So many women, so little time

In Huairou it was flip-flops and practical sense. In Peking, it's back to high heels and high minds. Will anything change? Teresa Poole reports
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One can tell by the shoes where a delegate is going for the day. At the Peking International Convention Centre, snappily shod government negotiators in business garb tread carefully through the corridors of the UN World Conference on Women, across floors polished so shiny it is a challenge to keep upright. An hour's drive away at Huairou, site of the non-governmental women's forum, the main danger is slipping in the mud as participants in walking shoes, trainers or flip-flops pick their rain-soaked way from one workshop to the next.

It is not only physical distance that separates the two women's gatherings. At the official conference, which opened on Monday and runs until 15 September, excessive air-conditioning and a forest-load of plenary session speeches are signs that the UN's huge conference machinery is up and running. At Huairou, where the 10-day Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum will close tomorrow night, it is unpredictability and generally good-natured chaos that have ruled the day, although there were thousands of furious women yesterday morning who failed to fit into the converted cinema where Hillary Clinton was speaking.

In this Tale of Two Conferences, there is no doubt which is the more energetic. Although China has made it a struggle, and the weather has been dreadful, the ring-fenced and muddy Huairou site has become the world's biggest agitprop fair, with songs and demonstrations as added diversions. The whole 42-hectare area is plastered with flyers publicising every conceivable women's issue on the planet. From the Forum for African Women Educationalists: "Sexual Harassment Dehumanizes Us All - Don't Allow It!". From an Action India display about an un-named town: "We have 8 latrines for a population of 10,000 women with no water or drainage facility ... These are the cause of reproductive tract infection in 60 per cent of women in the slums." On one doorway: "The Saharawi women ask the NGO Forum to demand to the Moroccan king the release of our women since 1975 in the jails of Tazmarmaret and Magouna." From the German Secretaries' Association, the news that they have "been fighting for official recognition of the professional functions of the secretary since 1955". And from Shirley Harmison, of Texas, a leaflet from the Art of Living Foundation and an offer of: "Meditation at 11am!"

After a few minutes' wandering around the forum, one becomes accustomed to seeing the most improbable exchanges. On the road to the Willow Club, two Saudi women in full black letterbox rig were doing brisk business selling to a group of African women in floral prints some T-shirts with the slogan: "We welcome Women's Liberation and Renounce Permissiveness." A short distance away, four Nepalese women from the "Women's Political Empowerment South Asian Voice" were showing off their bangles to the sounds of "ooh" and "aah" from a group of Chinese delegates. Only the Sudanese women organising the Popular Defence Exhibition - complete with photographs of women on tanks or looking down the barrels of machine-guns - seemed to be finding it difficult to bond with the sisterhood. Afaf Hussein, dressed in fatigues and white veil, with a sign saying "Peacemakers" pinned to her chest, said: "My main aim is to help women and children affected by war. But I have to be prepared to attack enemy forces at any time."

Some 23,500 foreign participants (at the latest count) thought it worth their while to travel, many at their own expense, to this nondescript Chinese county town in search of common cause. They represent charities, development organisations, lobbying groups, and in many cases simply registered as individuals. The forum was open to anyone, provided they met the 30 April deadline and could fund the trip.

There has been a torrent of complaints about the shortcomings of China's arrangements, not least when marquees flooded and the buses failed to run. But despite an international outcry over heavy-handed security, most women actually in Huairou have concentrated on the issues of the conference, not the failings of the host country. And, in many cases, they have found common cause with women from very different cultures. In the Latin America regional marquee Gloria Percinoto, of the Girl Guides of Brazil (and also a lawyer and professor), said: "The first thing is that all women are fighting for citizenship and for political and religious rights ... And then there is the question of peace - public peace and domestic peace. Because women of all countries are victims of violence."

Jennifer Wasianga, from the Kenya Alliance for Advocacy on Children's Rights, said: "The most important issue for me is the rights of the girl- child." Ann O'Brien, from Snippets Drama Group of Cork, Ireland, showed no sign of forum fatigue. "It's all about meeting women, and a lot of it goes on at the coffee shop, or at the bus stop. It's about making friends with other women, and you listening to them and learning from each other, and the bottom line is that no matter what country you come from, if you're poor, you have the same problems."

