Gathering in Power and Hope

When the government of India launched a nationwide literacy campaign a few years ago, chances are alcohol abuse was not one of its targets. The women enrolled in the program read in their primer the story of women in another village who forced the local liquor shop to close, and they started talking.

They too had husbands who squandered their meager wages at the local "arrack" shop while they struggled to feed their children and maintain their households. Empowered by this uncommon occasion of collective reflection, the women stormed into liquor shops, drained gallons of alcohol, and shaved the heads of drunken men found lounging at the bar, according to a report in The Washington Post.

When delegates from almost every nation join more than 40,000 representatives of grassroots organizations in Beijing this month for the U.N. World Conference on Women, they will bring with them the power of stories like this. The conference takes place in a country with a human rights record rivaling that of Burma, in a time when the deliberate and systematic rape and capture of Bosnian women has once again hit the press, and when the U.S. Congress is moving to scale back promised programs to combat domestic violence. And when it is over, none of this will have changed dramatically.

Nonetheless the world will be a slightly better place because of the gathering. Coming out of Beijing, women will return to their countries inspired by the solidarity and witness of those with whom they gathered. Western feminists, with our reputation for bringing with us a perspective belonging solely to certain sectors of our countries, will have been challenged to listen to other viewpoints and broaden our scope. Because for the fourth time in 20 years, a large-scale corporate reflection on the state of women in our world will have taken place-reflection that, as it did in India, could lead to action.

SO-CALLED "women's issues" deemed lesser than and distinct from the "real" issues of national security and stability, are gradually easing their way into decision-making places. The impact is beginning to be felt in even the most desperate of situations.

A prime example is refugees. Women, with their children, comprise nearly 80 percent of the world's refugees. Yet men make virtually all the decisions about and within the camps, from layout and design to distribution of food and supplies. Marie Lobo, a senior official with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, tells of going on a high-powered mission with five men to refugee camps in the former Yugoslavia.

"We went around and asked if there were any problems, and everyone said no," Lobo reported. "I said, 'Wait, let me talk to the women.' And the issues came up. No sanitary towels. No proper, private bathing space to wash. Gynecological problems. No underwear. These were things they had never said. Talking about underwear to a man-of course, they'd never said it." She insisted that sanitary towels-a necessity for most women one week out of four-be included in the family packs distributed to the camps, despite the "fuss" her male colleagues made. "'Imagine opening up a family pack and finding sanitary towels!' they said. As if it were something horrifying, something outrageous-not something completely normal."

The potential impact of the Beijing conference has not gone unnoticed-especially by those who would lose power if its mandate were truly implemented. The Chinese government has moved the site for the "unofficial" gathering of non-governmental organizations from Beijing to an hour's drive away, a decision most organizers see as a deliberate effort to mute the grassroots voices lifted up there. Representatives of certain ethnic groups-including Tibetan women, who have been key actors in the resistance to the Chinese occupation of their homeland-have been barred from the conference, kept away from this highly visible venue in which to tell their stories to the world.

James Dobson of Focus on the Family has named the conference "the greatest threat to the family in my lifetime"; that statement is accurate, but only if your definition of a model family includes a submissive wife under male headship. It's safe to say that most of the world's wives and mothers are far more threatened by the devastation of war and economic displacement than by this weeklong conference.

Most of the women from that small village in India will exit the month of September not knowing that this conference even happened. They've already met the backlash that often follows this kind of empowerment-the Indian state police removed the inspiring story from future literacy programs because it was "not in conformity with the policies of the state government."

But the textbook that inspired them was shaped by the slowly growing awareness that the lives of women must be improved if we are to sustain stable and viable societies. And this story, along with the stories that come together in Beijing, just might help those with power feel slightly less comfortable ignoring the voices and conditions of women.


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"Gathering in Power and Hope"
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