Nairobi to Beijing: How far Have we Come?
by Joan McFarland
Since I am fortunate enough to have participated in both the 1985 conference in Nairobi, Kenya and the 1995 Beijing conference, I am interested in trying to compare what was happening then and now in the International Women's Movement.
Of course, I am using the term "conference" loosely. Two related events take place at these gatherings: A United Nations conference attended by government delegations which produced, in Nairobi, Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000 and, in Beijing, the Platform for Action; and an NGO (non-governmental organizations) Forum attended by NGO representatives and individuals. Reportedly, 17,000 participated in the Nairobi Forum and 31,000 in Beijing. The Forum's purpose is the sharing of information, networking and organizing between participants and lobbying delegates at the official conference. At both Nairobi and Beijing I attended the Forum only but my remarks will also reflect what took place at the official conferences.
I found the atmosphere similar at both conferences based on my experiences "on the ground"; that is, travelling in local buses, staying in budget accommodations and eating in local cafes. There was a strong feeling of "sisterhood," "celebration" and "consensus." Not to get into conversation with the woman next to you on a bus, in a meeting or at a cafe was unthinkable. In conferences of so many thousands of women, this produces a feeling that some have described as being in a multicultural city of women.
That is not to say that there were no differences of opinion. I personally witnessed very few such differences but they were reported in the Forum's daily newspapers. However, as often as not, these were planned events where different perspectives could be expressed and discussed with a view to achieving better understanding. Some of these took place at workshops or at the Peace Tent. In Nairobi, such conversations took place between American and Soviet women and Palestinian and Israeli women; meetings between Iranian delegates and Iranian women in exile were more hostile. In Beijing, meetings were arranged between North and South Korean women, Chinese and Japanese women (over the World War II "comfort women" issue) and clandestinely between other groups, for example, Chinese and Tibetan women. The Iranian delegates and Iranian women in exile, publicly at least, maintained their hostility to each other.