Declaring that women are “no longer guests on this planet,” Tanzanian political leader Gertrude Mongella opened the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women here Monday amid continuing controversy over pervasive Chinese security and hopes for an international consensus to reduce the specter of domestic and state violence against women.
In a lavish welcoming ceremony in the capital’s Great Hall of the People, Mongella, the conference’s secretary-general, announced to cheers and trills from thousands of women: “This planet belongs to them (women), too. A revolution has begun.”
But despite the enthusiasm, this week’s conference heralds less a revolution than a holding pattern. International delegates are digging in to preserve positions on abortion and sex education that were agreed on last year at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. “There will be no unraveling of commitments - neither today’s nor last year’s and certainly not this decade’s commitments,” said Mongella. “This revolution is too just, too important and certainly long overdue.”
Delegations from more than 180 governments have arrived to draw up a “Platform for Action” that women’s groups who support it hope will help boost women’s economic standing, protect them from violence and promote women’s “reproductive health” as well as their “empowerment.”
But a coalition of the Vatican, Muslim fundamentalist states and American conservative groups is trying to alter some of the language in the proposed document that they say promotes a “social minority philosophy” that denigrates the value of motherhood.
As Mongella and others spoke inside the hall, South African representative Winnie Mandela and her entourage had been turned away from the ceremony because they arrived late. An ensuing clash with guards who shoved them from the steps of the building heightened tensions between hypercautious security forces and activist women who have filled the capital for the conference.
Some participants at the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women an hour north of Beijing have complained of being harassed, followed and intimidated by police who fear the women are hurting the interests of the country.
On Monday, nearly 1,000 women dressed in black and carrying candles scuffled with police three times as they marched to the edges of the forum site to protest the United Nations’ failure to back up their right to demonstrate without interference there.
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto emphatically condemned female infanticide, a practice reportedly still common in China, in her opening-day address.
“As we gather here today, the cries of the girl child reach out to us,” Bhutto said. “This conference needs to chart a course that can create a climate where the girl child is as welcomed and valued as a boy child, that the girl child is considered as worthy as a boy child.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived shortly after midnight in Beijing. She plans to address the conference later today then travel to Huairou Wednesday to speak to the women’s advocacy groups there.
Activists are planning to capitalize on her highly publicized visit by demonstrating for their causes.