Focus of population conference is turning to women

September 05, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- Women want more power over their lives, they are saying at the United Nations conference on global overcrowding, which formally opens today.

The conference already is becoming a forum on women's rights, with "empowerment" the buzzword, and agendas are heavy with women's issues, to an extent some say is rare in such world conferences.

"It's a women's conference," said a pleased Roxanna Carrillo, a Peruvian representative of UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Others are wary that the emphasis on women's rights will add divisiveness to the Cairo gathering and shift attention from the larger picture of birth control.

The usual aim of international population conferences, held only once each decade, has been development of a global strategy for curbing overpopulation.

"For the first time, the U.N. and the world is now working with women," said Ms. Carrillo. "Every single population policy in the last 30 years has failed because it wasn't done with participation of women."

"So much of our agenda deals with empowerment of women," Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, said yesterday in remarks opening the companion forum of nongovernmental organizations attending the conference.

The forum agenda includes women's topics ranging from the traditions of Argentine Indian women, to pesticide-free farming projects for rural women.

More emotional issues being thrust higher onto agendas include violence against women, allowing women to determine family size, and giving them legal and political rights.

"We made special efforts to involve women," said the chairwoman of the population conference, Pakistani physician Nafis Sadik. "Women have been very poorly represented in the international process up to now.

"We believed that women's interests can be adequately represented only by those who know firsthand what women think; that is, by women themselves," she said.

But the emphasis on women's issues risks adding yet another controversy to a conference already grappling with abortion and contraception.

To some Third World views, the concept of an independent and equal woman is a Western idea that violates their customs and religion.

Conservative Muslims, for example, believe that men are obligated to make family decisions, including decisions about the contraception practices of their wives.

"Let's face it -- any change is threatening," said Ms. Carrillo. "Some men fear losing their privileges. But in the end, their societies as a whole will be better if the other half of the society -- women -- are participating."

The high profile of women's issues at this population conference is a continuation of the emerging strength of women's groups at a conference on human rights in Vienna, Austria, in 1993.

But will all the talk translate into increased power for women in their own countries? Women lawmakers met here last weekend to try to plan how to implement some of the conference goals in their countries. At a Women's Forum meeting yesterday, female delegates from Asia upset tradition by telling men in their group that they could not be the leaders.

"I think the process of solidarity you see here will be a boost for the self-esteem of these women," said Ms. Carrillo. "It's going to be a source of enlightenment for many women when they are exposed to these ideas."

Navanethem Pillay, an Indian lawyer in South Africa and head of an organization called Equality Now, acknowledged that the demands for more women's rights at the conference "will be ineffectual unless governments act on the rhetoric."

But she said she thinks that will happen if women continue to make their demands public.

"Women found they were invisible when they were silent," she said. "It's harder to ignore them when these voices are very public. It's not just one woman's weak cry inside a house anymore."

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