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WILL BEIJING WOMEN'S CONFERENCE LEAD TO ACTION - OR MORE PROMISES?

Nguyen Thi Kim Thu is learning the fine points of cooking hamburgers. Phi Thi Phuong Anh is tackling word processing. Nguyen Thi Van Nam is struggling with English grammar.

They're hunting for a place in Vietnam's growing private economy. Studying at Hanoi Women's Union No. 2 boosts their chances - 70 percent of its graduates find work.The U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing will hold up women like them as an example to women around the world. But jobs and a decent life remain only a dream for millions of the world's poorest women.

Nearly 20 years after the United Nations optimistically declared a "Decade of Women," many countries haven't kept their promises of equality and opportunities.

The Beijing conference will try again.

"What we're hoping for in Beijing is action," said Gertrude Mongella, the conference secretary-general. "We are not going to be the same as men. But we want equal opportunities and equal standing before the law."

Since the first U.N. women's conference in Mexico City in 1975, women have made some important gains on paper.

A U.N. treaty on eliminating sex discrimination has been signed by 133 countries. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights declared that women's rights are human rights - and must be protected.

The 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo said women should have access to modern birth control and the right to choose whether to become pregnant. Women are also living longer and are better educated.

But equality remains far off, and in many cases conditions are getting worse.

Women account for 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor. Eighty percent of the world's refugees are women and children. Women are typically paid 30 percent to 40 percent less than men for doing the same job.

One-third of wives in developing countries are physically abused, according to the charity Oxfam. The number of women in parliaments has dropped from 15 percent in 1988 to 11 percent in 1994.

"We are going into the 21st century with concentrations of wealth . . . side by side with the feminization of poverty," said Nolene Heyser, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, created at the first women's conference.

In Hanoi, about 35 percent of young children are malnourished because their impoverished mothers have to return to work and can't breast-feed them, said Dr. Khong Ngoc Am, director of the Maternal and Child Health Center of Hanoi.

Since International Women's Year in 1975, women have been trying to figure out how to close the enormous gender gap.

In 1985, at the last conference in Nairobi, governments promised that by 2000 they would enforce equal rights for women, outlaw slavery and prostitution, enforce a minimum age for marriage, punish the killing of baby girls and give all women access to education, maternal health care and family planning.

Yet many countries haven't carried out such proposals of three previous world conferences.

Some governments have achieved these goals and gone even further - including women in policy debates and combating sexual harassment.

Participants in the Beijing conference hope to pressure governments to keep their promises and to get them to commit to doing even more to help women.

Some believe one of the best ways to improve women's economic condition is to give them access to credit. In Vietnam, the 11 million-member Women's Union has an extensive credit system, run by 12,000 village groups that make loans averaging $35. Now, it wants to start a women's bank but is having difficulty raising money, said Nguyen Kim Cuc, head of the union's foreign relations department.

Nam, the union's English student, works for the Vietnam's tourist agency and wants a better job. Anh, 22 and unemployed, wants to work for the Vietnam Motor Company, and thinks computers are the way to do it.

Thu, the 35-year-old cooking student, says her training will come in handy with her husband and three children, but she wants a job in a hotel or restaurant - or even abroad.

"I'm here to learn cooking to go to America to find a job," she said with a broad smile.

What will get into the plan approved by the Beijing meeting is still a matter of intense debate. Various governments have objected to about one-third of a draft platform on poverty, the workplace, education, health, violence and the effects of war.

Many women are afraid that delegates in Beijing will be refighting old battles on contentious issues such as abortion and human rights.

Pope John Paul II, in an open letter to women in July, pushed for equal rights but opposed abortion, even for rape victims. The Vatican opposes all mention of contraception and sex education in the platform.

Mongella said she wants the conference to focus on the whole woman, not on abortion.

"After Cairo, people are . . . looking at the womb all the time and not the brain," she said. "They never talk about men with their reproductive organs 24 hours a day."

Muslim leaders in Britain also accused "a few wealthy, spiritually lost, feminist women" of attempting to dictate a secular platform to the Muslim world.

Conservative groups such U.S.-based Focus on the Family are sending delegations to Beijing to oppose "radical gender-feminist ideology."

While the Beijing platform is not a binding treaty, it is intended to help guide the policies of governments and international agencies into the 21st century.

The final document is to be voted on by about 6,000 official delegates from at least 150 U.N. nations attending the Fourth World Conference on Women, which runs from Sept. 4-15.

In addition, some 36,000 members of private groups are attending the NGO Forum, a parallel meeting that runs from Aug. 30-Sept. 8, and they plan to try to influence the official platform.

Past conferences were highly politicized. But now that the Cold War has ended and the Palestinian issue is being resolved, organizers hope they can keep the Beijing spotlight entirely on women.

Supatra Masdit, a Thai lawmaker who will lead the meeting of private groups, said women around the world will be able to send in ideas by computer mail.

"Women at the grass-roots level have a voice," she said. "We want to hear their voice."

Many activists are afraid the Beijing meeting will turn out to be mostly talk and little action.

"The platform of action must include guarantees that the actions proposed in this official document will not simply dump more unfulfilled promises on the mountain of past pledges made to the female half of the world's population," said Bella Abzug, the former New York congresswoman who is co-chairwoman of the Women's Environment and Development Or-ga-ni-za-tion.

Australia is trying to convince other governments to make specific commitments to spend money on meeting the promises of the Beijing meeting, but it is running into resistance.

"If you want to implement, it involves a lot of money," said Masdit.