After Emotionally Charged Meeting, Women Hope to Form Global Networks
Sep. 09, 1995
HUAIROU, China (AP) _ In the muddy, spartan surroundings of a small town in China, the world women's movement may have been transformed.
In the past 10 days, more than 25,000 women came together at Huairou from every continent, trading ideas, exchanging e-mail addresses, finding allies for their causes in the unlikeliest places.
During nine full days of seminars and workshops, American women were exposed to the horrors of women being killed in Algeria. Korean feminists learned about how American campuses combat sexual harassment. American Indians compared notes with Australian aborigines on claiming land rights.
Now, as more and more of these women plug into the Internet, they are poised to form truly global pressure groups, which in turn means more effective lobbying of national governments and the United Nations.
``I don't think the world will ever be the same again,'' said Brownie Ledbetter, an activist from Little Rock, Ark. ``Here we have women networking from all over the world, across incredible barriers. And with faxes and the Internet, it will grow even more.''
That Israelis and Palestinians could attend workshops without waging shouting matches; that black and white South Africans could discuss the pros and cons of unmarried motherhood; that Russian and American women could talk about the career-or-family dilemma _ all these were reminders of how much the world has changed since the last such conference in 1985.
The 1985 conference, in Nairobi, was attended by delegates representing 300 non-governmental organizations recognized by the United Nations. At Huairou there were more than 3,000.
It was the United Nations that drew them to Huairou by holding the Fourth World Conference of Women in Beijing. Many came specifically to lobby the world body. Others in Huairou felt the U.N. meeting, an hour's drive away, was the sideshow.
``I think the outcome of the U.N. conference will be sweet nothing,'' said Dr. Hema Goonatilake, a Sri Lankan gender studies expert. ``The real action is here, sharing and learning, forming networks.''
The sheer enormity of the gathering makes its lessons difficult to assess so soon.
For many, it was a moving, sometimes wrenching experience. Poignant images, sad and happy, tumble from a reporter's notebook:
_As a workshop on birth control broke up, black and white women from South Africa suddenly erupted into a joyous Zulu folk song called ``Honor the name of the woman.''
_At a seminar on Algeria, a woman burst into tears. She had just been told that a close woman friend had been slain by Islamic militants back home. Another woman took her in her arms.
_At the women-in-politics discussion, the moderator asked how many of the 100 women in the audience had run for office. No hands were raised. How many had worked on a political campaign? Almost every hand went up.
_Winding up a seminar, Chinese and American architects joined arms and sang ``Auld Lang Syne.'' The older Chinese had learned the archaic English lyrics from missionaries in pre-Communist times.
Questioned at random, every woman described an idea she picked up from someone else.
Judi Fortuin heard a Nigerian gynecologist describe a survey he conducted in his country on abortion and society's attitudes to it. She immediately resolved to do the same when she got home to South Africa. ``I was very excited,'' she said.
Elizabeth Sinclair, an American working for the Body Shop chain of stores, learned about connecting the Internet through ham radio operators to villages that have no phone lines. She plans to suggest her company donate computers to Third World women's groups that cannot afford them.
She said it was vital for non-governmental groups to keep in touch electronically. ``There are groups in different countries doing the same work who've never heard of each other. They can't wait another five years for the next conference.''
Jelica, who withheld her surname, met Asian lesbians and discovered they were more organized than in her native Serbia. ``We found that others have built a skyscraper while we're still building the first step.''
From Filipino lesbians she learned how to compile a directory of lesbian-friendly services _ dentists, doctors, repairmen.
Women like Jelica, and Sandi Gonzales, an American Indian, and Parvin Samadzadeh, an Iranian exile in Toronto, begged and borrowed to pay the air fare to China. Samadzadeh came to campaign against Islamic fundamentalism. Gonzales wanted to meet other aboriginals.
``I came here feeling tired of struggling and fighting for 20 years, and I really needed some new energy,'' said Gonzales. Finding kindred spirits from across the globe ``has given me a tremendous amount of energy to go back and continue the struggle.''
Catherine Powell, an American, watched a Canadian woman demonstrate a Brazilian technique for teaching economics to lay people. ``It was an incredible demystification of the subject, and I as a lawyer would like to use the same technique to teach the law.''
Linda Julien, a Canadian lawyer, said she found that her problems pale in comparison with some women.
``It hit me the hardest when I heard an Ethiopian woman stand up and say she was irritated at how much attention was being paid to lesbian rights while there were women who were just trying to survive. ... I mean, here we are talking about getting more women into parliament, and they are struggling just to stay alive.''