Political squabbing among the nations may have stolen center stage here at the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women. But disputes over Palestine and South Africa have not been able to to hide the fact also brought out in this 136-nation gathering:
That the "liberation" once dismissed as the hobby of upper-middle-class women has matured into a worldwide movement. It is beginning to reach into the poorest countries and into the tiniest villages. More and more women are getting at least the first elements of an education, are learning how to earn money themselves, how to limit the size of their families.
One specific achievement of the conference was the signing July 17 by 51 countries of a Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. If ratified by signing nations, the convention will commit them to equal pay, maternity benefits, help for rural women, and fair credit laws.
Moreover, the convention calls for a watchdog committee to check on progress. The agreement, approved by the UN General Assembly last December, now has a total of 62 signatories (including the US), four of whom have already ratified.
The convention is a clear evidence that "attitudes have changed," comments Sarah Weddington, who co-chairs the US delegation along with UN Ambassador Donald McHenry.
But beyond the debates here and the signing of the convention, perhaps the changing status of women is best seen through the experiences of some of the 900 women delegates (out of a total 1,200 delegates) attending.
Begum Taslima Abed, head of the Bangladesh delegation, serves in her country's parliament. Bangladesh is a land where only 9 percent of the women and 33 percent of the men can read and write. And soon after the UN Decade for Women was declared at the first World Conference for Women in Mexico City in 1975, the extremely poor South Asian nation began to look at its women's role. Like many other third-world nations, it set up a Women's Affairs Division.
Now Mrs. Abed is state minister for women's affairs and she has a vision for the women of ther country. Bangladesh must take its women into account, she says. "We are a great force. One half of the population is women. If this half is left behind, the country cannot develop."
Bringing Bangladesh women into development has not been easy. Mrs. Abed says that the typical rural farm wife begins her day before sunrise and consumes much of her time walking to the distant river to wash and to collect the daily water supply. She feeds her family rice, that she must refine by a primitive hand process, and bread from wheat that she has ground herself.
In the late afternoons, however, the village women are beginning to join a new "self-reliant program," says Mrs. Abed. Here they learn weaving and how to raise goats and ducks as well as how to use birth control. Independence is the key, says Mrs. Abed. "In economic independence you get honor." Her hope for the next half of the decade for women is for more vocational education for women.
The new interest in women has made a difference in Kenya as well, says Rose Waruhiu, a member of the Kenyan delegation. Kenya now has a women's bureau, and she sees more awareness of women's views.
Before 1975, "The consciousness was not there," she says. "The men thought they were doing well until they saw that they should be consulting the women on the farms."
Today the Kenyan government has set a goal to provide water to every household by the end of the century, an achievement that would mot benefit women since they traditionally make the often long hikes to fetch water.
Although an international movement of women is apparent at this gathering of women from around the globe, it is equally evident that change is coming in different forms. Just as the dress of the participants ranges from tailored Western dress to India saris, long African dresses, and Islamic head covers, the new roles of women are coming in different forms.
At the unofficial Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) forum, a few miles from the official UN conference the Iranian delegation has set up a display in defense of the Islamic revolution and the return to wearing the chador (strict Islamic veil). But included in the display is a poster of a woman in a black chador wielding a machine gun.
"Most women want to wear the chador," explains an Iranian delegate who adds that she herself now is beginning to wear the traditional garb for the first time.
A Danish woman asserts that child-rearing is for both men and women -- "My husband is taking care of my children now."
A Pakistani woman tells of her successful architect daughter who lives with a husbnd whom she had never met before the wedding. Arranged marriages are best, says the mother, whose own marriage has lasted 33 years. She says that her daughter is still an "Asian woman" in her outlook.