Air Date: February 20, 1996 Program 9608

BEIJING BRIEFINGS: US GRASSROOTS

Guests:
Various members of nongovernmental organizations

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, First Lady: This conference will help us convert the words and ideas of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Woman into actions here in the United States. The NGO forum and NGOs themselves were vital to the success of the conference and will be vital to achieving the goals the conference laid out.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: It's been six months since the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women. In the end, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton did attend, and now she's part of the campaign to follow-up on the agreements made at that meeting in China. In this second of a two-part series, we'll check on what various Americans are doing as part of that follow-up on this edition of Common Ground.

Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson. Last September's Fourth World Conference on Women was just the inspiration many women's groups and activist organizations needed. There have been hundreds of meetings across the country in the months since the Beijing conference ended, meetings similar to this one in Iowa last November where the first lady gave participants their charge.

CLINTON: Your meeting in Iowa brings together women and men from the public and private sectors to discuss strategies for implementing the Platform of Action adopted in Beijing. Many of you were there in Beijing and Huairou. I was pleased to speak in both locations during my stay in China and to see and feel firsthand the commitment, dedication, and enthusiasm of the thousands of women participating. I have seen the dramatic difference NGOs, and even individuals, can make in the lives of women, girls, and families during my travels around the world. But NGOs cannot do it alone. Individuals cannot do it alone. Even governments cannot do it alone. We must all share responsibility for insuring that the hope and promise of the women's conference becomes a reality.

DAVIDSON: Joan Winship is the vice president of the Stanley Foundation, which sponsored this first national follow-up meeting called, "Bringing Beijing Back, Local Actions and Global Strategies."

JOAN WINSHIP: There are already meetings being held, and have been held, that are regional ones for people to come and report back what took place in Beijing. But what we're really trying to do is to bring people together to really look ahead. Not so much to look back at Beijing, but to look ahead at what people are going to do—whether at the grassroots level or in national organizations and national efforts to implement the Platform of Action that, in fact, was the focus of the discussion in Beijing. We have people who were on the official US delegation which includes both government, representatives of government, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations. We have leaders of national organizations who were in Beijing on their own or representing their own organizations. Then we have a whole mix of people who are coming because they are just interested or they are grassroots groups and come from that perspective.

We also have a number of students, which is what I think is exciting. We have students from colleges and even high schools. One of the most exciting things at this conference was the end of our final session when students, who had formed their own youth caucus, came up on the stage and very enthusiastically talked about their own personal commitments of what they intend to do after this is over. This was really a spontaneous thing. This was not planned ahead, but grew out of their meetings and the sense that they really wanted to be involved. So, they individually came up and talked about what they wanted to do on their own individual campuses or even in their own lives with family and friends.

DAVIDSON: What other specific projects do you hear people talking about now that they are going to take from this meeting and work on in their own communities?

WINSHIP: Everyone's trying to define exactly where they go. We have people who are academics talking about revising their curriculums to focus on the Platform of Action. We have people who are involved in direct services to women or to groups of people that may or may not have directly received services in the same way that they might from here. There is a range of issues. What we're finding today is that people are going to go home and think about what they want to do.

DAVIDSON: Some people question the value of huge international conferences like the one in Beijing which brought together 50,000 people from around the world. Loretta Ross, director of the Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta, Georgia, says there's no question that women's lives have changed since the United Nations began holding conferences on women back in 1975.

LORETTA ROSS: For ordinary women twenty years ago when these conferences first started, there wasn't a place she could go in her town when she'd been raped. There wasn't a place she could go if she suddenly was made homeless, because she'd been laid off from her job. There was wasn't a phone number she could call if she thought her boss was paying her less than he was paying a man for doing the same job. There's been incredible changes in the lives of regular everyday women because these conferences have taken place. These conferences have taken place because the women's movement demanded that these conferences take place.

For me, the Platform of Action coming from Beijing, more than the specific commitments that each government made (which I think are extremely important), is the set of values that are knitted together in that Platform of Action that says every woman, every child, every human being is special and important; that we care about their physical lives, their moral lives, their social lives, their spiritual lives. Most important, this is the area that women are usually forbidden to talk about, their economic lives. The right to have a job, to be free from fear, the right to be able to provide for your family decently, the right not to be exploited. These are issues that have been verboten for women to talk about, and we talked about them in Beijing. We got commitments from governments around the world that we're going to be at the table to work on these issues.

