WRI Women's Working Group and the Beijing Conference

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A core group meeting of the WRI Women's Working Group was held in London on March 24. Several important issues were on the agenda: how to improve communication and keep in touch with women interested in the working group; the process for accepting new core group members; an evaluation of the Days of Action (25 November and 8 March); the women's presentation at the next Triennial in Brazil; and finally, the Women's Working Group's attitude towards the upcoming United Nation's 4th World Conference on Women (WCW), which is to be held in September 1995. The choice of Beijing, China, as the venue for this international event carries strong political implications, given the Chinese government's blatant violations of human rights. Should the WRI women's group accept to participate? The UN World Conference on Women —subtitled "Action for Equality, Development, and Peace"— aims to review and appraising the progress made since the Nairobi conference marking the end of the UN Decade of Women in 1985. Several thousands people are expected to take part in the event.

Within WRI Women's Core Group, some members felt that boycotting the conference altogether would mean losing an opportunity to influence agenda setting and the conditions for participation. First, there was the concern that without a strong anti-militarist representation, the UNWCW might recommend increasing the number of women in the world's militaries. Indeed, within the WCW organisation there are those who argue that the militarisation of women promotes women's equality, by providing jobs and access to decision making. Second, voices were needed among the participants to denounce the violations of women's rights by the Chinese government and raise issues official Chinese women's groups would be unlikely to address, such as violence against women, forced abortions, or denial of lesbian rights. Third, although most foreign observers agreed that no dissident women's groups could openly exist because of governmental repression, efforts were being made at the international level to ensure a representation of grassroots Chinese women's groups, alongside the official governmental ones. The Conference could benefit the former by giving more exposure to their work.

A majority of the WRI Women's Core Group, however, were more sceptical at the usefulness of holding a UN conference under such conditions, fearing that it would prove a waste of time and resources, as well as a cynical propaganda exercise for the repressive Chinese government. Concerns were raised in three main areas: the range of participants, the freedom of expression during the conference, and increased police surveillance before and after the event. The only women's groups allowed to function in China are those operating under the strict control of the Communist Party, mainly the All-China Federation of Women. Many observers in the region therefore strongly doubt that any independent women's groups will be allowed to attend. This censorship applies both inside and outside the country, most notably to exiled Tibetan women, and women from Taiwan and Hong Kong. A number of sensitive issues might fail to make it onto the agenda. These include the status of Tibet and the appalling treatment of peaceful Tibetan protesters by the Chinese military forces; coercive birth control and abortion resulting from a tight population control policy; and the discussion of lesbian rights, including the forced institutionalisation and psychiatric treatment of Chinese lesbians. Finally, past experiences have shown that the government is most likely to increase secret police surveillance and intimidation of independent organisers, both before and after the conference, so that instead of supporting efforts for the promotion of women's rights, the UN meeting might actually add extra pressure on and victimise activists. People and organisations have also been coerced into giving donations to international events in the past, causing further strain on their already meagre resources.

After discussion at the March meeting and consultation by mail, the core group decided that the WRI Women's Working Group would NOT be represented at the UNWCW in Beijing. A written statement will be widely circulated to stimulate discussions among women's groups planning to attend. A further decision has to be made about the Working Group's strategy regarding the NGO preparatory committee meetings. The Working Group recognised that boycotting the organisatory meetings altogether would mean losing an opportunity to press for a pacifist agenda for the Conference and to lobby against the militarisation of women as a means towards gender equality. Although distrustful of the real usefulness of the Conference, the Working Group will also speak against the political exclusion of women's groups who choose to attend the UN Conference.

The text of the WRI Women's Working Group's statement on the Beijing conference will be printed in the next issue of the Broken Rifle. If you have any questions or comments, please contact: WRI Women's Working Group, c/o WRI, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, Britain, tel: +44 278 4040, fax: +44 278 0444.

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