Beating the Backlash

A U.S. Negotiator Details the Fight to Expand Feminist Gains at the UN’s Special Session on Women

Linda Tarr-Whelan slept only six hours between Monday and Friday last week. From early morning of one day into dawn of the next, she fought over words and phrases with top-level government officials from around the world. Five years after the Fourth World Conference for Women was held in Beijing, Tarr-Whelan joined 2300 delegates from 188 countries at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly, held June 5 to 9 in New York City.

In Beijing, delegates drafted a 150-page Platform for Action, which set concrete goals for improving women's lives. Delegates at this year's event, known as Beijing+5, produced a follow-up report measuring progress and strategizing for the future. Inside the UN's fluorescent-lit conference rooms, delegates debated everything from sex-trafficking to abortion to domestic violence to globalization's impact on women. Twelve hundred journalists covered the event. And several thousand representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also showed up, lobbying delegates and attending dozens of panels, workshops, and celebrations around Manhattan.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at the Beijing+5 negotiations, the Voice talked to Linda Tarr-Whelan, the U.S. ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Tarr-Whelan served as co-deputy chair of the U.S. delegation. She is a 35-year veteran of the feminist movement and president of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that studies women's issues.

illustration by Christopher Ryniiak

What did Beijing+5 accomplish? We recommitted ourselves to all the goals of the Beijing Platform for Action. There's been a lot of progress since Beijing, and the thing that happens when you start to get progress is that you also get a backlash. It wasn't any too sure that we were going to be able to reaffirm all parts of the Beijing platform.

Pushing Women's Rights: Linda Tarr-Whelan

And we made an awful lot of progress on a number of issues, [including] trafficking in women and children, and globalization—to be sure that as globalization takes place, women don't become the folks on the bottom who take the burden of it all.

While you were negotiating, some activists began calling this event "Beijing Minus Five" because they were concerned that a small group of countries—including Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Algeria, and Iran—would dilute the Beijing Platform for Action. What were the sticking points? There were two sets of problems going on in terms of [reaching] a consensus. One [involved] Islamic countries and to some degree Catholic countries, and that was really around issues of abortion and reproductive health.

There was, however, another set of tensions that didn't receive much press. [Some] women—particularly from Latin America, southern Africa, and the Caribbean nations—had a different agenda about where they wanted to move forward than did some of the northern countries. They were terribly concerned about globalization and about issues of violence, particularly domestic violence and marital rape. And they were pretty uninterested in issues like "sexual rights."

Many activists urged delegates to protect women's sexual rights, which they defined as including freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Did you accomplish this? The term isn't in the document. A lot of people had hoped to say what this actually is, because the history of dealing with women's human rights issues has been that you had to name [an issue] before you could really begin to work on it. Domestic violence was essentially named at the Mexico City conference [on women in 1975]. Trafficking was essentially named at the Beijing conference. People wanted to name this issue here in order to work on it more in the future.

How can the Platform for Action and the new five-year follow-up report—which are not binding and which most people will never read—actually improve women's lives? First of all, governments actually committed themselves in Beijing and recommitted themselves [in New York City] to achieve women's equality. That's a pretty stirring and dramatic agreement for countries to make, particularly countries with very different cultures and backgrounds.

They are really making progress because of the strength of the international women's movement, particularly the NGOs, which have expanded extraordinarily since Beijing. I thought 50,000 women in one place was incredible. But now there's no way to count the number of women who are connected—particularly through the Internet—and can share strategies for ways that they have moved their governments forward.

The Beijing Platform for Action included a goal of filling 30 percent of political decision-making positions with women by 2005. But in the past five years, the percentage of women in these jobs has only risen from 10 percent to 13 percent. Is this still a realistic goal? It's been reached in a number of countries, and in the United States it's been reached in a number of states, even though it has not been reached nationally. We're down at the bottom of industrialized countries in terms of women's political participation at the national level. But I do think [this goal] is realistic.

In India, for example, at the village level they've changed the structure of the elections—and there's legislation pending in the parliament to do this at the national level—where a third of the seats are reserved for women. Now at the village level, there are 1 million women in office.

Next Page »