It's very difficult here in America, even here in Iowa, because we have forces that are so determined to remove the United States from the world community in many ways, that want to fight our participation in the United Nations and our role as peacekeepers around the world. We have a real problem here, because people are not necessarily totally convinced that paying attention to the global community and paying attention particularly to the United Nations can make a difference in whether or not you have a decent job, decent health care, can take care of your children, or have a decent education. But the Beijing conference shows that those things are intrinsically connected.

DAVIDSON: Speaking at the opening session of the Iowa meeting, Ross said it's important to coordinate the work of the various movements for social change.

ROSS: We need to make sure that the women's rights movement, the human rights [movement], the social change movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and the environmental movement—all these social movements—are connected through the prism of human rights. We have to use our tools, our instruments (like the Platform of Action), the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (otherwise known as CEDAW) to excite our people. The way I explain CEDAW to the grassroots women, I think, is instructive. Most of the women I work with (rural, black, amd poor women) don't have an idea that Beijing even took place much less that there's something in it for them.

But the way I talk about CEDAW to them, I tell them, if you wanted to protect yourself from unpaid, unfair working conditions, you'd have to pass a law on that. If you wanted to protect yourself from rape, you'd have to pass a law on that. If you wanted to protect yourself from an inferior education, you'd have to pass a law on that. What CEDAW does is pass all those laws at the same time, instead of making you work on it one by one by one by one. You know those sisters, who ain't never even been out of Athens, Georgia, get it. That's the kind of connections we need to make.

DAVIDSON: Loretta Ross said, "The UN's convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women encompasses many issues that affect women's lives." Ivanka Corti from Italy is chairperson of the UN committee that is pushing for the ratification of CEDAW.

IVANKA CORTI: You have to elaborate a strategy to mobilize yourselves to see the uselessness of that, both from the political signs for the United States not to be together with the few countries, conservative-oriented governments, together in the same team. This is a political issue. Secondly, it's on behalf of the changing of some of your laws which concerns half the population of the United States. For us to see though, it will be very important to have the only superpower as a state party, because it is very difficult to understand people when you go and say you have 147 countries that ratified—for instance, Yemen, Bangladesh, Morocco, Senegal, and so on. I can go on, and Indonesia. What about the United States? You say the United States didn't ratify, and we know very well that United States, first of all, has a very strong feminist movement. The feminist movement was born in the United States and then came to Europe and all the European countries have already ratified them. What is the reason that the United States has not ratified this convention?

DAVIDSON: As far as the countries that haven't ratified, do you see momentum building toward ratification or do you see forces that are making it more difficult for the countries who haven't yet ratified it?

CORTI: There is an engagement of the United Nations for the universal ratification of the convention by the year 2000. I hope we will reach nearly universal ratification. But I am not sure whether we will have universal [ratification], because some countries (and the foreseen very well also in Beijing now) are on very strong, conservative positions as far as women are concerned. I have my doubts that they will sign in a term of five years only.

DAVIDSON: You are listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. We're talking with various grassroots organizers and other national leaders about their work to carry out the ideas put forth at last year's Fourth World Conference on Women held by the United Nations in China. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

We were discussing the efforts to get governments to adopt the UN's convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. Because the US government has yet to adopt CEDAW as it is known, Ellen Dorsey, as associate professor in Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University is building a grassroots campaign to get local governments to adopt that convention.

ELLEN DORSEY: One interesting thing that was done in Iowa City, which is increasingly being looked to as a model for post-Beijing implementation around the United States, is endorsing both the ratification and implementation of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). CEDAW is in essence the international bill of women's rights. What CEDAW establishes is international standards of women's rights that individuals around the world can use as a benchmark by which to measure the successfulness of countries' performance on upholding women's rights. What makes CEDAW a powerful mechanism beyond even just the standards is that it compels governments to study how their laws, and to enact laws, that are consistent with the standards in CEDAW, as well as to do a report on their own performance on upholding women's rights—which then gives women a point of discussion, a place to organize, and a point of leverage over the policy process.

