China ring-fences forum delegates

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The Independent Online


China met the women of the world in festive mood yesterday. Local volunteers looked on bemused as about 20 Indian women in saris danced and sang, "We need freedom for women." Mindful of the restrictions imposed by the Chinese at the world women's forum outside Peking, one of the group laughed: "It's a song, not a demonstration!"

Numerous posters had already appeared on the wooden boards around a concreted- over playing field, where 800 brightly coloured parasols and tables awaited hordes of networking women. "Visit the friendship tent of Iran and win a prize for the best friendship statement you can make," read a poster from the Women's Solidarity Association of Iran. In a definite first for China, the Lesbiana tent put up a sign about its daily meetings.

Women from all over the world were getting to know each other and setting out their campaigning stalls in dozens of tents and stands in Huairou town, about 30 miles outside Peking. Preparations were under way for more than 3,000 workshops during the 10-day Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, launched last night at a ceremony in Peking's Olympic Stadium. The forum, which runs in parallel with the UN World Conference on Women starting on Monday, has attracted more than 20,000 women and will cover subjects ranging from "Violence Against Women" and "Muslim Feminism", to "Cultural Factors Relevant to the Acceptance of the Female Condom".

In the "Grassroots" marquee, Rajeswari, from Tamil Nadu in India, introduced herself to the meeting: "I come from a fisherwomen's community. I have not even seen Madras city." Marie Engama, an illiterate peasant from Cameroun, pronounced: "The woman who lives in a village is a woman who works a lot." It was her first time abroad, she added, describing how her luggage had gone astray in Paris.

Delegates swapped tales about their introduction to China. "Yesterday when I took a shower, the water hit the wall, and the paint came off!" said Leilani Villanueva, of the Philippines. Many were shocked at the high prices of food and drink; at the Free Time Bar, a can of Tsingtao beer had been marked up 150 per cent from the normal shop price. As for the young Chinese volunteers, mostly students, they marvelled at their guests. "They are very beautiful. I have never seen so many foreigners and I like them very much. I haven't talked to them yet," said one 18- year-old woman, Liu Jingqi.

Logistics and Chinese security have caused much disgruntlement. Helen Orvig, a Norwegian who lives in Peru, said: "I am living far away from the NGO site, and that is a problem. Not only is Huairou far away from Peking, but I am far away from Huairou." Promised shuttle buses will not be fully in service until today.

"Security is too strict," complained Ung Yokkhoan, of the Cambodian Women's Movement. "At the front entrance [to the NGO site] yesterday they even checked my lipstick. They check everything in my bag. They make me take a picture with my camera to show it's a real camera."

At the site entrances yesterday security remained tight: no unauthorised Chinese could gain access. But inside, women's empowerment was already well under way as crowds surged through the metal detectors, cheerfully ignoring the alarms.