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UN: Women Seen As Valuable, Wasted Resource

By Bea Hogan

Women make up most of the world's valuable "human capital," but few countries are using this resource to its full potential. That message was repeated throughout the first day of a weeklong UN conference reviewing progress worldwide in advancing the status of women. RFE/RL correspondent Bea Hogan reports on the testimony of delegates from post-communist countries.

United Nations, 6 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- More than 10,000 people began meeting in New York on Monday to discuss progress made on women's empowerment since the UN conference in Beijing five years ago. They included some of the world's most powerful women, as well as non-governmental representatives from some of the world's poorest countries.

The event represents a rallying point for women to take stock of past gains and gather momentum to push for further reforms. U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave an impassioned speech to a warm welcome at a session promoting microcredit loans to enable women to start small businesses. She alluded to the struggle of American women for equal rights in the past century, and the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of a U.S. civil rights anthem.

The Beijing Conference in 1995 was a watershed in the international recognition of women's struggle for equality. Now, five years later, the signatories of the original Beijing document are taking stock of the progress made. Delegates from 188 member states and representatives of more than 1,250 non-governmental organizations are in New York this week.

In the countries of the former East bloc, significant inequalities still persist. Women have borne some of the worst of the hardships of economic transition. But delegates report they have also made some small gains, particularly in the creation of non-governmental organizations.

Speaking before the General Assembly, Dilbar Gulyamova, deputy prime minister of Uzbekistan, said her country has tried to implement policies that help women, particularly in health care for women and children. But Gulyamova said government policies must be combined with efforts at the grassroots level.

"An important stage of development of the women's movement in Uzbekistan was the establishment of women's non-governmental organizations. They became a noticeable force that testifies to the interactions between governmental and non-governmental sectors, which have raised efficiency in setting and solving different issues concerning women's problems."

In Ukraine, non-governmental organizations have also taken root. Ukraine's justice minister, Suzanna Stanik, told the assembly that the activities of women's associations form the basis for civil society in her country. Stanik said when women achieve a critical mass, they will be able to help solve some of the world's pressing problems.

"The stabilization of the political, social, and economic situation in the countries, and ensuring peace and stability in the world, to a large extent depends on the role of women in public life, on their self-consciousness, their world outlook, and attitude to public and state affairs."

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, emerging from a violent decade in which women were heavily victimized, women have made some political strides. Sonja Locar, who represents the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, told RFE/RL that women from the Balkans came to the first Beijing Conference five years ago with the "saddest initiative" -- to have rape designated as a war crime.

They succeeded in that goal. And since that time, she says, women have become agents of change in Balkan societies. Women now make up 21 percent of Croatia's parliament, and 18 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina's.

But in general, in transition countries, women are not rising to their full potential. Many either have lost their jobs or are underemployed. UNIFEM -- the United Nations Development Fund for Women -- released a report this week detailing women's progress throughout the world. It says that from 1985 to 1997, the level of women's employment fell drastically in many transition countries: 40 percent in Hungary, 33 percent in Latvia, 31 percent in Estonia, 24 percent in Lithuania, and 21 percent in the Russian Federation.

The report says the past five years have seen advances in women's health care, education, and human rights. But it argues that women still suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, and violence, both in the home and in armed conflict. And in some countries, women's human rights are totally ignored.

Echoing these concerns, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the challenges faced by the world's women "demand immediate action." He drew attention to employment discrimination, lack of access to education or the right to own land, the rise in HIV/AIDS, and trafficking for forced prostitution as the most acute problems facing women today.

Annan noted with special alarm the rising incidence of violence against women.

"Though most countries have legislated against it, violence against women is still increasing -- both in the home and in new types of armed conflict which target civilian populations, with women and children as the first casualties."

The UN conference will conclude on 9 June with the adoption of a joint statement on the status of women throughout the world.