Western participants at the United Nations Conference on Women are performing a balancing act to ensure that it remains a conference on women and not a political confrontation. ``We're not trying to exclude political issues,'' explained Mary Grefe, a member of the United States delegation. ``But we want to discuss issues that must be discussed from a woman's point of view.''
Topics threatening to divert attention from women's concerns are apartheid, Palestinian refugees, and possible US military intervention in Central America.
Maureen Reagan, head of the US delegation and daughter of President Reagan, in her opening statement to the plenary session Tuesday, anticipated two of the potential areas of controversy, and offered the US position in a spirit of reconciliation.
``Apartheid is abhorrent to the government and the people of the United States,'' she declared. ``Its effects upon women are especially severe. . . . Similarly, we recognize that many delegations feel very strongly about discussing the situation in the Middle East and its effects upon women. We are prepared to work constructively with those delegates in a spirit of consensus-building. . . .''
When speaking of ``consensus-building,'' Ms. Reagan was referring to the procedural rule the conference had adopted the day before, and which is viewed as something of a victory for the US position.
The procedure of settling questions by consensus rather than by vote is likely to discourage diverting discussions onto political themes. However, the door was left open for political debate during the remainder of the conference, which ends July 26. ``If a country calls for a vote, a vote will have to be taken,'' said Ms. Grefe.
The primary work of the conference is preparation of a document entitled ``Forward-looking Strategies of Implemetation for the Advancement of Women and Concrete Measures to Overcome Obstacles to the Achievement of the Goals and Objectives of the United Nations Decade for Women for the Period 1986 to the Year 2000: Equality, Development, and Peace.''
This document, containing 372 paragraphs, refers to conditions affecting women's lives, and sets out strategies designed to promote women's rights, status, and well-being in the years ahead. Fifty- eight of these paragraphs have yet to be finalized, and it is the business of two committees of conference delegates to hammer out wording of these ``bracketed'' (i.e. potentally controversial for political reasons) paragraphs that will be acceptable to all member states.
Representatives of a number of leading US women's organizations have expressed concern about the Reagan administration's stand on women's rights on the national level. Among others, the questions of the repeal of the Equal Education Bill and the Supreme Court's ruling this week to reverse legislation which legalizes abortion have been raised. Says Kathy Bonk of the National Organization for Women, ``Maureen Reagan said in her statement to the conference that the Reagan administration supports women's rights. We want to see evidence of this back home.''
When asked at a press conference to explain her delegation's priorities at the Nairobi conference, in the light of these criticisms from international and US postions alike, Ms. Reagan stressed the four points she plans to focus on in discussions with other delegates: literacy, women in development, women refugees, and family violence.
``Concerns of women are not discussed in any other forum,'' said Ms. Reagan. ``That is why we must discuss them here -- because they are not going to be discussed anywhere else.''