Improving the lot of women. Issues at Nairobi forum range from survival to equal rights

The world is coming to realize as never before the enormous contribution of women as workers -- in agriculture, commerce, industry, and in the home. At the same time, it is becoming more and more widely recognized that women need greater opportunity to broaden their horizons and enjoy an easing of their burdens.

That is the consensus among delegates as they prepare for the opening Monday of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the United Nations Decade for Women.

More than 11,000 women from around the world have converged here. Africans looking majestic in their brightly patterned robes glide by clusters of Iranians draped head to foot in black. Japanese in kimonos and Koreans in native dress smile greetings at Americans in blue jeans and running shoes. Scandinavians, looking chilly in their light summer dresses, talk earnestly with Indians in saris of red and gold.

The nine-day UN conference will be open to 3,000 selected delegates from 159 members states. Yesterday an overlapping forum of ``NGOs'' (nongovernmental organizations) opened here to provide a meeting ground for all the women who have come to Nairobi from around the world -- a place in which to share ideas and possible solutions to the problems common to all women.

The theme of the UN Decade for Women, inaugurated in 1975 in Mexico City, is equality, development, and peace. These three goals, which have inspired many UN and independent agency programs for women over the last 10 years, have been translated into the more specific interim objective of employment, health, and education.

The women who have gathered here fall into two general categories:

Those from developing countries, whose concerns relate more to basic issues of survival. They have come together to learn how they can acquire new skills for income-generating activities, how to raise crops more efficiently, and how to practice birth control.

Women from the United States and developed nations who are concerned with the more abstract issues of equal rights and opportunities and greater access to political power.

Yet, at least on the part of Western women, there is a sense of cooperation, sharing, and mutual support here toward the women of the third world.

Some concern is being voiced that political issues may be raised during the UN conference which could divert the proceedings away from the consideration of women's real needs and problems.

The US delegation, led by Maureen Reagan (President Reagan's daughter), is expected to raise objections to resolutions relating to such politically sensitive issues as South Africa's policies of racial separation or aid to Palestinian refugees. While hope that the official conference will bring constructive dialogue is tinged with skepticism, the attitude toward the NGO forum is one of enthusiastic expectation.

Over the next nine days, workshops, exhibits, seminars, discussion groups, and films at the NGO forum will illustrate some lessons learned in the last decade that relate to women's lives. The issue of women's work will be addressed in a group of exhibits called Tech and Tool. This series of exhibits, provided by women from around the globe, will focus on improved, appropriate technology in such areas as food production, energy, health, agriculture, and communication.

At the opening of the Tech and Tool exhibit, Dr. Eddah Gachukia, NGO committee chairperson and a professor at Nairobi University, said that technology appropriate to women is essential ``to ensure improvement in women's performance in areas where this performance is crucial.''

Dr. Gachukia, along with many other Kenyans, expressed the pride and delight her country takes in playing host to the conference. There appear to be more African women attending than any other group except Americans. (Pre-NGO conference registration figures showed 6,500 Americans, 4,000 Africans). It seems particularly appropriate that African women, who have traditionally led lives of hardship and toil for meager rewards, should be participating in such great numbers in an event which holds promise for advancement in their lives.

American feminist and author Betty Friedan, who heads a delegation from the National Organization of Women, will conduct daily discussions on the future of feminism.

``I see much congruence of interests and concern [between Western feminists and third-world women],'' she says, ``the issues of work and family, the issues of political empowerment, of decisionmaking.''

Ms. Friedan feels, like many observers, that one of the major achievements of the Decade for Women has been the establishment of networks of communication which are enabling women all over the world to share their common concerns and exchange ideas on possible solutions to problems.

Whatever the outcome of the conference, delegates feel that women's increased awareness of their rights and capabilities cannot be lost.

``I think it [the conference] will give a lot to our women,'' says Lydia Lemomo, a young woman from a rural area of Kenya. ``It will help them to overcome their problems. They might have thought that they were the only ones in their situation, but now they will know that women all over the world are the same and have similar problems.''

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