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THE UNSPOKEN DEBATE

The storm over an acceptable site for the NGO forum to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, scheduled for Beijing next August, has an unarticulated subtext about women's position in society. This subtext is expressed in the greater willingness among North American and European women to consider moving, rescheduling, or boycotting a forum that fails to meet acceptable site criteria.

The sense that comes through e-mail and personal soundings from many parts of the world is captured in the sentiment expressed to me by a colleague from India. American women always want everything. We are accustomed to much less and so lets get on with the forum whatever the limitations of the site. It is true: by and large American women do expect the Chinese to provide adequate facilities, open systems of communication, and assurances about visas and customs with regard to controversial people and materials. The issue is what lies behind this insistence on suitable conditions.

I would propose that the insistence represents a view that has emerged over the last decades. Historically, North American women have had to settle for what they could attain, no less than their Indian or other sisters from around the world. To reach back for an example into the earliest years of the US women's movement, after the US civil war, in which women had been a critical factor in the anti-slavery movement, black men, but no women, received the right to vote. More recently, the failure of comparable worth, the ERA, lack of Senate approval of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the battle to bring RU486 into the country all speak to women's limits in the domestic political system.

These more political events have made clear that without securing the recognized symbols of status and position, women will not secure the significant kinds of change that their platform for action demands. It is not likely that the UN will be able to affect nation- states to empower women citizens if women cannot command from the UN and their receptive countries the backing for a meeting place that meets adequate criteria. In a very real sense, the site dispute is the first debate of the forum.

Women will improve their lot worldwide, whatever the conditions in which they met in China next summer. Programs, ideas, alliances and a sense of the possible do not depend exclusively or primarily on the site. However, women will have made a major statement of a new position of importance in the world order for themselves, NGOs and their platform if they succeed in obtaining a proper site.

Marjorie Lightman International League for Human Rights May, 1995