Violence against women, poverty and rising fundamentalism are emerging as the main concerns of delegates at the non-governmental forum for women being held outside Peking. Despite rain which turned the conference site into a mud-bath, thousands of delegates clutching umbrellas trudged from one workshop to the next yesterday, determined to define the agenda before Monday's opening of the official United Nation's World Conference on Women.
The day's 300-plus workshops ranged from trafficking in women, and Muslim feminism, to how the Internet can benefit the women's movement in developing countries. Much attention this week has been paid to whether China is a suitable host for a UN conference. But within the forum's packed meeting rooms yesterday, women focused on wider issues such as the use of rape as a military weapon, genital mutilation in Africa and the abuse of the rights of girls across the world. The former Yugoslavia was cited in evidence during a discussion on the question of rape and women's suffering during war.
At a plenary session, a Croatian women's rights activist, Vesna Kesic, said 30,000 women had been raped as part of the "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia, and that 4 million people had been displaced, mostly women and children. "Women's bodies are once again battlefields for big ideas."
In the Africa region tent, where groups from across the continent meet to co-ordinate action, Veronica Iddi, from Ghana said: "The most important issue is how to raise our economic power. If economically we are sound, we will be free to speak out, and send our children to school. It is poverty that is the limitation." At a workshop on the "African girl-child", women lecturers catalogued the abuses and iniquities in their own countries. In Nigeria, girls working as prostitutes in long-distance lorry parks commonly have three abortions by the time they are 14. In Uganda, the rate of HIV infection for 15-19 year old females is six times that for boys of the same age.
The use of rape as an "ethnic cleansing" weapon in Rwanda during that country's three-month genocidal rampage last year was recounted by Felicite Layika. "Women were at the centre of the tragedy without being responsible for it," she said. More than 1 million women died, 250,000 were widowed, and up to 400,000 children were orphaned.
The rise of religious fundamentalism was a common concern of Third World activists. At a workshop organised by the All-India Women's Conference a Bangladeshi said: "If we are to achieve equality of women in the 21st century, we must fight fundamentalism." Sudha Acharya, an organiser, said religion had become "politicised and in many countries is used as an excuse for repression" ... "Every religion has something positive to offer, but what men do with religion affects women's lives."
About 19,000 women have arrived for the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, taking place in Huairou, an hour's drive from Peking. Part of their brief is to lobby the parallel governmental conference over the content of a draft "Platform for Action" for women's development which will be voted through when the meeting ends on 15 September.
About 25 per cent of the document is still not agreed, and traditional battle lines have once again been drawn, especially on whether human rights should be considered "universal", and on the definition of reproductive rights. Developing countries also want firm pledges on the allocation of funds to ensure the content of the platform will be implemented.
Mwape Lubilo, from the Family Life Movement of Zambia, said: "Our governments have said so much and agreed to do so much in the past. What we want out of Peking is total commitment, and when we go back home we want implementation."
The Vatican has sent a 22-strong delegation, headed by a Harvard law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, who is due to arrive today. Backed by a number of delegations from conservative Catholic states and some Islamic countries, the Vatican team is seeking to dilute the wording agreed at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development last year.
Also in town is the US-based Catholics for Free Choice, whose president, Frances Kissling, said: "We find that Catholics worldwide, in majority numbers, simply disagree with the Church and this Pope on women's rights." Other NGO delegates agreed. Wania Sant Anna, from Brazil, said: "My view is the view of all Latin American women. You should not change any of the words which were agreed at the Cairo conference."
New to these well-rehearsed debates are the Chinese NGO delegates, who can be seen in small groups walking through the forum site.
Few seem to speak good enough English to follow the workshops or engage in casual discussions.
But one Chinese woman who spoke reasonably fluently, when asked about the information available at the forum, said: "I think there's a lot of fresh air in here."
She regretted that her group had been billeted in a hotel 90 minutes' drive away from Huairou, and that they were never allowed to stay for the evening's cultural activities.