Women's groups struggle with Peking

Attempts to adopt an agenda for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Peking in September, have become mired in bickering between official delegations and grass-roots lobby groups.

Preparatory meetings for the conference - at the United Nations' headquarters in New York for the past three weeks - should have concluded on Tuesday but it has been extended to at least tomorrow. It remains unclear whether by then the various controversies can be resolved.

Some of the disquiet among the many hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hoping to influence the conference focuses on China, not generally viewed as a champion of women's rights. Many groups believe that the Peking government is behind a decision to deny accreditation to nearly 500 groups that had planned to attend.

A list of those groups threatened with exclusion, including some lesbian organisations, has been published, and an appeal has been launched on their behalf. China has already made it clear, however, that it will severely restrict access for any groups from Taiwan and Tibet.

The Peking gathering follows a 1990 women's conference in Nairobi: its goal is to advance efforts to improve the position of women in world societies, focusing on issues like family-planning, economic opportunities and violence against women.

On Monday, China announced that a plan to allow the NGO delegates to stage their own forum in an athletics stadium close to the official conference itself had been scrapped, and that the NGOs instead would be housed in a tourist centre about an hour outside the city by bus.

Although Peking provided documentation signed by 14 architects claiming that the 1961 stadium had been found to have structural faults and was dangerous, the move has only heightened suspicion that the Chinese authorities are trying to limit their influence of grass-roots groups.

Work by government delegates on the conference's text has also been dogged by reportedly poor drafting and bad chairmanship.

One EU delegate said: "To put it frankly, what we are trying to do is make a dreadful text adequate, rather than an adequate text good. What we have now makes me weep, it's an embarrassment."

"If we can get away without this conference being a total disaster it will be an achievement."

NGO representatives accuse Western governments of trying to water down the document, for example, by excising one provision demanding a 50 per cent minimum participation by women in national governments. "The basic thing is women's participation in decision-making", said Bella Abzug, a prominent women's rights advocate and former member of the US congress. "There are people here who are frightened that women might get a little power."

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