The more than 30,000 women attending the 1995 Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum and Fourth World Conference on Women in China shared a feeling of commonality. As a participant, I was struck daily by the ease with which women from completely different cultures and backgrounds came together to talk, work, and make connections with their sisters from around the world.
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Women, whether from Islamic countries, Africa, India, or northern Europe, have the same goals for themselves and their daughters: to make a better life for women and girls. In her book Beyond Beijing, Joan Chittister articulates the experiences we shared there.
Chittister was a member of the Peace Train delegation, 230 women from 42 nations who traveled by train from Helsinki to Beijing. The train stopped in nine countries to link up with women's groups and hold discussions and seminars on issues they face. Alternating journal entries with articles she sent back for publication in the National Catholic Reporter, Chittister speaks to a universal experience. Her trip was a mix of heavy philosophical exchanges combined with daily humor and routine light maintenance—finding food, time to sleep, the right meeting place, and the fluctuating, but essential, ability to suspend Western logic—that will bring nods of recognition from those who were fortunate enough to have been in Beijing.
The formal result of the Beijing Conference was the Platform for Action, a long and unwieldy document identifying 12 areas of critical concern to the lives of women. The platform also provided specific actions to address these concerns.
After much discussion and compromise, 180 governments endorsed the Platform for Action and agreed to allocate resources to make the planks in the platform possible. Chittister provides a thorough yet succinct analysis of the platform's provisions that should be a valuable reference for those who are trying to bring the document to a broader audience.
The informal results of the conference are much more difficult to assess and are the focus of Chittister's reflections throughout her book. She begins her journey by noting, "Men thrive in every society. Women thrive in no society"; and by asking "...is any of it really reversible? Why go to Beijing at all?"
In part the answer involved finding out about other women's lives, learning where they are in the struggle, and focusing on how we can all work together to force greater change. Her Beijing experience proves that sometimes the education will be energizing and fruitful; sometimes it will require painful self-analysis and a very open mind. Witnessing a particularly strong outpouring of criticism at a workshop in Odessa, Chittister doesn't rush to judgment, but explores the "delicate situation. How else do the oppressed...get heard unless they jar us out of our comfortable reveries?"
THE PATH we need to take and the companions we need along the way became more clear as the forum and conference got under way.
At the sight of the swarm after swarm of women, floating down the hill, crossing into classrooms and auditoriums, demonstrating on the streets for their sisters—for their daughters—my heart, long-starved for more than principle, rose up with a new kind of hope....They are all doing something to reshape life...so that women can come to know life...in all its fullness, with all its security, all its opportunity, all its potential....It's an exciting thing, this conference. It is like a second-hand clock ticking away before the dynamite blows in a match factory....[W]omen are tired of being poor, tired of being beaten, tired of female infanticide, tired of being talked down to and disregarded, tired of being silent, and tired of bearing daughters who will be the same....[I]t is time for both church and state to take notice.
The tremendous energy evident at these events must resonate in our everyday lives.
What happens "beyond Beijing"? We don't fully know yet. But our actions should be such that people keep asking us: What happened to you over there?! Chittister writes, "To make anything new, you must be prepared to leave the old entirely." Most of us may never be totally ready, but stops along the way like the Beijing conference will help us get closer.
Beyond Beijing: The Next Step for Women. By Joan Chittister, O.S.B. SHeed & Ward, 1996.
ZORA RADOSEVICH is a founding board member of Girls International Forum, a non-profit organization created to empower girls through education and advocacy. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and traveled to the Beijing conference as part of the delegation of girls and women from GIF.