UN Decade for Women: ideals meeting with mixed accomplishments

Diplomats representing 52 countries will be meeting in Geneva this month to discuss the status of women. As members of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, they are gathering facts to document the progress that has been made during the United Nations Decade for Women. Officially, their findings won't be ready until 1985, when a World Conference on the Decade for Women convenes, but data have been pouring in, revealing a decade of mixed accomplishments.

Since the Decade for Women was launched in Mexico City in 1975, women's rights have made clear gains in international law, as seen in the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. But the international ideal has yet to be met by national or local practice.

The UN itself is not without evidence of sexual bias, particularly on diplomatic staffs. According to a recent edition of the Blue Book, a listing of diplomatic personnel at the various permanent missions, 1,741 diplomats represent 157 countries at the UN. Yet of these only 254 are women, and only 27 of the 474 top diplomatic posts are held by women. In the United Nations Decade for Women, there are no women representing the Soviet Union, Denmark, Spain, Poland, or Hungary. On the other hand, there are women representing such countries as Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

According to reports submitted to the Economic and Social Council, the greatest gain by women everywhere has been an increased awareness of their role in economic life. This reflects the fact that women are entering job markets and professions previously closed to them, particularly in the West but also in the third world. Many countries also show an increasing number of women in important political or cultural positions.

Recent earnings figures reported in the UN Monthly Bulletin of Statistics show that while women still earn far less than men, there are some signs that the gap may be closing a bit. Some of the worst cases of inequality remain unchanged, however, in the reports of industrial nations. In the United States, men earn 40 percent more than women, whereas Burmese men earn only 12 percent more than their female counterparts. Of the industrialized nations, Australia has the best record on earnings equality - men now earn only 7 percent more than women, on average.

Getting accurate statistics has been a problem, with some awkward political overtones. Recent votes of the Economic and Social Council - to consider confidential communications and to develop reliable criteria to document ''a consistent pattern of injustice and discriminatory practices against women'' - were split along East-West rather than North-South lines. Confidential, nongovernmental evidence offsets the fact that many countries ignore politically embarrassing problems like labor exploitation or prostitution.

One of the most disturbing reports to come before the Economic and Social Council revealed that prostitution ''continues to spread,'' and that ''disguised traffic in women'' (slavery) is commonplace in many regions. The report cited several reasons for the rapid increase in prostitution in developing countries, emphasizing poverty, rural exodus to cities where employment is male-oriented, and ignorance. Yet most countries, responding to questionnaires sent out by the council, either denied the existence of prostitution (because it was made illegal), or attributed it to the presence of ''destitute refugees.''

Despite the political opportunities to take action during the Decade for Women, only 53 of the 157 members of the UN have ratified the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Conspicuously absent are the signatures of the US, West Germany, and Canada, as well as states known to provide the human ''raw material ,'' such as the Ivory Coast and Thailand.

There is more at stake here than the issues of slavery or prostitution. Special Rapporteur Jean Fernand-Laurent, who filed his report to the council this spring, points out that the increase in incidents of labor exploitation and prostitution, directly linked to foreign contacts or tourism, may have far-reaching negative impact. In less developed countries where it is prevalent, tourist-generated prostitution is often viewed as a representative institution of industrialized countries. Mr. Fernand-Laurent warned that it ''may provoke hostile reactions to development itself and prompt a return to discriminatory moral strictures, which would be an obstacle to the much needed emancipation of women.''

In general, the Economic and Social Council has found that women have improved their status only after a hard struggle. The Decade for Women has been useful as a way to call attention to women's rights and to document the economic and social status of women. Yet equality in most countries, and in most aspects of daily life, remains an elusive goal.

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