Women at UN meeting have hopes, but no illusions, about progress

``We have hopes -- but no illusions -- about what will probably happen at the official conference.'' This guarded statement about the United Nations Conference on Women, which convenes here today, was voiced by Lynn Schafran of the United States' National Organization for Women.

She expressed a hope undoubtedly shared by the nearly 11,000 women from around the world who have come to Nairobi.

The hope is that the official delegates from the UN member states will ratify a plan of action during the next 10 days to speed the progress of women around the world -- and of their families and communities -- out of poverty, ignorance, and repression.

But observers here have few illusions about how much an international body can accomplish. They fear opposing political interests will obstruct unbiased, nonpolitical planning to benefit women worldwide.

Overlapping the UN women's conference is the nine-day forum of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which ends July 19. ``The issue is, can the NGO forum be the one where women's values are expressed, communicated, and shared?'' asked Ms. Schafran at the forum.

The consensus here is that it can. NGOs will provide useful communication regardless of the outcome of the official conference, delegates say. ``We learn from seeing what other women have done,'' one Kenyan woman said.

Though the need for continued efforts to better the conditions of women is being stressed, accomplishments of the UN Decade for Women have also been noted.

Leticia Shahani, secretary-general of the UN conference, called the decade ``a success story in a qualified sense.'' Since 1975, she said, the number of national organizations set up for the advancement of women's rights has grown from 50 to 100.

One measure of the decade's success can be gauged by the activities of the NGO forum, being held on the lawns and in the classrooms of Nairobi University.

Invariably, discussions focus on practical concerns. In one workshop on women's education, the need for technical job training was stressed. Women from Fiji, Indonesia, Lesotho, and Kenya spoke of the value of women's cooperatives in increasing their level of community participation. They spoke of the need for basic education and literacy training to increase a woman's self-confidence and enable her to master vocational skills.

The controversial issue of female circumcision prompted much discussion. Speaking of the custom, one Kenyan woman said, ``You have to do it or you will be completely isolated from your family and friends.'' Many women were able to hear for the first time of successful efforts to stop the practice in communities where the tradition had been most strong.

``Now women can talk to each other about their problems,'' observed a farmer from Zambia. ``Here we learn how other women are solving the same problems we are faced with.''

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