With Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the rallying cry, “Let us celebrate women’s power,” the U.N.-sponsored Women’s Forum was launched Wednesday with host nation China determined to isolate participants and keep their messages from its 1.2 billion people.
Only hours before the beginning of what is billed as the largest international women’s conference in history, United Nations organizers defied their host’s efforts to restrict demonstrations to a small athletic field. They vowed that delegates would exercise freedom of expression whether China likes it or not.
“We are not going to allow that a small area of the big forum site is designated for freedom of expression,” said Irene Santiago of the Philippines, executive director of the women’s forum.
The forum’s agenda, which includes 5,000 seminars and workshops, has horrified Chinese authorities with its array of sensitive topics, many of them virtually taboo in Chinese society.
These include discussions of female circumcision, the decriminalization of prostitution and lesbian love-making methods along with sessions on rape, child abuse and forced abortions.
The forum is a forerunner and think tank for the fourth United Nations Conference on Women, which will begin Monday in Beijing. Chinese authorities have banished the forum to the farming town of Huairou, 90 minutes from the capital.
Its estimated 20,000 participants are staying in a security cocoon. Some complained Wednesday that they must pass metal detectors at each site, endure bans on visitors in their rooms and submit to police searches of luggage for forbidden literature.
“We are being treated like children,” said a Canadian delegate.
“Hospitality is a nightmare, transport is a nightmare, the accommodation is very basic and we are cut off from everything,” said English medical expert Anne Neale.
Chinese authorities, fearful that the women’s activities might spark domestic dissent, have launched a whisper campaign to discredit the visitors as potential strippers, streakers, troublemakers and degenerates.