RIO DE JANEIRO — THE mood was rowdy last week at the women's tent, as representives of nongovernmental organizations from around the world gathered for some speeches and a party to kick off their activities.
"She's always trying to out-hat me," former United States Congresswoman Bella Abzug joked from the podium in her gravelly voice, introducing a turbaned African woman. Dressed in a red skirt and blouse and matching red straw hat, Ms. Abzug drew an impromptu Brazilian song from her admirers and then led them to wild applause with her thoughts on women, the environment, and the United Nations Earth Summit (officially the UN Conference on Environment and Development) taking place here.
"We've already gotten a lot of our agenda into the UN agenda itself, and we expect to have more at the final closing of this. The Rio Declaration of Principles provides that women must be recognized as full participants in all kinds of decisionmaking because they're crucial to [sustainable development]," she said in a later interview, adding that many conference documents "recognize the need of women for education, access to land and credit, their rights to family planning, [and] their rights to leadersh ip.... We have seen a tremendous change in attitude at the UN here."
Much has changed since the last UN environmental conference, in 1972. Hanne Strong, wife of UN conference director Maurice Strong, says many more women are in decisionmaking positions today, both in and out of government. She adds that many women have also begun to feel a special kinship with nature. "The woman's role is to represent our mother the earth, to develop herself to [emulate] the mother - the nurturing giver of life - and unconditional love," she explains.
The Earth Summit provides a unique chance for women to share experiences and ideas, and to offer each other support. Sonia Correa, who organized a family planning group in the northeastern city of Recife, says that Brazilian women are far behind their Indian and African counterparts when it comes to environmental action.
"Women in Brazil are starting to be involved in extractive reserves [where nut-gathering and rubber tapping are done] in the Amazon region, and also in consciousness-raising about pesticides in southern Brazil," she says. In urban shantytowns, she adds, the main issues are sanitation, water, garbage disposal, and soil erosion.
Kenyan women have been especially active, according to Wangari Maathai, who organized the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya 15 years ago.
"[Women] are planting trees, thereby preventing soil erosion, promoting replenishment of the soil ... [and] improving the crop yield. And of course ... they are able to get their firewood," she says, adding that the project has reached half of Kenya, involving more than 50,000 women, mostly in farming communities.
The women's gathering was miles away from the convention center where diplomats are negotiating international treaties. Even so, many women believe they have a say.
"I believe that an agreement can emerge that is larger than we can express in writing, officially on paper," says Benedita da Silva, a congresswoman who lives in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown, and is the mayoral candidate of the Brazilian Workers' Party. "It's a moral agreement, one of responsibility, of the need for concrete and real participation so that women from all over the world from different social classes, can really speak for change."
"After this meeting we're going to have a report card ... that's going to be used by grass-roots people all over the world," warns Ms. Abzug, who has been helping to organize the Congress for a Healthy Planet, a new group representing 83 countries. "We're working together to create a serious implementation for the next phase of the action program that we have and the action program that the United Nations has."