THE EARTH TIMES
MARCH 31- APRIL 14, 1995
‘We should never lost sight of women on whose behalf we are fighting’
By Ashali Varma
Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania is secretary general of the Fourth World Conference on Women, scheduled to be held in Beijing next September. Mongella has had a distinguished career on behalf of her country. She was Tanzania’s High Commissioner in India prior to her assignment at the United Nations. Mongella met with The Earth Times in New York for an extended interview. Excerpts:
In what ways will the Fourth World Conference on Women differ from the ones held before?
This is the conference where the world will recognize that women make the difference. All conferences held before have acknowledged the crucial contribution of women to peace and development. None as yet has said in a direct way that there will not be peace and developmentwithout the empowerment of women. The conferences held in Mexico in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985 adopted broad general guidelines for the advancement of women. What is required now is to agree on specific actions to be implemented by different sets of actors and specific targets to be achieved. Monitoring mechanisms are also required with a view to ensure that governments are held accountable for the Beijing targets. In Beijing governments should start transforming their words into deeds and announce commitments for action.
How will this conference advance women’s rights more than the recent United Nations
conferences in Cairo and Copenhagen?
Cairo and Copenhagen may be viewed as the building blocks toward Beijing. Cairo did
not only focus on the sexual and reproductive rights of women, but also on the fact that
without the empowerment of women, those rights could not be implemented or achieved.
Copenhagen adopted a Platform of Action to eradicate poverty, to promote employment
and to fight against social marginalization. Beijing will go a step further by identifying
specific actions required to ensure that the situation of women, politically, socially and
economically will significantly improve and by having benchmarks to measure progress.
What do you think are the vital issues in this Platform of Action?
The draft Platform of Action gives clear and specific action on the eleven critical areas
of concern as identified by the Commission on the Status of women. It sets forth specific
options to address poverty, decision-making, violence against women, economic empowerment, health, education. the human rights of women, the media and the environment. The most critical of all decisions in Beijing will be the institutional and financial arrangements that enable and motivate institutions to implement the Platform’s mandate.
The question of resources was a major issue at the World Summit on Social Development. Donors were not willing to pledge more money. Do you think this will also be an issue in Beijing?
First, the advancement of women is not merely a matter of resources. There are many actions governments can take to improve the status of women which do not cost more money, such as adopting new legal measures which prohibit discrimination against women; withdrawing a reservation to CEDAW (Convention to Eliminate Discrimination against Women) and allowing women to gain access to credit in their own names. Effective implementation of the Platform of Action will require more efficient deployment of and targeting of additional resources from sources at all levels.
Economic policies at the international level have had an adverse impact on women. Consequently, strategies aimed at foreign debt reduction or cancellation of debt, as well as those aimed at countering the decline of commodity prices in developing countries will greatly help.
What do you feel is the real challenge for acknowledging the rights of women in the
Platform of Action?
The real challenge and the most effective change would be that national governments achieve a critical mass (30 percent) of female representation by the year 2000 in decision making and legislative bodies. No country can call itself a democracy while half its population holds only one in ten seats in the legislature. Women must be included in policy-making to affect fundamental change.
There is a debate among some women that cultural and traditional roles are being
challenged and some countries would tend to agree. Will this pose a problem in drafting the Platform for Action?
It should be recalled that the primary objective of the Platform for Action is to remove existing obstacles as well as open up and widen the options available to women. The conference will emphasize their rights and responsibilities as well as the means to achieve their full participation in society. The United Nations has played a key role in the globalization of women’s issues and UN conferences have been crucial in establishing a platform of universal values which apply to women throughout the world.
Some delegates complain that the draft Platform for Action is not focused enough on
the critical issues and is too weak and imprecise. Can you comment on this?
The document now under discussion by the Commission on the Status of Women is the result of a comprehensive preparatory process which included contributions from governments, regional meetings, technical experts and the specialized agencies of the UN. In addition, the role of the Preparatory Committee is to foster participation and to enable every member state and NGO to have a say in the contents of the final draft. This process can be compared to a sponge which first has to absorb all possible inputs and then has to be squeezed into a prioritized and compressed text. It can be also compared to the role which parliaments play in democracies throughout the world.
Religious extremism is a critical issue for women and is a major force against women’s
rights in many countries. How will the Beijing Conference address this issue?
Any form of extremism is to be condemned because it is contrary to the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal declaration of Human Rights. Certainly, at Beijing, governments will recall that 1995 has been designated the International Year of Tolerance and that the UN stands for respect of diversity, open dialogue and promotes the process of consensus building.
What do you have to say about Amnesty International’s statement which is critical of the direction of this conference where governments seem to want to limit rather than promote women’s civil and political rights?
This is an intergovernmental conference. Indeed, it will be the role of governments to decide on the platform for Action. However, civil society has significantly influenced the preparatory process and will be represented at Beijing by thousands of NGOs. One of the main accomplishments of the past decade has been that NGOs have broken the silence around the violation of human rights of women and held governments accountable.
Have you received assurances that the Chinese Government will allow all accredited members to attend the conference?
In 1994, the United Nations and the Peoples’ Republic of China signed the agreement for holding the Fourth World Women’s Conference in China. As the host country for a global UN conference, China has agreed to admit into the country all those who the UN says should participate.
On a more personal note is there an experience in your life that you feel has best prepared you to head this conference on women?
As an African girl child I survived! This was advantage. My years as a teacher taught me communication skills and teaching skills. Later the position of Cabinet Minister in the government of Tanzania provided me with invaluable experience in the art of negotiations and tolerance towards other points of view. It also taught me that we should never lose sight of those women on whose behalf we are fighting for. Their needs and concerns must be foremost as it is through us that their voices can be heard.