With its known aversion to free speech - with thousands in its jails - and the infamous treatment of unwanted girl babies, China is hardly the obvious place for a conference on women. But then trade is fast becoming the main criterion for action and China, whose burgeoning market and huge population offer obvious attractions, is being handled with kid gloves. And after all, it's only women.
Even for those who've forgotten what happened in Tiananmen Square there's last week's sentencing and expulsion of the human rights worker Harry Wu. Other actions have been less widely reported. Last October, China passed a law mandating forced sterilisation of people with certain categories of mental illness and serious genetic disorders. There are strong suspicions that this law is used against the politically suspect. The policy is beingstrictly applied in Tibet; Tibetans are an "inferior race". As for women, a distressing recent television documentary, The Dying Rooms, showed understaffed orphanages where abandoned baby girls are left to die. The one-child policy has also meant forced sterilisation and abortion.
China is anxious about what might emerge from the large gathering of articulate and outspoken women in non-governmental organisations. Already their 36,000 representatives have been banished to a site 30 miles from the main conference in Peking, where there are no hotels, few telephones and no conference rooms. Six Taiwanese women's groups have been banned from attending unless they register as part of the Chinese delegation. Eight women's organisations from Tibet and several from Hong Kong have also been barred; any discussion of coercive family planning in Tibet has been removed from the agenda. Constraints are being put on whom delegates are allowed to talk to. After endless negotiating, bargains have been struck. It remains to be seen how effective these will be.
As to the conference - the official one - some delegates fear the result, far from setting the agenda for women's rights for the next millennium, will be a status quo document. The programme perpetuates the tendency to see women as disembodied economic agents, particularly since the draft Platform for Action is said to be weak on health and human rights. Violation of women's bodies and rights by political, cultural and family traditions greatly affects prospects for development - not to speak of what it does to women's human rights. But then it's only women, and it's only human rights.
The writer is editor of 'Index on Censorship', which has published a counter agenda to the Peking conference.Reuse content