Five years after the United Nation's World Conference on Women in Beijing, delegates are gathering at the United Nations in New York this week to assess what has been accomplished. They are likely to find many signs of progress toward greater recognition of women's rights, and plenty of evidence of still unfulfilled promises by the world's nations.
The platform that emerged from the Beijing meeting had vast scope. It called for inheritance rights for women (still denied in much of the world), the condemnation and criminalization of rape during wartime; greater educational and economic opportunity for women; more political participation, such as service in legislatures; and greater choice in matters of childbearing.
It's an agenda that won deserved praise and support - and, predictably, generated controversy and opposition at the same time. Some religious groups were disturbed by the emphasis on contraceptive rights. Declarations about economic and political rights of women met deep cultural resistance in some societies.
These tensions won't soon be erased. Clearly, many practices that restrict women, often tied to religious traditions, will have to give way before the inexorable rightness of affording half the human race a wider path toward self-realization.
But it would be wrong to assume that a fuller recognition of women's rights is necessarily at odds with religion. Enlightened religious thinking, in fact, undergirds the push for greater rights. Each individual has an inherent right to express, fully and creatively, such God-given qualities as compassion, intelligence, resilience, and perceptiveness. Freeing women to bring their qualities of thought to communities and to the halls of government is a pillar of continued progress.
May the meeting in New York do a good job of assessing how far the world has come in five years, and of making sure the agenda set in Beijing stays vital.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society