More Than Just Talking
UN Fourth Conference on Women, Beijing 1995

By Dr. lise L Feitshans, JD and ScM and DIR Executive Director, The Work Health and Survival Project. Presenter of "Women's Health as a Human Right" Workshop and Presenter, "Compliance With Occupational Health Laws Protecting Women's Health" on Behalf of the Global Alliance for Women's Health (NYC USA) at the Fourth UN World Conference on Women 1995.

Based on comments presented by Dr. Feitshans on cable TV in NYC and at the Harvard Club, NYC, 1995.

A. Why Did The UN Need a Women’s Conference?

Four people: Emalyn Feitshans (age 5), Jay Feitshans (age 9), our babysitter, Lian Ferguson and Ilise Feitshans, left New York City one August day in 1995 and attended the NGO Forum of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, August through September 1995 in China. And because of these efforts, I served as a delegate for the Global Alliance For Women’s Health, which is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) of the UN. Accredited means granted a special status by the United Nations, allowing members of the organization to participate in meetings at the UN, and on rare occasions to provide information or lobby official delegates from member nations about pressing issues. This function closely resembles its antecedent in the US Congress or other legislative bodies. NGO’s frequently coalesce, in order to strategize, share information and ultimately influence the UN’s international policy decisions, in manner that also closely resembles the work of lobbyists in the USA or abroad. The meeting represented a major vehicle for exchanging information and for setting a global policy agenda to protect the health, provide education and support women’s rights, throughout the world.

The Beijing Declaration is the Preamble to the Platform for Action. In language that, not surprisingly harkens back to the Declaration of Sentiments of the Women who demanded suffrage a hundred years before in New York's Seneca Falls, the Preamble notes commitment to

" The equal rights and inherent dignity of women and men…. Ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The 1995 NGO Forum at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women represented the first part of a two part conference, a division that was made quite confusing by the powers in charge of it. First, the NGO Forum began on August 31 1995 and ended September 8, 1995. Second, the official diplomatic delegates to the Fourth World Conference on Women met from September 4, 1995 through September 15, 1995. The second conference produced the so-called Platform Document, and also involved the famous speech in which USA First Lady Hilary Clinton proclaimed, "Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” representing the USA even though she was not, at that time, an elected official. It is worth noting, however, that there were many male diplomatic delegates to the second conference, and few males, other than my son Jay, in attendance at the NGO Forum. By contrast too, the there was an officially printed and electronically transmitted tangible product for the second part of the conference, but the NGO forum did not produce any written accounts or official transcripts of its work. Some people had credentials to both parts of the conference, however, furthering the confusion even more.

The NGO forum produced over 5000 workshops on policy issues affecting women concerning every imaginable topic. Some, but not all attendees, gave out written papers informally at the workshops; others photographed each other and exchanged addresses. There was no formal list of NGO registrants, no formal message center for locating people, and most importantly, no official written product of these meetings. Nonetheless, the videotape we shot at the NGO Forum may demonstrate that it produced invaluable reports, documents and souvenirs, even though we did not produce a treaty or a convention or other example of the Rule of Law.

The NGO Forum's heritage reaches far back into the UN's 50 year history, that reached a critical mass at the Nairobi meeting of the Third UN World Conference on Women. There, over 300 NGO’s assembled spontaneously in tents that they had built outside of the official diplomatic meeting. It made "Nairobi "the buzzword for a watershed in UN history. Ever afterwards, NGOs were included in a new stronger role as part of the fabric of UN deliberations. The change after Nairobi represents a new wave of democratization within international legislation and policy, as NGOs speak for people, not governments. They are not elected, but often represent the views of minorities or the oppressed as a counterweight to government. We like this result, when NGOs oppose the bad guys in repressive regimes; but the success of the NGOs also implicitly represents an erosion in the power and influence of all governments, whose sovereignty are jealously guarded by the terms and conditions of the United Nations charter, regardless of the nature of their regimes. This is an important feature of the NGO Forum and the UN Fourth World Conference on Women because this influential but threatening (or for some governments subversive) role may explain in part why so much confusion, almost a deliberate diplomatic fog, surrounded the preparations for the meetings.

B. What happened at the Conference?

There is a lot of debate about the significance of what happened at the NGO forum. I attribute that debate to popular misunderstanding of the NGO's roles and bad information. We came home from a truly exciting and vibrant meeting to find, to my chagrin, that news reports appear to have concentrated on the pouring rain, bad housing, muddy tents, bacteria in food and undue surveillance rather than reporting accurately upon the real hard work of the meetings, which can be seen in our videotape. Another facet of this misunderstanding, however, cannot be laid at the feet of the media. Rather it bespeaks the intrinsically feminist approach to communication and products, compared to process and result, that lay at the heart of the NGO forum. The activities that occurred at the NGO forum — meetings, workshops, exchanges of ideas; transfer of otherwise unobtainable and possible illegal clandestine information — are, according to feminist theory, characteristically female types of communication.

In this female mode of verbal communication, process IS the product. The goal is education through communication, without providing documentation of the process or the work, much the same way that a young mother or grandmother might convey important unwritten information to their precious child. This process of communication is the hallmark of childrearing, which until recently was (if not exclusively then, at least traditionally), the heart of women’s empowerment domain. This approach, feminist theory correctly posits, takes a long-term approach to learning and sharing ideas through unwritten communication. So too, these goals of communication for exchange of ideas are not precisely quantified; they remain long-term rather than easily achieved. Children for example, learn to speak by imitating their mothers as best that they can, but not in one or two days. Another very significant feature of process-oriented communication described above is that is develops a profound common bond between the participants. This makes"just talking" not only the heart of the process, but thereby turning our communication into a prized result.

C. What did we accomplish at the NGO’s?

The NGO forum became the means for communication that united many women from every part of the world, as we discussed many common issues that ought to play a greater role in the international policy agenda, especially health issues, education for women and child care. In contrast to the NGO Forum, diplomatic delegates produced an official document, whose significance will fodder perennial debate among legal scholars and historians. The differences between these parts of the same whole are underscored by one visual image: in contrast to the NGO forum where women wore colorful sari, kimonos, t-shirts or dashikis, as of September 3rd, there was a increasingly steady incoming stream of handsome, well-groomed men in silk suits with designer ties, who came as caretakers and participants in the second part, and who performed, official documented tasks. Tight security around those diplomats had a chilling effect on meetings. They also had a vast cadre of secretarial staff to transcribe and record their every word. Yet, I learned by presenting three workshops at the NGO Forum, when thousands of women come together in any given place to exchange ideas about their situation and strategize about improving the world and securing world peace for their children and parents and partners, language barriers and differences of experience become interesting but unimportant. It is a powerful, dynamic time when such petty differences melt away.

Prepared for Presentation at the Harvard Club, New York City, October 17, 1995. Revised for presentation as part of a televised panel about the Conference, United Nations Association (UNA-USA) October 22 1995. Videotape available.

See also:

Elaine Machleder: A Large Turnout Greets Women from Beijing (The Riverdale Press, Thursday, October 26, 1995 p4) regarding the panel discussion for which this presentation was written.

Jay was the only male at the workshops where I presented; very few "non-females” attended any of the demonstration or deliberations.

The UN Charter was designed to foster communication among governments. The UN’s powers are carefully circumscribed to avoid creating any “world government.”

Carol Gilligan, "In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality" (Harvard Educational Review, 1977 47(4) 481-517) Copyright 1977 the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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