UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The first thing a longtime United Nations observer notices at a gathering like Beijing Plus +10 is the presence of actual women.

Thirty years ago–when the first U.N. World Conference on Women was held in Mexico–it was mostly men who came, especially from the more tradition-bound “third-world” cultures, to debate the issues for women.

Pat Orvis

But for the past two weeks here, conference rooms have been filled to standing-room capacity with women.

Among them: African women, Asian women, Nordic women, Indigenous women. Women nursing their feet in new white tennis shoes. Women making the smallest bowl of soup do for a meal because without help from some sponsor they could not have come.

Every one of them “a mover and shaker in her own country,” as an official from the International Labor Organization expressed it, “or they wouldn’t be here.”

They gathered for “Beijing +10,” the decade-later meeting to assess and reaffirm the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in 1995 in the Chinese capital, that wide-ranging document identifies 12 critical areas of concern including poverty, education, violence and mass media and is widely regarded as the strongest policy statement in support of women’s rights ever made by the international community.

Discussion Replaces Silence

The Beijing Declaration was affirmed, even by the U.S. delegation, which backed off its widely reported ringer amendment on abortion after that caused an immediate outcry from more than 150 organizations worldwide.

But while affirmation of the declaration–and what the United States was going to do about it–was the main discussion that this event received in the mass media, the women inside the actual meetings were focused on talking about something else.

Sometimes shy and hesitant, these women openly discussed topics from how to acquire property rights which, though often theirs on paper, were not granted to how more female doctors could increase opportunities for entering fields like surgery, instead of always getting steered into gynecology. And they broke centuries-old taboos by talking about the violence and sexual abuse of females, which had been shielded in their cultures as too personal for public airing.

The event was sprawling and mammoth, hard to sum up, with overall attendance recorded by the U.N. Department of Public Information at just over 2,600, including a sprinkling of men. Some were from the more than 6,000 nongovernmental organizations registered. Another 1,847 came with delegations from 165 member states of the U.N. More than 150 registered from U.N. agencies and intergovernmental organizations.

Streep, Ensler and Tutu

Altogether, participants spoke out at press conferences, strategy sessions and panel discussions that attracted names as well-known as actress Meryl Streep, Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu.

Streep, who chaired a press briefing for the New York-based women’s rights organization Equality Now, said she was there–not because it was an “exotic” thing to do–but because her grandmother raised three children, was the smartest person she had ever met, yet could not vote in her own lifetime.

Ensler chose to launch one of her V-Day Violence V-Campaigns; events designed to end violence against women and girls. This one pressed for recognition of and solidarity with the 200,000 Korean “comfort women” who were conscripted into service as sexual slaves by Japan’s military during World War II.

Ensler’s opening-night event, on Feb. 28, proved an appropriate start to two weeks of presentations in which rape and sexual abuse were major themes.

Universal Threat is Violence

According to the talented individuals who keep the women’s movement going, the biggest universal threat to women is violence, from the trafficking of women and girls by gangs of men and boys to the spousal abuse that costs the City of New York alone $500 million a year, according to the U.N. Development Fund for Women.

In the United States, some of that cost includes emergency-room visits, court action and law enforcement, as well as the money lost to employers from reduced productivity and absenteeism.

Across the United States, according to UNIFEM’s executive director, Noeleen Heyzer–a women’s rights leader in her own Southeast Asia–women and girls are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted routinely–some 15 percent of those before reaching age 17.

Worldwide, according to the studies, 1 out of every 3 women has been beaten, forced to have sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, usually by someone known to her.

Those figures of reported cases of abuse–never mind all the cases that never get reported–include “dowry murders” in India, where wives are sometimes killed, often by burning, so that husbands and in-law families can extract a dowry from the next wife.

They include “honor killings,” most common in Muslim countries, where women and even young girls are killed–more than 1,000 each year just in Pakistan–or otherwise punished to atone for the offenses of their own male family members against women or for such non-crimes as having been raped.

The figure also includes women who have been raped in war, which was recently made a crime by the International Criminal Court.

The figure also includes the trafficking in women and girls across borders for sale into prostitution and slave labor.

A World Bank report has placed violence against women on a par with cancer as a global cause of incapacity and death among women of reproductive age, calling it a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.

Certainly, it was a subject that needed airing. And with hope, at the next big convention on women, there will be major progress to report, from every part of the world.

Pat Orvis is a U.N. correspondent who has traveled extensively on assignment in all the developing regions.