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They never intended to be so far apart. The idea was to be together in Beijing at the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women. When the women attending the NGO (nongovernmental) Forum on Women learned their meetings would be held 35 miles away from the U.N. forum, they set about weaving cloth to stretch between the two sites.

The cloth is a symbol. Women from each country will weave a bit, in traditional styles and colors, because weaving has traditionally been women's work. Each bit of cloth will be stitched to another bit from another country - symbolizing women from all these countries joining together to create peace and prosperity for themselves, for their families, until finally their vision stretches great distances and envelopes the world.In a way, the entire conference is about symbols. About 20 percent of the words in the Platform for Action are still in brackets, which means the U.N. delegates have yet to reach consensus on them. So a lot of the discussion in China will be about words. Did we agree on the meaning of "gender?" What about the definition of "universal human rights?"

And in a larger sense as well, the work will be symbolic. Even if consensus is reached and it becomes an official U.N. agreement, the Platform for Action will be merely symbolic unless individual governments decide to put it into practice.

One hundred and eighty-four countries are sending delegates to the U.N. conference. In addition to debating the adopting the Platform for Action, the government delegates have two tasks: They are supposed to appraise the advancement of women since the Third World Conference held in Kenya in 1985. And they are to mobilize women and men at a policymaking and grassroots level toward acheiving those goals.

The average delegation is 20 people. The United States will send 35 delegates including honorary chairwomen Hilary Rodham Clinton (if she decides to go); Secretary of Health Donna Shalala; Geraldine Ferraro, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission; Ellen Marshall, with the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Department of State; and Jan Piercy, U.S. executive director, World Bank. Six delegates are male.

The U.N. conference is Sept. 4-15. The NGO Forum on Women comes first, Aug. 30-Sept. 8, so that the NGO delegations can get together and perhaps influence the U.N. conference delegates.

More than 35,000 women planned to attend the NGO conference. With all these people, plus workshops, booths, marketplaces, videos, tribunals and cultural events (including two rock concerts) and caucuses for participants who wish to lobby the U.N., the NGO forum promises to be more colorful than the U.N. forum.

Still the U.N. forum is where the platform will pass or languish. The NGO delegates expected to be allowed to listen in on those sessions, hoped to hang out with the delegates in the evenings and in the halls. Then came the Chinese government's decision to move the NGO conference to the smaller town of Huairou. Though the Chinese have promised to provide buses, there is only a two-lane highway linking Huairou to Beijing. The idea of talking to a delegate suddenly seems more difficult.

Utah women had a chance for input into the U.N. forum a few months ago. The Governor's Commission on the Status of Women and Families distributed questionnaires that they then collected and forwarded to the regional Department of Labor in Denver.

A quick survey of those surveys shows Utah women are concerned about housing, gangs, domestic violence, child abuse, child support, pay equity, flexible working hours, health care, how to start a business, equality in the classroom, funds for breast cancer research.

Few mentioned reproductive issues - but that area is important to several Utahns who will be attending the NGO meetings.

Peggy Battin teaches ethics at the University of Utah. She is interested in China's one child policy, which she believes has been misrepresented in the West.

"The only thing we read about are forced abortions, women being drug off to have IUDs forcibly inserted. Yes, there may be isolated incidents of these things, but the Chinese women I have had contact with say they have welcomed the one child policy. They understand the gravity of the population situation. I am most eager to see what it feels like there. I don't think we understand acting as a group and considering group welfare."

Annette Cumming is on the national board of Planned Parenthood. Others in her delegation are registered to attend U.N. meetings; Cumming is not. Still those in charge of the Planned Parenthood delegation say they plan to put every member to work. Cumming will be talking to other NGO delegates, sounding them out on their positions on various issues, reporting back to her own NGO.

Susan Roylance, Utah Association of Women, is an NGO representative hoping to influence the U.N. Platform for Action. She says her group is concerned about specific language and even more concerned about a general feeling that the 147-page document, with its relentless focus on economic "empowerment" puts men and women in an adversarial position and devalues women who choose motherhood as a career.

Still, Roylance says, this is going to be the largest gathering of women the world has ever seen and she wants her group to make a positive contribution, not to be seen merely as consensus-blockers.

