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Sisterhood is Powerful:
Transforming Rhetorical Promises into Realities

By Marcia L. Mason

"Our call is to build real democracies, not hypocrisies. Our call is to nurture and strengthen all families. Our call is to build communities, not only markets. Our call is to stop nuclear testing. Our call is to scale the great wall around women everywhere."
-Bella Abzug, co-founder & co-chair, Women's Environment & Development Organization
In the previous issue of World Citizen News, I described how women have built their networking and political skills over a twenty-year period of meetings held in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) emerging as significant voices on the global scene.

But the history of women's organizations began long before with the suffragette movement in England in the early 1830s. In most Protestant nations, women achieved the right to vote by 1920. However, women in Catholic countries such as France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Switzerland did not receive the vote until after the Second World War. In 1964, the United Nations affirmed for all the right to vote, thus including women in the remaining countries.

Because there was such massive opposition to women's right to participate in politics, women had to organize themselves to fight for their rights. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their small numbers and isolation made their success in building movements for women's legal and political equality all the more impressive. We have since seen the rapid growth of women's organizations, especially U.N. NGOs, and how women's activism is having a tremendous impact on both the electoral and legislative processes in the U.S. and abroad.

Today, one important manifestation of women's organizational solidarity is the Platform for Action that governments signed at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This platform explicitly affirms that the rights expected by all women should be considered our basic human rights and that the purpose and principles cherished in the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reaffirm those rights (as the World Government of World Citizens has been claiming since 1953).

Developing transnational agreements is only one part of the overwhelming task of insuring justice for half the world's population. The other critical part is to monitor government actions so that the commitments that have been made are transformed into realities.

Monitoring entails overseeing budgets, evaluating program plans, developing new indicators to measure compliance with health and human rights standards, as well as developing sensitivity to gender concerns within biomedical and social science.

To manage the oversight process, women have formed two monitoring mechanisms: one is Women Watching ICPD (International Conference on Population Development), initiated by the Women's Caucus at the 1994 U.N. Population and Development Conference in Cairo; the other is Earth Summit Watch formed after the 1992 U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro. These groups will oversee the implementation of the Platform's stated commitments.

Working Towards Platform Implementation

Barriers to realizing the principles of the Beijing Platform vary from country to country, but some problems are common: first, lack of awareness of the Platform on the part of governments and NGOs; second, lack of concern for women's issues among policy makers and program designers; third, a lack of resources to make these issues a priority; and, finally, religious and social traditions that must be overcome, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Another concern is the role of transnational corporations in shaping local policies. According to Vandana Shiva, co-chair of the Women's Environment and Development Organization, "There is a new totalitarianism, which is what free trade is all about: global corporate rule. Protections are being dismantled as obstacles to trade. . . . Of the top 100 economies in the world, more than 60 percent are not countries, they are corporations. . . . We are seeing the emergence of global corporations whose turnover is higher than the GNP of entire countries and the dissolution of allegiances due to the new corporate rule. In the post-Beijing era, women should be watching TNCs and other big international organizations. We want to watch, and not be watched."

In addition, there is a need for NGOs to continually assess how donor institutions, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank, shape development priorities and policy implementation. In an era when governments are increasingly abdicating their responsibilities in the social sector, it is imperative that NGOs rushing to fill the gap examine the sources and nature of funding they receive for their activities. It is important to gauge the extent to which donor policies and programs have incorporated the principles of the Platform.

Update on Women's Actions in 1996

This has been a year of great activity among local women's groups. By linking local struggles to global concerns, grassroots work leads to policy changes by governments and builds organizational strength. Examples include:

As long as the present system of nation-state government remains in place, women must continue to organize their movements, plan strategies with allies, and pressure governments and international organizations to ensure reproductive health, safety, choice and freedom for all the world's women.

"Change is not about simply mainstreaming women. It's not about women joining the polluted stream. It's about cleaning the stream, changing stagnant pools into fresh, flowing waters.

Our struggle is about resisting the slide into a morass of anarchy, violence, intolerance, inequality and injustice.

Our struggle is about reversing the trends of social, economic and ecological crisis. For women in the struggle for equality, there are many paths to the mountain top. . . .

Our struggle is about creating sustainable lives and attainable dreams.

Our struggle is about creating violence-free families. And then, violence-free streets. Then, violence-free borders.

For us to realize our dreams, we must keep our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground."

-Bella Abzug, WEDO co-founder & co-chair, from her speech to the Plenary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, September 12, 1995.

Under a World Government of World Citizens based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with world laws upheld by a world court, many of the most blatant problems women and children face today would be diminished to isolated cases and eventually become nonexistent. Women could then focus their energy on building real democracies, establishing secure communities, and nurturing and strengthening the world's families.

Note: Much of this information was taken from WEDO's "News & Views," Vol. 8, Nos. 3-4, December 1995.

Marcia L. Mason is a feminist, Quaker, peace activist, world citizen, and World Syntegrity Project alumna who lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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