Commentary: What The U.N. Women's Conference Can Do For Women

For women's rights activists throughout the U.S., Beijing's selection as host city for the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women has been a sore disappointment. China is a notorious abuser of human rights, and its record on promoting the status of women is mixed at best. Moreover, China's detention of American rights activist

Harry Wu on spying charges has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a U.S. boycott of the meeting.

But holding the conclave in Beijing may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The media hoopla generated by the gathering of 50,000 people already is shining a harsh light on China's treatment of girls and women. True, under communism, China has nearly wiped out prostitution, and female literacy rates have doubled, to 70%. But China still has a policy of forced abortion. And its one-child-per-family dictum has often meant abandonment and neglect for girl babies in a culture that favors boys.

PROGRESS ALREADY. The U.N. conference, which begins Sept. 4, is already having a positive effect. Embarrassed Chinese leaders on Aug. 7 unveiled a five-year plan to improve women's lives. Its aims include putting more women in top government posts, protecting women from sale into forced marriages, and halting the gruesome practice of leaving girl babies to die of neglect in dank


Meanwhile, all the criticism of China threatens to obscure the broader aims of the U.N. conclave. Discrimination against women is a serious global problem. Women represent two-thirds of the world's illiterates and 70% of its poor, according to a new U.N. report. Domestic violence is the leading cause of death globally for women aged 14 to 44.

The U.S. has a major role to play in making sure the U.N. conference leads to concrete gains for women worldwide. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton should stay home unless the Chinese release Wu from prison as Washington has demanded. To flip-flop now would be viewed in Beijing as weakness and on Capitol Hill as kowtowing. However, the U.S. still will field a high-powered delegation that includes Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. representative to the U.N., and Secretary of Health & Human Services Donna E. Shalala.

Despite the U.N.'s reputation in America for ineffectiveness, it often makes a difference in the developing world where it has greater prestige. Pressure from women's groups at the U.N.'s 1985 women's conference in Nairobi helped pave the way for national crackdowns on violence against women in many countries. Brazil, for instance, now has special police stations for battered women seeking shelter. And Egypt gave recognition to women's groups for the first time after a U.N. conference on population control in Cairo last year. China's abysmal human rights record and Sino-U.S. tensions make it awkward to hold a women's conclave there. But this confab may yet help improve the lives of women in many parts of the world.

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