After Some Success, a New Effort to Broaden Women's Rights

March 8 meeting at UN focused on roots of discrimination, and highlighted solutions.

The definition of "women's issues" used to be narrow - and predictable. But increasingly, women worldwide are talking about monetary policy, health care, globalization, and violence.

Resistance remains. "There are some very old conceptions that need to be eliminated," says Susan Davis, executive director of the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). "There needs to be the recognition that all issues are women's issues, that all forms of discrimination are linked."

Ms. Davis was among the scores of women who gathered at the United Nations last week to persuade governments to more aggressively relate human rights with women's rights.

Eighteen years ago, governments ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The convention says that in situations of poverty, women have less access to food, health, education, and job opportunities.

Today, many women in Arab and African countries can't work without their husbands' consent. Women in industrialized countries are often the last hired and the first fired.

"That women and men should enjoy all human rights equally is beyond doubt, but almost nowhere in the world is this the case," says Joan Ruddock, Britain's minister for women. "To be born female is, in many parts of the world, an automatic barrier to equality."

The United States has not yet ratified the convention. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee say it would be meaningless to ratify a convention that few countries adhere to.

A look at several Asian countries shows that discrimination against women begins at birth - if not before. The "missing" women of China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan are just one example.

Normally, more boys than girls are born worldwide: 104 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. But in the 1980s, when abortions throughout Asia became more accessible, sex selection increased. Figures for this time period show China has 119 boys for every 100 girls, South Korea has 114 boys for every 100 girls, and Taiwan 110 boys for every 100 girls, according to WEDO.

Officially, China bans fetal-monitoring ultrasound exams, which can reveal sex. But under the one-child, one-couple policy, husbands and wives still try to determine the child's sex.

"There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the one-child policy has led to more abortions in China," Davis says. The root of the problem is deeply ingrained incentives to prefer boys over girls, she says.

As the world becomes more economically intertwined, women are becoming more vulnerable.

"Women champion the globalization of universal human rights, of gender equality and equity," says Bella Abzug, a former member of Congress from New York and now president of WEDO. "But women everywhere are bearing the burden of economic globalization."

Women make up 70 percent of 1.3 billion people living in poverty today, the organization says. And in industrialized countries, women are joining the ranks of the unemployed quickly. In Ukraine, nearly 85 percent of the jobless are women.

And in Britain, women are more likely to work part time and be employed in low-paid jobs, more likely to use public assistance, and to suffer sexual abuse, Ms. Ruddock says.

While women the world over may face barriers to employment, they also continue to face barriers to health care. Most experts agree that economic progress and access to health care are related.

But violence remains at the top of the agenda for many of the women here. "In affluent countries, there is a narrow idea about equality," Davis says. "It's easier for affluent countries to look at rape in a war situation or female genital mutilation in Muslim countries and say 'It's about them, not us.' "

Since the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995, 58 countries have adopted legislation to address women's rights and curb domestic violence. Others, however, still ignore the problem, says Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But there has also been progress. Local organizations in Sri Lanka are working to make women aware of reforms to the penal code to criminalize incest and sexual harassment. The Egyptian Supreme Court has issued a ruling prohibiting female genital mutilation at state-supported or private facilities.

And Zimbabwe has passed a law making it illegal to exclude daughters from inheriting businesses, property, and wealth.

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