Confusion and disorder reign at Beijing + 15

March 5, 2010

Annette Lawson

Annette Lawson is chair of National Alliance of Women’s Organisations in Britain. She has an OBE for services to diversity and is founder and Chair of The Judith Trust, which works for better lives for people with both learning disabilities and mental illness needs. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.–

It is 15 years since the great women’s conference – the 4th World Conference on Women – was held in Beijing.

“Beijing + 15″ is supposed to have been a great celebratory and participatory event assessing what has been achieved over these fifteen years in terms of women’s empowerment, reduced poverty, raised status and equality globally, and what has definitely not.

Governments together in the 54th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in New York, would, we hoped, make new commitments to women in their States.  We also hoped they would agree to a new ‘gender architecture’ for the UN – i.e. a single body instead of the four now operating to provide leadership and programmes for women around the world. A group has already put together a spoof paper which headlines the Secretary-General as having announced this and the donors pouring money in.  If only!

I am here representing a UK women’s umbrella organisation – NAWO, the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations.  But the UN is in chaos – physically as they build a new building and renovate the old, and as far as we women – all 3,000 or who-knows-how-many – can grasp, in every other way as well.

Take the queueing – yes I am serious.  What kind of a men’s conference would have delegates (albeit mere NGOs) standing in a line for up to 8 hours simply to register their presence and gain a badge to get into the building?

One woman who brought her husband for the first time told us he said he would have simply walked out.  Well but we want to be there.  The four women who helped draft the U.N.’s original constitution and Eleanor Roosevelt, herself, built women, built the participation of civil society, into the U.N., but there are governments which detest us – governments which despise civil society organisations – and do their best to keep us out of their meetings, their negotiations, their everything.

Let us be clear, this is not true of the European governments generally speaking and absolutely not true of the UK government which is extraordinarily facilitative and supportive and also works to keep NGO participation at intergovernmental level.

But on the first day when I tried with a Ghanaian friend to listen to the opening session, we were allowed only in the gallery where there were almost no headsets and it was baking hot.  No point.  Go elsewhere.  There was a video-relay functioning in another room and that is where I went later in the day.  But if I want to go to panels and events held in the new UN building, I have to queue again for a special tag to permit me to enter.  Am I sounding paranoid?  Al of us are fuming. We feel excluded and insulted.  Many have paid a great deal of their scarce resources to attend.

Then there is the question of the outcome of the meeting.  Normally, a draft ‘outcome document’ is discussed and negotiated over the two-week meeting and NGOs have been successful and, indeed, useful to governments, in presenting text and moving things forward.  Not so this year.

Probably because no one wants to see the brilliant, progressive Beijing Platform for Action which was the outcome of the Beijing conference, lose any of its progressive text as certain regressive states argue against the existing text to which they have already signed up, the outcome of a mere 5 paragraphs has already (second day) been adopted with absolutely no chance for NGOs to input at all.

What does remain is a marvellous, rich and huge number of side-events held mainly in buildings outside the UN itself and run by NGOs.  Next time I’ll tell you about some of those.  And GEAR, the campaign for the new gender architecture, is not over.


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Life improved at Beijing + 15 which I have now left although there is a nother week to go, with several remarkable and interesting side events and panels. And women present found innovative ways to be included and to participate in the serious business of the meeting. CSW does not usually have many resolutions but now this year, the resolution became a tool to express what really matters and propose actions to be taken by governments. Of course, any resolution must eventually come from governments but NGOs can draft them and get their governments to pursue them. One (likely to cause the most difficulty because of its inclusion of wording on reproductive and health rights and services) is on Maternal Mortality and morbidity – the Millennium goal which has not at all been achieved.

June Jacobs, a past President of the International Council of Jewish Women, and Trustee of NAWO, worked with others to produce a draft on violence against women in conflict, bearing in mind especially the dreadful events in Darfur and the DRC.

Then, led by the The European Women’s Lobby, the European Caucus (all the regions have caucuses), has drafted an excellent open letter to go to the Secretary General and to governments and the Chair of CSW (Armenia). The letter makes clear the fury of the NGOs at our treatment but is powerful and positive about what has to be done. I proposed at the morning gathering of NGOs on Friday, that all NGOs might come together and agree for it to go from the entire NGO global body attending Beijing + 15. Hopefully this will happen.

There was progress on getting the plight of widows worldwide dealt with: a meeting was held between Baroness Gould, Chair of the UK’s Women’s National Commission, and Campaigner, Margaret Owen from Widows for Peace through Democracy, with the Under-Secretary General on the matter, and many mentions of the problems were heard in speeches from the plenary sessions and panels.

Finally, what delight was experienced by all of us lucky enough to be in the Conference Room when at Equality Now’s joint event with the UN’s Human Rights Committee, Meryl Streep introduced Sarah Jones, and her one-woman show (actually acting seven women from all over the world and of a range of ages) called ‘Women Can’t Wait’! Using just a scarf as prop, Sarah Jones portrayed women as young as 13 from Kenya to maybe 60 from India, all of whom were suffering under discriminatory laws. She is brilliant and very, very funny while dealing with men’s power still to disadvantage women in ways they do not and never would accept for themselves. The scarf became handcuffs for the Agunot women of Israel who are shackled by their husbands who refuse to grant them a religious divorce although women cannot refuse a divorce to their husbands and although Israel’s civil courts do not discriminate.

The fact remains that as we laughed we also recalled that ten years ago this same performance artist had already argued and demonstrated in her inimitable way that Women Can’t Wait’. As her Indian woman said, it may be that men think what we really mean is, “We women would prefer not to wait but by all means take as long as you like”!!

Posted by Annette Lawson | Report as abusive

Congratulations for the brilliant expose of the chaos of the arrangements for the 54th CSW, in which, while describing some of the worst manifestations of the insult and indifference the UN has shown to the thousands of women gathering in New York, also managed to convey their unstoppable energy, creativity and determination to overcome all obstacles and go on doggedly in further work towards gender equality and the empowerment of women. Thank you Annette, also, for singling out the WNC (UK Womens National Commission) and our government Mission to the UN who we know are on OUR side, work with us, and support us. Wish same could be said for other government delegations who often either ignore or refuse to have any consultation and collaboration with their women’s civil society groups . Thank you TOO Annette, for mentioning the WIDOWS. Bless you for singling out, from among all the unaddressed, emerging issues this one almost the most neglected of all gender/human rights topics. Your blog was the best!

Posted by margaret owen | Report as abusive

Warm thanks to Annette for expressing so competently what we all felt at this meeting.
May I just add that at the Beijing + 15 preparatory meeting for the European and North American region in Geneva last November, the 2 day NGO meetings were also not held in the UN, although no repairs were taking place there. A majority of States is sending us a clear message that we are not wanted, while simultaneously working to undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Congratulations to Annette.
Bernice Dubois

Posted by Bernice Dubois | Report as abusive