Now, what's happening locally is that in Iowa City, for instance, a campaign was held to bring women's organizations together to discuss—whether at their kitchen table, whether in their community organization, or whether in their offices—the relevance of CEDAW to their lives and to the issues that affect them in the workplace and in their community. Then women's organizations and community organizations, such as women's organizations, endorsed CEDAW and put a petition forward to their city council to have the city council endorse ratification. A citywide forum was held. A resolution was put to the city council. The city council endorsed ratification on 7-0, unanimous, vote. Then the city council itself sent letters to our national representatives calling for ratification.

The most important aspect of it is that it's a vehicle for women to come together and discuss those global standards and how they relate to women's lives in their community, and then establish local standards. Women can use themselves to measure the effectiveness of local elected officials, local public policy initiatives, and harness the power of the global standards in your own local community. This has increasingly become a model for action around the country. It might be a nationwide campaign, in fact, to emerge as a nationwide campaign. For purposes of your tape, I think it's wonderful that we're having this discussion in a kitchen. Dinner is cooking, babies are crying, and dogs are barking. What more appropriate place and where else have better political action agendas been hatched than in kitchens all around the world.

DOROTHY PAUL: Women now are also emphasizing the kitchen table, which is wonderful. But we also have to move to the global power structure and be visible at the global level.

DAVIDSON: This is Dorothy Paul, the executive director of the Iowa Division of the United Nations Association. She, too, was involved in the Stanley Foundation's national meeting to bring the spirit of Beijing back to the United States. Paul is very enthused about the progress she's seen in the years she's been attending UN conferences.

PAUL: I've been involved in the Decade for Women since 1975. To see that whole process and then go to Beijing and see the leadership provided by women from the South who are now proclaiming themselves feminists, and in 1975 they denied that term. They said let's talk about basic needs first. Now I see women from the West denying the term "feminist." It's a complete turnaround, but the movement is really expanding and going forward, and expanding beyond what we ever expected.

DAVIDSON: Joining in this conversation with participants from Stanley Foundation's meeting to bring Beijing back is Jael Silliman, who's with the committee on Women, Population, and Environment in the national Asian Women's Health Organization.

JAEL SILLIMAN: Following Beijing, women all over the world have taken the agenda of Beijing back home. Right now, around the world at kitchen tables and in public meeting spaces women are getting together to try to translate the Beijing conference into local action. We can talk about the Stanley conference that just took place here in Iowa City where 500 women got together, women of all generations, a very intergenerational conference, trying to work out to see what were critical issues for women. Among the critical issues that women wanted to talk about were violence, economic issues, health issues, and human rights issues for women.

What women all over the country, in the United States and over the state, are understanding that the issues of women across the world are very similar. They're not very different from each other. The issues that women are concerned about are economic issues, environmental issues, health issues, violence issues, and getting a seat at the policymaking table. Those are critical issues for women around the world. Increasingly, women realize that what was spelled out in Beijing was a map and a way for us to begin to emerge as peers in all these arenas and to shift the balance of power so that women are important social and political actors. That resonates with women all over the world. What was really exciting about Beijing was that the issues that women are talking about are the same. Women began to realize that the issues of women in the North and the South are not different issues.

Poverty is a very real concern in the United States. The feminization of poverty, for instance, is an international concern. Women over here, for instance in Iowa, realize that they're all a couple of stops away from homelessness. Once our paychecks don't come in, even middle-class women are very vulnerable at this time. The safety nets for women are being pulled around the world. So, the restructuring that's occurring in Europe and America is very similar to the kind of structural adjustment programs, the programs that are being imposed in Third World countries. These commonalities and understanding that the global economic forces that impact the world are the same. Okay, and the increasing vulnerability of people all over the world, the growth and strength of transnational corporations and their lack of accountability are the same in Iowa as they are in India.

DORSEY: The dismantling of the welfare state in the United States is directly analogous to the economic austerity programs that are being implied all over the southern world through the dictates of structural adjustments and the IMF lending processes. Women recognize that.

