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World: Conference Brings Funding To Russian, Baltic Women's Groups

Improving the lot of women was the topic at a conference this weekend in Reykjavik. Delegates from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Nordic states gathered in Iceland's capital to share strategies and seek funding. RFE/RL correspondent Petra Mayer reports from Reykjavik that the conference looked at ways to increase economic and political opportunities for women.

Reykjavik, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates to this weekend's conference on Women and Democracy are on their way home from Iceland today with new contacts, new ideas, and most importantly, new funding.

The conference was part of the U.S.-launched Vital Voices initiative, which began in the summer of 1997 with a meeting in Vienna. It aimed to be a forum for women's organizations across the entire Nordic region to share ideas and find corporate sponsors for their programs.

At the close of the conference today, U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton praised not only the women who attended the conference, but also all those who have worked for women's rights.

"There are so many women who have explored new lands and risked their lives, endured long journeys over this past millennium, all with the hope of creating that better future. That was their gift to us. Now it is our turn to give back. To give to every girl growing up in the next century, whether she be in Reykjavik or Vladivostok, the chance to grow up in a world where she can travel as far as her dreams, her hard work, and her abilities will take her."

Clinton spoke of the hardships for women created during the post-Soviet transition to a market economy. Democracy and high ideals mean nothing, she said, without the support of a functioning society.

"As we've heard during this conference, too many women are asking, what good is democracy when our children don't have affordable child care or health care? Too many workers are asking, what good is a free market when we're the first to be fired and the last to be hired?" Participants in this week's conference attempted to address exactly those concerns. Activists from the target states attended workshops aimed at finding concrete solutions to the problems facing women in their home countries. The workshops covered everything from influencing the media, to mentoring and networking, to getting more women into high office.

Some groups proposed a poster campaign aimed at educating men about domestic violence. Others put forth plans to increase media coverage of powerful women and help more women enter politics.

Many participants said the most important thing to come out of the conference was the beginning of a network of politically active women. Elena Potapova is the deputy mayor of Vladimir, a regional center about 180 kilometers outside of Moscow. She says the network will be useful in fundraising.

"There will be a network among these grassroots organizations that we all are representing. We would like to exchange with your training programs. With my specific case, we already started out of a grant that we received from the Eurasia Foundation, a project that is called Social Partnership. And our specific thing that I am bringing out of here is again, bringing all together the funds and resources that are available here right now."

Potapova entered politics after a career as a lecturer at a local university. She says that despite her appointment as deputy mayor, she still faces discrimination in public life.

"The biggest difficulty that I was (facing) was the discriminative attitude. There's still the discrimination. It's true in many countries: it's true in Russia, and it's described in American literature as a glass ceiling, which is true again."

Also attending the conference were hundreds of representatives of businesses and non-governmental organizations. They will provide the funding and expertise for many of the projects proposed over the weekend.

Representatives of the U.S.-based cable television company The Discovery Channel said their company will work on a series of programs about women in positions of power. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbott announced that the United States and the Nordic Bank are donating two million dollars in grant money for microcredit schemes in Russia and the Baltics. And several American law firms said they would offer internships and mentoring for women lawyers from the target countries.

Diane Post runs the gender program at the American Bar Association's Moscow office. In addition to putting out a series of pamphlets advising women of their legal rights, Post says the American Bar Association also offers more practical help.

"One of the programs that we are the implementing partner for is the mentor internships for Russian law students, to go to American firms in the summer, and work in American law firms."

Post attended a workshop on legislating equality between the sexes. Her group focused on legislation propping up the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. The UN General Assembly adopted the convention 20 years ago, in 1979, but in many countries it remains only a paper promise.

The women who gathered in Reykjavik this weekend are hoping they can turn that paper promise into something real. They are set to meet again in Vilnius in 2001 to see whether the seeds planted this weekend have borne fruit.