Women's forum ends in rain and tears

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The Independent Online


The largest international gathering of women closed last night with lion dancers, hugs and tears, complaints about theft - and one last row over censorship. The final ceremony in Huairou, site of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, was a fitting ending. It rained, and the Chinese authorities silenced an Australian dance-and-storytelling troupe, but most women said they were pleased with what the 10-day forum had accomplished.

The focus now will be on the official United Nations World Conference on Women, which continues until next Friday at the Peking International Convention Centre. While tortuous negotiations struggled on in committee rooms over the working of the conference document on women's rights, the day was marked by the detention by Chinese police of a Hong Kong television crew and a lesbian protest action inside the plenary hall.

In Huairou, bags were being packed and addresses exchanged as women reflected on their experiences at the forum. "I met women from all over the world," said Lee Forgarty, a psychologist from the United States, who had come to the NGO Forum with her daughter. "I went to three workshops a day. Some were wonderful, some were not so good."

Ophelia Agwuna, a lawyer from Nigeria, said: "I wanted to expose the problems that widows suffer in my country, and we did."

There also were complaints. "A lot of workshops were cancelled, and they did not inform us," said Professor Rupa Shaha, from India. The Forum organisation was "very messy", said Martha Rosenberg, of Argentina, who had arrived half way through the meeting because of difficulties obtaining a Chinese visa. Transportation difficulties and the lack of English-speaking Chinese were the most commonly cited problems faced by the 23,500 foreign women who had come to Huairou, an hour's drive from Peking.

After all the rows over excessive Chinese security, it was only right that there should be one last confrontation. At the Forum's closing ceremony, an Australian was briefly blocked by Chinese plainclothes officials from going onstage to perform a fire dance. One story was to include the tale of an imprisoned Tibetan nun. After intervention by the conference's chief organiser, Supatra Masdit, the Chinese allowed the Australians to go on - provided they only danced, and did not speak.

The thousands of uniformed and plainclothes security personnel failed, however, to stop a number of end-of-forum thefts. About 100 T-shirts were stolen on Thursday evening from the booth run by Unifem, a United Nations body.

Meanwhile, China's propaganda machine swung into action with a six- page explanation of why "the position and conditions of Chinese women are in no way inferior to the situation of the women in the United States and are indeed much better on the whole".

The Xinhua news agency report said that since 1953, 90 per cent of Chinese women had voted in various elections, while in the US, voter turnout in congressional elections was only 30 to 40 per cent. Xinhua did not specify which Chinese elections.