PAUL: It's also important that we know we have an educational program ahead of us to make Iowa women aware of the fact, or all women aware of the fact, that once a country ratifies CEDAW the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, that they are bound to enforce it. As of this month, 147 nations have ratified it of the 185 in the United Nations, but the United States is not one of them.

SILLIMAN: Another very central concern for women in this country, which resonates women around the world, is the growth of the religious right and the fundamentalist movement. They are very concerned about access of young women, teenagers, to education and sexual education, the forfeiting of women's reproductive rights, the forfeiting of our right to have abortions—a right that we've enjoyed for the last 25 years—and other privacy rights related to our privacy that are being encroached on by the religious right. Right now we understand what's happening in Iran and what's happening in Algeria in a new way, because we have seen the same forces in the name of religion seeking to roll back women's rights which have been fought for and struggled for over the last 30 years across the world.

DORSEY: Our country, along with all countries around the world, are facing crises of proportions that we haven't seen in the past and a crisis of authority and legitimacy of elected government. Women are recognizing that we have to develop alternatives. We have to articulate alternative visions of good governance, effective governance, and legitimate and fair governance. We have to develop strategies both to see the transformation of our political institutions, but also to compensate for the failures of our political institutions and a capitalist economy that is leaving increasingly more and more people marginalized.

In the face of greater disaffection and in the face of greater alienation, there has to be an articulation of a new vision. Women are stepping forward and being the ones that are doing it. Whether it's in your local community, whether it's connected to Beijing or not, that is the commonality of what's happening around the world. Many women—rural women and women in urban settings in crisis—may not be articulating the particulars of the Beijing Platform of Action. But they are, in fact, articulating the principles imbedded in the Platform of Action in commonly articulating strategies for political, social, and economic transformation.

As this begins to merge closer and closer, you see that the Beijing world conference is not an esoteric event. International standards of women's human rights are not some far removed thing that doesn't have meaning to women's lives. It all comes together in the proposals and agendas that commonly women are attempting to utilize to address the crises that we're facing around the world.

PAUL: An important thing happened at Beijing, and that was the emphasis on youth and the involvement of young women in the Beijing conference. There were some 3,500 young women that participated. There was a youth tent; and as women that have been involved in the movement for many many years, we felt it was important to in effect replace ourselves and to provide support for new and emerging leadership from the young women of the world.

SILLIMAN: What was also very interesting at Beijing in terms of American women, American women were very well represented at Beijing. About 8,000 women who attended the Beijing conference were American women. Many of these were women of color and indigenous women, and a lot of grassroots women attended Beijing. I went with a group of women with the Women of Color Resource Center, with 120 women of color who attended. We had welfare mothers on our delegation, we had women working in battered shelters to heads of welfare agencies. Many of these women had gotten money to come to the conference by local organizing and community support. The kind of women who came to Beijing has been different than the women we had in the past.

Also indigenous women at Beijing had a very strong and effective presence. Indigenous women at Beijing have become increasingly politically organized across boundaries and were very concerned about environmental health issues and specific impacts of native peoples. They came with a very clear agenda of what indigenous women needed in order to keep surviving and to keep their communities from extinction.

DORSEY: What else can women do in their local communities now that Beijing has come and gone—to maybe make a difference, to build new coalitions, to heighten awareness of critical issues, to come up with new solutions to problems? One of the things that has been talked about is the idea of holding hearings in your local community and assessing the performance of your local government in upholding the universal framework of women's human rights. Discuss how your community is performing on environmental issues, on health issues, on issues of concern regarding poverty and welfare, on violence issues, on affirmative action and discrimination against women, and on education. And that diverse groups of women can come together simply to discuss their community's performance, perhaps make recommendations to their local public officials as to how they can move into a legislative agenda that fits in tandem with the principles outlined in the Beijing Platform of Action. It's not an esoteric debate. It could be reduced very simply to critical issues that affect women's daily lives.

DAVIDSON: That concludes part two of our series on what's happened in the United States since last year's Fourth World Conference on Women, which the United Nations held in Beijing, China. For Common Ground I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

If you'd like to order a tape of this series following up the Fourth World Conference on Women, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Cassettes cost $5.00 or $10.00 for the two-part series. Be sure to ask for Program No. 9608. To order by credit card, you can call us at 319-264-1500.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Liederman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


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