Despite political divisiveness, the world conference of the United Nations Decade for Women achieved what many had thought impossible: adoption by consensus of a document that urges all nations to work together for the advancement of women. The 372-paragraph document, known as the ``Forward-Looking Strategies,'' was adopted at the end of the conference early Saturday.
Two previous UN world conferences on women -- held in 1975 in Mexico City and in 1980 in Copenhagen -- had become bitter battlegrounds for political debate. Women's issues had been largely lost sight of in heated discussions of Zionism (the movement supporting Israel), South Africa's policy of forced racial segregation, called apartheid, and the political systems of the West, East bloc, and developing nations.
Although these contentious issues were still discussed at the meeting here, the 1985 conference was different.
In statement after statement, delegates from around the globe made urgent appeals to their colleagues to keep this women's conference free of political acrimony and focused on the overriding objectives of the conference: equality, development, and peace.
``Many women are frustrated in their hopes,'' said a delegate from France during one debate. ``Let us not let this conference slip away from us. . . . We appeal to all delegations that political considerations be removed so that we can make progress for women. . . .''
It may be difficult to assess in concrete terms what the 1985 women's conference -- and the Decade for Women it brings to an end -- will accomplish. Many observers feel the conference has succeeded in increasing awareness among governments and citizens of women's rights, problems, and potential to play a greater role in the development social and political policies.
Specific issues on which the ``Forward-Looking Strategies'' may increase awareness include: violence against women (with special emphasis on family violence); the importance of setting up data banks on women and women's issues; family planning; the economic value of women's unpaid work; and the need for women to play a more active role in decisionmaking at all levels of society.
Although many expressions of relief and satisfaction greeted the conclusion of the conference, there was cause for disappointment as well.
The adoption of more than 100 draft resolutions, proposing specific action on a number of important issues, had been a part of the conference agenda. But because of lack of time, the consideration of these resolutions must now be deferred to the next session of the UN General Assembly, which convenes in New York in September. The ``Forward-Looking Strategies,'' which are nonbinding, will be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.
During the course of the final 12-hour session, four contentious paragraphs in the ``Forward-Looking Strategies'' could not be agreed upon by consensus and had to be put to a vote.
The first of these paragraphs focused on the issue of North-South economic tension and cited ``coercive measures . . . adopted by certain developed states'' to exert economic pressure on developing countries. This paragraph was strongly supported by developing and East-bloc nations, and strongly opposed by the West. Yet when a vote was called, 109 countries supported the inclusion of the paragraph, and 29 abstained. Thunderous applause greeted the announcement of these voting results.
The most dramatic, and most politically sensitive, debate of the entire conference centered on the question of Zionism versus the rights of Palestinian refugees.
At issue was the equation of Zionism with racism in one paragraph of the document. When this debate reached a deadlock, the Kenyan delegation proposed an alternative text citing ``all forms of racism'' in place of Zionism. In a statement hailed by many subsequent speakers as ``magnanimous,'' the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to accept this proposal in the interests of consensus.
Yet in spite of tense moments, the conference is being viewed by most observers as a success. Many hope that in the years ahead the growing network of governmental and nongovernmental women's organizations around the world can put the ``Forward-Looking Strategies'' into practice.