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UN: Women's Conference Presses For Political Parity

  • Beatrice Hogan



Women comprise over half of the world's population, but hold only a small portion of governmental positions. The signatories of the 1995 Beijing Platform -- almost all the countries in the world -- vowed to increase women's representation in government, but five years later, the results are not impressive. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports on new initiatives to bring women into greater decision-making roles.

United Nations, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Five years ago, 189 countries agreed to increase women's participation in all government and public administration positions.

Yet five years later, women are still largely excluded from decision-making circles. Figures compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union show that women today occupy 13 percent of parliament seats worldwide, a slight increase from 1995.

The group says only eight countries have a woman as head of government, and only 22 have a woman as presiding officer of parliament. At the cabinet level, women are most often assigned less-powerful portfolios, such as for social affairs, health, employment, or the environment.

Many speakers at this week's special session of the UN General Assembly have been challenging governments to change this disparity. And non-governmental groups on the sidelines of the UN session are also pressing the issue.

The Women's Environment and Development Organization, a New York-based advocacy group, has launched a campaign to boost women's participation in politics around the world. The group's executive director, June Zeitlin, told RFE/RL that the Beijing Platform -- a historic document that outlines 12 critical areas of women's concern -- is a strong statement. But she says many governments are failing to implement the main aims of the platform.

Her organization is calling for more stringent deadlines on political parity for men and women. It is pushing for women's representation in cabinet ministries and legislative bodies to reach 30 percent by 2003 and a full 50 percent by 2005.

Zeitlin says increased women's representation would better orient national policies to real-life concerns. Zeitlin says this has become the case in Nordic countries, most of which are close to achieving a balance of women and men in their legislatures.

"Their (Scandinavian) commitment to the social safety net, to expansive childcare system, to helping women and men balance work and family needs, I think, reflects women's experiences."

Zeitlin says that women tend to pay attention to issues that affect their daily lives, such as the upkeep of water systems and roads to markets.

But the disruption in daily lives after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has eroded the impact of women on public policy.

Their representation in government has shrunk during transition, even as they remain some of the most highly educated and skilled members of society. A senior adviser on gender development for the UN Development Program, Dasa Silovic, told RFE/RL that well-trained women are being underutilized at the government level.

A case in point, she says, is Russia, where women are highly educated, but make up only 7.7 percent of parliament.

"In Russia, the majority of economists are women. More than 80 percent of all Russian pharmacists are women. Nearly 50 percent of all physicists are women."

Women's advocacy groups say the situation is similar throughout the former Soviet Union.

Oksana Kisselyova runs Mama 86, a Ukrainian non-governmental organization devoted to environmental issues. At the UN review session, Kisselyova is presenting a report focusing on the efforts to advance the status of women in countries undergoing transition.

She says women have borne a heavy burden in transition societies. Poverty levels have risen, she says, and women's incomes have plummeted, which in many cases has forced them to resort to subsistence farming to survive.

Kisselyova is frustrated by what she sees as a regression in the status of women since 1995.

"What is the main result of these five years? I can say that it is not 'Beijing plus five,' but it is Beijing minus five or even minus 10."

She says that women hold only 5 percent of Ukrainian government posts and are poorly represented at all levels of the decision-making process. Two factors help explain the situation. First, she says, women are struggling to survive and cannot focus on issues beyond their daily lives. And second, she says, women have a tendency to avoid the political realm due to bad memories of Soviet-era indoctrination.

Kisselyova says women can play a strong role in protecting the environment, but they need to hold positions of authority.

"I think, in general, women are more devoted to sustainable development, to values of sustainable development. And there is only one way to provide these values, to defend these values -- to be in the decision-making process."

Kisselyova and Zeitlin say that to reverse the declines of women in transition countries, these women must take the initiative themselves. The women at the local level -- not organizations overseas -- must instigate changes in their countries.

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