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Half-empty or half-full for women?

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

The good news is that there wasn't much bad news. The brakes were kept on the backsliders. The leash was yanked on the backtrackers. Even the backlash was kept in its holster.

The United Nations conference for women brought 4,500 delegates and grass-roots organizers here for a five-year checkup on the Platform for Action approved at the global meeting for women in Beijing in 1995. It was a 150-page plan that covered issues from violence to economic development.

This time, at a meeting bearing the mundane name ``Beijing Plus Five,'' there was fear that the plan would be watered down with diplomatic phrases. So the results were greeted with relief if not celebration.

But now as the women head home, do we assess this half-decade of international women's rights as half-full or half-empty?

Half-full? The idea that women's rights are human rights has finally solidified. Some 20 years ago, it was a radical thought. Today it's an international cliche.

Honor killings and bride burnings and female genital mutilation are no longer regarded as ``cultural'' matters but human rights abuses. The sexual trafficking in women, which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned here, isn't another spinoff of the global economy, but an international scandal.

``Women are on the agenda and in the public space in ways we weren't. Governments are being held accountable for what they said they were doing for women,'' says Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women's Global Leadership.

Half-empty? The world has barely begun to implement the commitments made in Beijing. Many countries thought a token signature on a token document would get them off the hook. Others from the Vatican to Libya remain adamantly opposed to parts of the platform, especially reproductive rights.

Also, many countries have failed to meet the Beijing timetable for repealing laws that discriminate against women, such as inheritance and custody laws. And five years out, the path to progress is neither straight nor sure.

Consider Kuwait. Five years ago, Kuwait was the only country where men could vote and women could not. It still is.

Over breakfast one conference day, Fatima Al-Abdali, an engineer and activist, her hair covered in the traditional black scarf, intensely explained the tangled struggle for women's suffrage in Kuwait. This is a country where more than half the college graduates are women, but still can't vote or hold office.

During the 1991 invasion when women worked and fought beside men, Al-Abdali says, ``women were called the sisters of men of Kuwait. That means we were equal.'' When the war was over, ``we thought the vote would come automatically.''

A year later, they were sorely disappointed. One year after the next, the Parliament turned down the women's vote. Even when the emir - in a political end run - supported suffrage, it lost.

This year Al-Abdali, whose daughter is studying architecture in Oklahoma, became one of five women to challenge the election law as unconstitutional; one case is now headed for the constitutional court. ``The thing that is bothering us is that the government is now saying women are not ready enough, not aware enough, not political enough. So many `not enoughs.'''

When are there enough ``not enoughs''? In many places, like Kuwait, the reality and the fear of a fundamentalist backlash are inhibiting the progress governments promised when they signed the plan. Today, women's rights are sometimes put on hold or bargained away to keep the fundamentalists at bay.

As Charlotte Bunch looks ahead to the next half-decade - half-full or half- empty? - she wonders not just about the out and out political battles with reactionaries but this ``undertow'' of resistance that may actually get worse with globalization.

``In places where people feel threatened by globalization of the economy or the culture, people try to hang on to what they can control,'' she worries. ``They identify women and family with traditional areas to control.''

So in the half-full half-decade, there is the emerging international movement toward equality. A grass-roots connection has been made by women and their male allies across the world who find support and nourishment with each other.

In the half-empty half-decade? A resistance to women's independence, especially for sexual and reproductive rights, remains strong.

At this checkup, women shored up a platform to stand on. But they don't want to stand still.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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