To Go or Not To Go: The Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women

Author(s): Jael Silliman and Ellen Dorsey
Date Published: July 20, 2006

SHOULD WOMEN'S GROUPS BOYCOTT the Fourth World Women's Conference on Beijing? If we participate do we legitimize an illegitimate process? If we boycott the Conference do we leave the field to those who do not have women's best interest in mind?

The process leading up to the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women, while building and extending the dynamic transnational women's movement, has recently produced confusion, dissension and tension. Controversies regarding the suitability of the site for the NGO Forum and the fairness of the accreditation process have deflected attention away from substantive issues and sapped NGOs' energies and resources that are essential for a meaningful and effective forum at Beijing. The world's women are working to ensure that this will be a "conference of commitments," but there are many forces intent on derailing the momentum of the women's movement. This vitiated atmosphere has led many women to question whether Beijing will be an important site for extending coalitions, building the momentum for new public policies and making decisions about what is needed to improve conditions for women.

With the Conference site until recently contested, the accreditation process highly politicized and the visa situation cumbersome, many registered participants for the NGO Forum are unsure if they should proceed with their plans to participate in Beijing. The lack of transparency of UN processes, the fact that NGOs were shut out of meaningful participation at the last preparatory meeting in New York, dismay over the fact that 60% of the Platform of Action is still in dispute, and lack of leadership from the Secretary General Gertrude Mongella have all exacerbated tensions and fissures within the transnational women's movement. Nevertheless, it is especially important that in this critical three-month period preceding the conference that women be intensively engaged in building coalitions in order to be a forceful presence at Beijing.

Recently, fragile coalitions between grassroots movements and those more closely involved and committed to using UN fora to advance women's concerns have been strained. Turf battles and differences of opinion have intensified between those recommending an accommodationist strategy and those calling the entire UN conference process into question. Some argue that Beijing is an opportunity to extend the gains made at previous conferences and therefore do not think it pragmatic to use the forum to critique China for its human rights abuses and other efforts to repress civil society. Others within the movement think it is essential that China's intensified repression against its own people's movements be challenged frontally at Beijing. Many women's organizations were troubled that Beijing was determined to be a suitable venue for this important conference and remain skeptical of having a successful conference there. The question of complicity by participation is an on-going fear. At the same time women are concerned that a weak showing or boycott by NGOs may assist those forces that are seeking to limit women's participation and effectiveness in UN proceedings.

Around the world women are debating whether or not to attend the NGO Forum, and if they do participate, on what terms. Should pressure on governments and the UN be intensified to ensure access and full participation, or is China meeting the terms of the contract to host the meeting? At what point do we say that the interests being sacrificed-those of Tibetan women, Taiwanese women, gay women, etc.-are so central to our values of equity and full participation that conceding to their exclusion would compromise our integrity? Have the UN conferences focused our attention so much on our role in the UN system that we, as an increasingly powerful movement, have not had the time to discuss and articulate our central values apart from UN processes? Should scarce material and human resources be invested when the outcomes are so uncertain? Should our focus be on the conference process and NGO participation or on the substance and language in the Beijing document, or something entirely different-such as the institutions of the global economy and militarism which are most responsible for the disenfranchisement of women? To what extent can we separate these concerns? How much energy should be invested in post-Beijing strategies? Finally, have UN conferences outlived their efficacy for expanding the participation of people's movements in global governance?

The Beijing Conference process has brought out many of these questions that have been simmering beneath the surface of the apparent successes of the transnational women's movement. While the last few UN conferences have provided an important space for women to bring their concerns to the attention of world governments and international agencies, it is unclear how effective this mechanism has been in terms of attaining real gains for women. Perhaps, we need to explore whether there are more effective ways to affirm the transnational process of advancing women's rights independent of UN fora, which leave women prone to the political machinations of nations states. We need to decide how much energy should be invested in getting the "correct language" in UN documents, especially because by definition this necessitates close working relationships with governments and therefore inevitable compromises. Some women contend that the UN process has mainstreamed the radical nature of the women's movement. Others question whether national and international NGOs who dominate these conferences can truly speak for grassroots movements. We need to pay attention to issues of representation and accountability that have not been worked out to ensure the integrity of this assumed relationship. And, we need to establish upon what grounds to adopt strategies of compromise or strategies of resistance.

There are no simple answers to these complex questions and there has been no space for women to collectively assess the situation and determine which way to proceed. The Secretary General has made no bold statements and does not have the infrastructure and funds she needs to be an effective leader of this Conference. And the US government has made no effort to put forward an agenda of its own. Despite these difficulties, women's organizations must be adamant that if the NGO Conference site is accepted and plans for an NGO Forum proceed, our energies be invested in ensuring that this is indeed a "conference of commitments." We need to be thinking about strategies to take Beijing forward. If the Conference site is boycotted, we must harness the energies we have invested in all the regional and preparatory meetings to date to bolster the women's movement around the world. We must not enable others, be it China, the UN, other nation states, the Vatican or fundamentalists to determine the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women. It is our challenge to define the direction we will take as we move together towards Equality, Development and Peace.