There is, of course, little to connect the life experience of an illiterate Indian slum dweller with that of a German secretary. But broad themes such as violence against women and discrimination against girl children have recurred again and again in the 3,000-odd workshops. At 1pm yesterday, for instance, it was possible to drop in on separate meetings entitled "Violence Against Women" organised by the League of Lebanese Women's Rights, Oxfam America, the Tanzania Association of NGOs, and National Union of Moroccan Women. At a Women's International Zionist Association workshop the previous day, the audience of 50 included Australians, Africans, Russians, and Chinese.

The urgency for action against sexual violence, including rape as a weapon of war, genital mutilation in Africa, and the trafficking of girls in Asia, has been another dominant theme. Workshops on a girl's equal right to education, women's right to participate fully in political life, and the greater impact of poverty on women have also cut across language and cultural barriers. The greatest rifts have been predictable ones: between conservative religious groups and the majority liberal consensus over a female's right to control her fertility, and the persistent North-South dispute about where the financial resources should come from to help women.

About 250 British women have turned up for the forum, from organisations as diverse as the Association of Countrywomen of the World, and the Royal College of Nursing, to the Trades Union Congress. At the British Council stand, in the deeper recesses of the Longshan Hotel Exhibition Centre, Elizabeth Sidney, of the Women's National Commission, bridled at the suggestion that the British delegates had little in common with Third World counterparts. "That is absolutely inaccurate. All over the world, women want the same thing. We are tired of violence, we are tired of being second-class citizens, we are tired of not having political representation, and we are tired of being poor."

The NGO Forum has worked, albeit often in pouring rain, as a venue for networking and an exchange of ideas. Eugenie Zendi, of the Association of Nurses and Midwives of Central Africa, said: "When I get home, I'm going to make a report to my organisation and I may even hold a meeting with other members to tell them about everything that has happened here."

The question for the NGO Forum is how to channel a determination for change into the cold print of the "Platform for Action", the formal conference document that will provide a blueprint for the next decade's battle for women's rights. The structure of the parallel meetings allows representatives from 2,700 NGOs to have "observer status" at the governmental World Conference on Women, which gives them the much-needed security pass to gain access to the over-polished corridors of the Peking International Convention Centre. They will stay on in Peking next week to lobby government teams, individually and in regional groups, over the final wording of the platform.

The NGOs will find the atmosphere very different from Huairou. While key negotiators are already suffering from sleep deprivation, most of the 5,000 or so delegates have spent the first few days of the conference sitting through predictable speeches in the plenary hall, or milling around the lobbies apparently with little to do. The only difference from other big international conferences is the extraordinarily high proportion of women around.

The talk, both casually and in the briefings, is first and foremost of defending what has already been achieved at the 1993 Vienna conference on human rights and last year's Cairo agreement on population and development. There is much muttering about "backsliding". Past agreements on the "universality" of human rights, and the right to "reproductive health" (which covers family planning and the health aspects of unsafe abortion), are again under threat from Islamic fundamentalist states. Another linguistic dispute centres on the use of "equality" or "equity", which in plain English is really an argument about women's inheritance rights.

It all seems very far removed from the down-to-earth measures being discussed at Huairou. Yet Baroness Chalker, the minister for overseas development who is heading the British delegation, insisted this week that the non- binding Platform for Action would be "vitally important" for women worldwide. The mainstream NGOs at Huairou agree. Sunetri Puri, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said: "I see it as a lobby tool to do things. That is why the language has to be right." But there is also an acknowledgement that the problems of the world's women are not solved by documents. "Although many countries have passed good legislation, there is still an extremely big gap between what the legislation says and the reality."

At the convention centre, in closed-door committee meetings, the final bargaining has now begun. If one Western woman diplomat is any guide, the predominantly female negotiations have been just as brutal as at any male-run international conference. In fact, she said, "It can be much nastier".