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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