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‘Beijing must build on Cairo, Copenhagen’


MARCH 14, 1994


‘Beijing must build on Cairo, Copenhagen’

Joke Swiebel is Coordinator of International Affairs at the Ministry of Social  Affairs and Employment of the Netherlands.  Head of the Dutch delegation to the current session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Swiebel has been directly involved with the Commission since 1988 when she went to Vienna for a Commission meeting.  She also attended the Nairobi Conference when she was a member of her government’s delegation.  Joke (pronounced You-kah) Swiebel spoke with The Earth Times last week. Excerpts:

What should be the main focus for an agenda for women?

The main focus –there are many different things that women from different parts of the world would like to stress, but given the context that we are now in I think we should concentrate on things now–is to catch up with developments after the Nairobi Conference.  If you compare the discussions that have taken place in the Commission on the Status of Women since Nairobi and our discussions here, I think you would see several new things such as defining women’s issues as human rights issues, violence and poverty.  Poverty has for a long time been defined as a developmental issue.  But it is not solely a development issue.  You can also tackle it from a human rights perspective, basic economic and political rights.  To give a new focus to old themes is one of the priorities, and bringing in new themes like human rights and violence of women.  Another new focus is that we shouldn’t be speaking of women. as the targets.  We should talk about men not only about sharing the burden of household tasks, child care, etc. Men will have to gain a new definition of what it si to be a woman or man in a society.

Do you think it si a good idea for the conference to be held in China, since China does not have a good human rights record, especially where women are concerned?

China was already decided because there is the principle of geographical and regional rotation which is standard practice at the UN, and also since no other Asian country volunteered.  It was decided two years ago to go ahead with the Chinese effort.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  Everybody knows that there are enormous human rights problems in China, but the question is how we are going to deal with this issue now.  It is not a Conference organized by China.  It’s a UN conference.  There are standard rates and practices and China as a host country will be bound by these.  On the other hand, it will be an enormous opportunity to get  in touch with Chinese women which we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

There will be number of UN conferences in 1995–Population, Social Summit, Women.  Will there be enough resources available, and isn’t there a danger of ‘conference fatigue?

There will be conference fatigue after Beijing I’m sure, but whether there will be enough resources is the issue.  We should keep in mind the different kinds of resources involved–human, financial and political resources are at stake, but in the end I think the most important thing is intellectual resources.  We must know why we want this conference on women to take place on top of all the other conference on women to take place on top of all the other conferences.  It is to make a very specific decision and to analyze the previous conferences.  What this conference should do is from a gender perspective take specific contributions to the preparatory processes of the other conferences.  And second, is to estimate what comes out of Cairo and Copenhagen from our perspective.  We should build on it from our mandate and our interests.

How can small agencies such as INSTRAW and UNIFEM be strengthened to deal with women’s issues especially after Beijing?

Experience from the national level is that women’s affairs always are less funded than other issues.  I’m an optimist, but we have to work within existing constraints not only of a financial nature but mainly of a political nature. People in power –the men–always think that women do things for nothing.  That’s what we’re used to at home.  You need an enormous amount of political will and administrative pressure and support.  We have to keep the pressure on.

You said that the national machinery should cooperate with NGOs and women’s groups, yet take into account the independent role of NGOs vis-à-vis governmental responsibilities.  Can you elaborate on this?

I think it has to do basically with the concept of democracy.  In a country like ours there is a fair amount of funding, of subsidies to NGOs, and I think this funding should, not be taken to mean that the NGOs in one way or the other lose their independence. Maybe in some cases governments like our subsidize the NGOs precisely in order to stimulate that critical function we need.  But you should never think that NGOs should be funded  because they might be forced to go in line with the existing political system.  Governments should not buy off NGOs and NGOs should nto think that they have the right to included in governmental business, simply because they get the money.  They have to be clearly separated.

Is the “empowerment of women” the one binding factor despite economic, cultural and regional differences around the world?

Sure, I think this is the difference between the Beijing Conference and Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi.  Because then it was not that clear, that in the end there ws that common denomination or perspective among delegation.

Of course, it has to do with the changed political environment globally.  But this common position despite political naunces and regional issues isn’t that easy.  You can’t say we are all in harmony so why do we need conference.  There is a common perspective among delegates more that there was ever before, but in order to get it out we need some real hark work.  Besides the common view on women’s empowerment, there are other forces working in countries, regions and political systems which differ.  This will keep us busy till we get to Beijing.  In the end I’m very optimistic.