representatives. In 2000, she delivered one of the opening speeches at the five-year anniversary of the conference, also held in New York.

Maloney has dedicated much of her career to fighting for women’s rights–she has introduced the Equal Rights Amendment each year, pressed for legislation to allow breastfeeding in public and even took to the House floor covered head-to-toe in the traditional blue Afghan burqa to call attention to women’s suffering under the Taliban.She was ready to lend her experience and expertise to the U.S. congressional delegation.

The Bush administration was not. White House officials ignored her first request, which came in a Jan. 11 letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. One month–and no answer–later, she sent a second request to President Bush. White House officials denied her request, telling her instead that she could serve with “observer” status but would not be allowed in closed-door meetings.

The decision to exclude Maloney–a staunch advocate of reproductive rights who has protested the administration’s decision to cut funding for overseas family planning clinics that provide prenatal care and birth control information and services–is one example of a the administration’s religious conservative approach to women’s issues, many said.

“The fact that Carolyn Maloney, as a congresswoman, was not even allowed to be part of the delegation indicates their determination to have a singular mindset,” Bunch said. “There’s a kind of close-mindedness” to other viewpoints that was not as evident at the original conference, she added.

Another example came when the administration announced its selection of public delegates to the conference: Patricia Brister, state chair, Republican Party of Louisiana; Susan B. Hirschmann, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. and former chief of staff to House Majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; and Janet Parshall, a radio talk show host and author who focuses on religious issues.

The trio serve alongside the three other delegates: Mark Lagon, a deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of International Organization Affairs who once worked at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C.; Sichan Siv, the United States representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and a former aide to President George H. W. Bush; and Ellen Sauerbrey, a two-time gubernatorial candidate and former Republican congresswoman from Maryland.

As head of the delegation, Sauerbrey has made her views well known. “I always feel when I’m being introduced as a representative of the United Nations that I have to say I’m a conservative,” she once said. “I’m not a feminist.”

Objections to Other Resolutions

Some delegates also objected to a series of resolutions the U.S. reportedly plans to offer. One would call for a ban on prostitution as a way to curb the trafficking of women and sex tourism. Women’s rights activists say that approach would make it more difficult to work directly with female prostitutes.

The delegation plans to offer another resolution that they say will empower women by reforming inheritance laws and giving credit and ownership powers to women. Women’s rights advocates have faulted the language because they say it fails to address the larger problem of a global economy that fails to lift women out of poverty.

The U.S. delegation’s impact on the conference is more symbolic than actual and will probably not directly affect programs, Bunch said. “But it does leave a feeling of having less support, particularly from the United States.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

The United Nations–
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: