World's women get - a bit - safer

This week, 10,000 women converge on UN to rate economic and social progress.

A river of brilliant saris, tailored suits, tunic dresses, and shawls flows through the corridors. The subjects of discussion are dark, and often dire. "Honor" killings. Rape. Domestic violence. Forced marriage. Dismal pay.

But the confidence and energy exuded by some 10,000 women gathered at the UN this week is palpable.

They have come from 180 nations to assess womankind's progress since a similar landmark conference in Beijing five years ago.

A thumbnail scorecard shows that awareness of such problems as violence against women has grown considerably since 1985. Many governments worldwide have revised their legal codes to treat women more equitably. All South Asian governments, for instance, have set up commissions to look into gender crimes and inequality. Yesterday, the European Union's executive commission called for stiffer laws to end sexual harassment in the workplace.

"These [commissions] have become a very big lobbying tool for NGOs and a pressure point for governments," says Ruchira Gupta, who runs the nonprofit On Our Own in India. "It's a very big step forward." But, she adds, these commissions lack teeth.

Indeed, while signs of progress are evident, there are also indications of new problems.

"As we are moving forward, we are also losing ground. There's more violence appearing in many countries. And in situations of war, violence against women has increased," says Noeleen Heyzer, the executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Human rights activists point out that, in this era of civil wars and ethnic conflicts, combatants increasingly rape women as part of their terror campaigns.

In India, so-called dowry deaths have increased in the past five years. And around the world, 1 woman in 3 is beaten, coerced into sex, or abused during her lifetime, usually by someone she knows, according to a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study.

But on this march forward, women advocacy organizations successfully lobbied in 1998 for the inclusion of rape as a crime against humanity in the statute for an international criminal court. Since then, both the tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have convicted people for genocidal rape.

"In Latin America, we were surprised to have 22 governments revise their legal framework," says Ms. Heyzer. "And for the first time the InterAmerican Bank loaned Latin American governments resources to establish new police stations."

In some cases, the new laws may be just lip service, human rights advocates say. "Even if it's lip service, we will take the lips and service," Heyzer replies. "Once words are stated, the accountability can be set in place.

Words and policies are no guarantee that things will happen, but they can be used as tools for accountability."

In South Asia, women have not received even modest window-dressing changes in the law. "There are laws against murder and assault but within the Pakistan code there are a couple of laws that allow for violence against women," says Sheila Dauer, director of the Women's Human Rights Project at Amnesty International.

" family of the victim wants to excuse the murderer, they have the choice to do that," she says, noting that this allows family members to carry out "honor killings" against women deemed to have brought disgrace on the family. Often the sole "disgrace" was the fact that they had been raped. "So the woman's murder is not treated like other murders. Women are not equal before the law," says Ms. Dauer.

Pakistan's new military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, pledged earlier this year to outlaw honor killings, but the law has not been changed, Dauer notes.

Activists gathered here insist that continued public outcry against these crimes and international pressure can force Pakistan to keep its promises. But they concede that it does not work everywhere.

"Some governments are very affected because they need to be seen in the community of nations as a member in good standing [to get foreign aid], and Pakistan is one of them." says Dauer. "But other countries do not care, like Afghanistan [whose Taliban government is not recognized by the UN] and is trying to uphold its own brand of Islam."

Already ostracized, the Taliban has weathered international sanctions without budging. Afghani women still can be stoned to death for not following strict dress code or travel protocol.

"Women and girls don't have any freedoms," says Giti Shams, a young Afghani woman here. She says she was beaten for failing to have a male relative escort her. Afghani women, she says, "are alive but ... not alive."

The Beijing conference produced a 12-point platform that included pushing for progress on poverty, war, health, education, political decisionmaking, and the treatment of girls. One of the aims of this week's conference is to set concrete targets and time limits for the Beijing agenda.

But unanimity on some topics, such as abortion, is difficult. Amnesty International says that six "conservative" delegations - the Vatican, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Nicaragua, and Algeria - are trying to undercut the goals of Beijing.

"It is imperative that we respect each others' views, religious beliefs and value systems," responded Zobaida Jalal, Pakistan's minister of education in remarks to the UN General Assembly. "Misplaced notions of superiority of one value system over others ... defeat the very principle of freedom of choice and the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect."

To achieve progress, activists say, campaigns to change laws must work on several fronts. "The economic side of life is extremely important to get people out of a violent situation," says Heyzer. "It's in the [mix] of vulnerability and powerlessness and a strong patriarchal society that you find the kind of violence such as dowry death and honor killing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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