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Women's Delegates Reach Agreement

By Edith M. Lederer
UNIFEM - Beijing+5 homepage

UNITED NATIONS, June 10, 2000 (AP) -- Five years after a landmark U.N. conference set women's equality as an achievable goal, more than 180 nations agreed Saturday on new measures to accelerate the international campaign to reach it.

But women's rights activists and several countries including the United States, South Africa and Norway said the new initiatives didn't go far enough to speed implementation of the 150-page platform of action adopted in Beijing in 1995.

Despite fears that delegates would chip away at the Beijing platform, the weeklong U.N. Women's Conference ended Saturday with no backtracking – a fact welcomed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who urged delegates earlier in the week to protect and advance the gains made by women five years ago.

Delegates on Saturday approved the new plan to implement the Beijing platform, as well as an accompanying political declaration, following all-night negotiations that delayed the wrap-up of the conference by a day. Both documents were approved by consensus.

Before General Assembly President Theo-Ben Gurirab called for a decision, two dozen nations expressed reservations on specific points in the new document. A dozen more commented after consensus was approved.

Gurirab, who is Namibia's foreign minister, declared that the documents moved the global agenda for women forward.

"If governments demonstate the necessary political will and allocate the human and financial resources required, I am convinced that the goals of gender equality, development and peace will become a reality very early in the 21st century," he said before gaveling the conference to an end.

The new action document includes tougher measures to combat domestic violence and sex trafficking, and to tackle the impact of HIV/AIDS and globalization on women.

Despite an all-night session, however, virtually no progress was made on the most contentious issues – including access to safe abortion, sexual rights, sexual orientation, and equal rights of inheritance.

That disappointed grass-roots groups, which had lobbied for more specific goals and stronger action.

In a joint statement issued by the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University and the Women's Environment and Development Organization lamented the lack of agreement "on a stronger document with more concrete benchmarks, numerical goals, time-bound targets, indicators, and resources aimed at implementing the Beijing platform."

But U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Angela King, a special adviser on the advancement of women, said she was encouraged by the progress made.

"All those millions of women who are looking at us are totally vindicated, and they have something to grasp to assist them for their battles for equality," she said, after delegates reached agreement after 5 a.m.

"We have a very strong document which not only reaffirms Beijing and other relevant conferences on human rights and social development, but also moves forward," she said.

The conference brought together about 2,300 international delegates and 2,000 representatives of grass-roots organizations. Aside from closed-door negotiations on the final document, dozens of panel discussions were held on subjects ranging from women crossing the digital divide to rituals of widowhood.

The first U.N. women's conference, in Mexico City in 1975, launched a movement toward women's equality that was still gaining momentum, King said, adding there would be another progress review in 2005.

The battle lines for the current conference – known as Beijing Plus Five – mirrored those at Beijing: the Vatican and a handful of Islamic and Catholic countries – including Libya, Algeria, Iran, Sudan and Nicaragua – against the West and hundreds of women's rights activists.

But Jyoti Shankar Singh, executive coordinator of this week's General Assembly session, said issues relating to sex and reproduction didn't have the same intensity they did at the 1994 population conference in Cairo or the 1995 Beijing conference.

"People were concerned with a lot of other issues – violence against women, trafficking, HIV/AIDS, the impact of globalization, women's human rights and how much power they hold or share in the economy and politics," he said, and this is reflected in the final document.

Although attempts for stronger language on access to abortions failed and references to sexual rights and sexual orientation were dropped, the platform does say women have the right to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality ... free of coercion, discrimination and violence."

A dispute between the United States and Cuba over Havana's insistence on referring to the negative effect of U.S. sanctions was also resolved early Saturday.

King said both countries agreed to compromise language.

Delegates noted strong planks calling for prosecution of all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape. For the first time in an international consensus document, forced marriage and so-called honor killings were addressed, with governments being urged to eradicate these human rights violations.

The document also calls for implementation and increased international cooperation to eliminate "commercial sexual exploitation," as well as economic exploitation, including sex trafficking.