UN women's meeting snarled in politics
Copenhagen — * A wife on a tiny farm in Venezuela whose husband left her to find a job in a distant city and never returned. * A Turkish woman who needs her husband's permission to take a job.
* Millions of women in at least nine countries who cannot vote.
These and many other such cases illustrating how far women have yet to go in achieving more equal rights and status took a back seat here at the United Nations World Conference on Women. Instead, the 148-nation conference ended July 31 under a cloud of bitter political disagreement over the Middle East.
"The focus on women here was pushed aside and became a victim of those who choose instead to focus on the political polemic of the Middle East situation," said Sarah Weddington, head of the US delegation, after the conference voted overwhelmingly to include anti-Israel statements in the "plan of action" for women during the last half of the 1975-1985 Decade for Women.
With the addition of the anti-Zionist statements, nearly all of the Western world abstained from voting on the plan of action that outlines practical steps for upgrading women in jobs, education, and health. The US, Canada, Australia, and Israel cast the only no votes.
Equality issues stayed quietly in the background of the public debate during the 2 1/2 week meeting, and interviews showed that delegates held widely different views on equality for the sexes.
"The developed countries are more concerned about liberation," said a Sierre Leone delegate. "For African women, most of us are out working. Most of rural Africa is polygamous, so the wives have to work. They're more concerned with fundamentals."
Another third-world participant, one of 307 men of a total 1,326 delegates, said, "The moment women try to fight men to be equal, men take a defensive position. The best way is to expect that we all have different roles, different abilities."
May Seyedh, head of the delegation for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said that "equality between men and women is a small part" for Palestinians, who are far more interested in regaining their land.
And Lydia Lykova of the Soviet Union's delegation said, "We consider that the question of full equality of women is solved in our country."
At the other end of the spectrum, Sweden's delegation told the conference that "discrimination against women is universal" and outlined Sweden's efforts to make men and women equal in matters ranging from politics to child care.
Drawing these widely divergent social and cultural viewpoints together would have been difficult enough, but delegations also brought with them the politics of their governments.
"We have learned you can't make a separation between women's issues and general political issues." commented Lise Ostergaard, Denmark's minister of culture, who presided over the conference. "They are part of reality, and we have to deal with that reality."
Behind the politics almost every country at the conference showed signs that women are beginning to participate more fully in society. Many of the delegations included heads of women's bureaus created since the past "decade for women" was declared five years ago. And while few facts were known about women in less-developed countries in 1975, the UN conference along has generated 3 million pages of documentation in six languages.
Among the discoveries: Two of every three illiterate persons in the world are women. Women today work two-thirds as many hours as men, are said to earn only 10 percent of the world's wages, and to own only 1 percent of land.
Even if these findings were hardly touched on during the official debates, they were talked about in hallways and over lunch tables. And they were discussed in detail at the unofficial Nongovernmental Organization Forum, which attracted some 8,000 participants a few miles from the UN meeting.
At the forum workshop, women from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the West exchanged ideas on how to get more credit for rural women and how to help women learn management skills. They talked about the picture that the media paints of women and about how to find the right technology to help those who must grind their own cornmeal and refine their own rice.
And while the official meeting skirted controversial issues concerning women, the forum held at leat nine workshops that discussed the once hushed-up subject of female circumcision, which is widely practiced in the central part of Africa and in a few areas of the Mideast.
Even at the official conference, women from different countries discovered that they were not alone in their problems but that they are part "general movement," said Silvia Albo, a member of the Venezuelan delegation. "One of the most important things in the world today is the evolution of women into real life participation. This is going to introduce a lot of changes in times of peace, a world of more justice and equality."