World's women: the challenge of Copenhagen

Tucked away in the US State Department are some media guidelines including this warning: "Coverage of women's conferences is often limited solely to so-called 'splits' or fights. The same disputes at conferences attended by men would be considered serious policy debates." It's a way to test the stories from the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women. More took place than the "largely fruitless wrangling" dramatized under such headlines as "Cacophony in Copenhagen."

The verdict of history will not depend on the fact that four Western nations -- including the major UN contributor, the United States -- voted against the final resolution endorsed by a majority of 94 mainly third-world and communist countries (there were also more than 20 abstentions).

The verdict of history willm depend on whether the leaders and citizens of the world's nations carry forward the impetus represented by the very fact that the conference occured, that it indicated a growing network to meet women's needs, that it exemplified the wealth of ability often unrecognized when happening to belong to women. The Economist observed: "There were enough astute, articulate, politically skilled women from six continents in Copenhagen this week to run all the 130 governments they directly and indirectly represented."

Yet, especially in the developing world, but among the poor elsewhere, too, the problems of survival can slow the basic drive for equal rights. These must be achieved not only in simple justice but to release the full potential of women's contribution to world development, whether through homemaking or through paid or volunteer work outside the home. The central importance of enhancing the social, economic, and political status of women has been stressed not only by the "feminist" movement but by such international authorities as Robert McNamara of the World Bank and Marshall Green when he was coordinator of population affairs at the US State Department. Pointing to the severe discrimination against women in many third- world countries, Mr. Green noted the sad fact that "years of oppression and resource scarcity have conditioned women to tolerate these inequities."

Some things said in Copenhagen suggested that there remains toleration of inequities in various countries for various reasons, despite clear prohibitions against sexual discrimination in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Five years into the Decade for Women there is already talk of the need for a least another decade.

In view of the magnitude of the challenge it was no service to the cause for delegates at Copenhagen to press such political points as calling for the elimination of Zionism, equated with racism, and specifying that aid for Palestinian women be allocated in consultation with the controversial Palestine Liberation Organization. Entirely omitting issues of the "real political world" might have been a sign the conference was not taken seriously, as an analyst of the international women's scene suggested. But to force the Zionism and PLO matters into the final resolution's fiveyear plan, thus inviting Western, rejection or abstention, was to unduly politicize the event.

Not unexpectedly the news media stressed the split. But there are other things to be noted along with what the UN has found to be the worsening plight of women despite the international commitment in 1975 to provide such improvements as equal access to employment, health care, and education. Most countries now at leadt havem equal rights laws, whatever their degree of enforcement. Many have set up women's bureaus. And -- hardly noticed among the stories of conflict at the conference and the even larger unofficial "forum" at the same time -- there was the signing by 51 countries of the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This brings the total signatories to more than 60. Ratification would commit them to equal pay, fair credit laws, maternity benefits, and other goals now so often honored in the breach.

The spectrum of nations, of course, includes many differences of priorities on the path to equality. Some of the delegates at Copenhagen, whether men or women, were obviously speaking for governments rather than for women. The real work will have to be done back on the farms and in the villages and cities where , for example, Mr. Green sees so much hope in local women's organizations.

But the UN convention is seen as at least being an sign that attitudes are changing, and this will be necessary if any success is to be achieved through laws and conferences.

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