In her first public appearance at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women here today, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton lashed out at government-coerced sterilizations and abortions that are practiced widely in China and other developing countries.
Clinton, speaking before a forum on women’s health at the conference, did not mention China or any other country by name. But her comments echoed those of many critics of China’s family planning programs who claim that abortion and sterilization are used as government-sponsored birth control techniques, often against the will of women.
“Women and men must also have the right to make those most intimate of all decisions free of discrimination, coercion and violence, particularly any coercive practics that force women into abortions or sterilizations,” Clinton said.
The comments are likely to please factions of the U.S. Congress who have urged the first lady to use the Beijing conference as a platform to comdemn human rights abuses. U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., an outspoken abortion foe, held a news conference Monday in Beijing at which he called for Clinton to make just such a condemnation.
However, in her nine-page remarks before the women’s health forum, Clinton also called for increased access to health care and family planning services for the world’s women.
“One hundred million women cannot obtain or are not using family planning services because they are poor, uneducated or lack access to care,” Clinton said, using language likely to please those on the other side of the abortion debate. “Twenty million of these women will seek unsafe abortions - some will die, some will be disabled for life.”
She was interrupted several times by applause during her address.
Earlier, controversies over Chinese security gave way to debates over domestic and state violence against women as the conference officially opened Monday.
Declaring that women “are no longer guests on this planet,” the conference’s secretary general, Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania, announced to cheers and trills from thousands of women that “this planet belongs to them too. A revolution has begun.”
Besides Hillary Clinton, other prominent female leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, arrived to try to create a new foundation for women’s advancement.
But despite the enthusiasm, the conference, which continues until Sept. 15, 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.
“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 was the first example in the capital of the kind of confrontations between hypercautious security forces and activist women that have plagued a parallel forum outside the city.
Some participants at the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women an hour north of Beijing have complained of being harassed, followed and intimidated by police.
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