To that end, Roylance has come up with an addition to the Platform. She would like to have this paragraph inserted: When a woman, in cooperation with her husband, chooses to become a mother she shall be afforded the legal protections of marriage, which favor the financial and emotional support of her husband within the home. Roylance says the word "husband" doesn't exist anywhere else in the document.

Roylance will also work to remove the brackets (meaning reach consensus) on section 245b of the Platform for Action, which requests the international media to include the representation of women as "caring mothers and nurturers of happy families." At the NGO meetings, Roylance will be wearing a white blazer printed with the words, "I choose motherhood" in all five U.N. languages.

Mary Barton will join Roylance in representing the Utah Association of Women, which has 3,000 members in the state. Salt Laker Kendra Bartlett is one of five official NGO delegates representing the national organization, Concerned Women for America.

Concerned Women for America claims 600,000 members, making it twice as large as the National Organization of Women. Still, Bartlett says the forum's organizing committee had to be pressured to grant official NGO status to her group. She says, "We have to ask why was pro-family America being excluded from attendance."

At a recent press conference she passed out a brochure which said, in part, "The feminist agenda is clear throughout the draft platform document. But it is couched in very vague, broad terms . . . with this language the long arm of the U.N. would reach into every home. Simply put, it is a facade being used to bring in abortion rights, environmental control, population control, disarmament, and the redefinition of the family."

Earlier this week three members of the U.S. delegation called a telephone press conference to clear up "misinformation" about the conference. Geraldine Ferraro; Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former Congresswoman from Pennsylvania and deputy chair of U.S. delegation; and Timothy Wirth, alternate chair and Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs began by explaining why China is the site of the conference.

Said Ferraro, "We didn't `choose' China, nor did the women who are going to be at the conference. China was chosen by the U.N." Three previous world women's conferences were held in Africa, Europe and Central America. It was Asia's turn to play host. And China was the only Asian country to bid for the honor.

They called it "unfortunate" that some NGOs might try to derail the important work of the Beijing conference and that the conference might end without consensus, without the Platform for Action going into effect.

Wirth reiterated the Clinton administration's goals for the conference:

1. To preserve the agreement reached in Vienna at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. "A basic declaration of human rights, which some nations would like to errode."

2. To preserve the gains of Cairo 1994 International Conference on Population and Development which stressed the urgency of stabilizing world population.

3. Economic advancement of women in the United States.

4. To continue our significant efforts in the work of violence against women.

The three U.S. delegates insist the platform is family-friendly. "Family is mentioned 87 times." They quote the platform, "In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning." Wirth says, "Some of these groups continue to want to pull apart the conference. We separated abortion from the reproductive health issues because we didn't want this to be the primary issue of the Beijing conference. We didn't want to refight battles . . . put to bed some time ago."

Of the main concerns of the conference is involving women in economically sustainable development. Another is literacy.

Literacy is the main concern of Lynn Cutler. This Utah man works for the Laubauch Literacy International and will be conducting two workshops at the NGO conference.

Though literacy seems like a huge issue, the Laubauch program breaks it down and makes it self-sustaining by teaching a few people and sending them back to their communities to teach others. Cutler helped the Utah-Oulessebougou Alliance start a literacy program in Mali, West Africa. Now a series of women's cooperatives are conducting their own women's literacy program.

When women get together at the NGO conference, says Ferraro, they begin to solve the problems in their own lives.

"For, instance, many women die from environmental problems," Margolies-Mezvinsky says. In developing countries, they cut 20 years off their lives by cooking inside and breathing smoke. "The NGO conference is the place where these seemingly small issues are brought to light."

Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth says, "Increasingly we are finding citizens' groups are holding their countries to these agreements." If consensus is reached on the Platform, then the women who belong to these various NGOs will have something to carry in their hands when they visit their government leaders.

Wirth says, they can say, "Look, you agreed to this." You promised equal education for girls. You promised medical care for pregnant women. You promised . . . you promised.



Two lives compared

U.S. Pakistan

Women outlive men almost everywhere, but the difference is smaller among the developing nations.

Life expectancy at birth, female, 79 female, 59

1990-1995 male, 73 male, 59

Experts suspect a low female-to-male birth ratio reflects female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

Girls born per 100 boys 1982, 105* 1982, 98

1988-89, 105 1988-89, 92

For every 100 Pakistani men who are functionally literate, only 47 women are also literate.

Adult female literacy, 1992 99 percent* 22 percent

Contraception is far more available - and publicized - in the developed nations.

Contraceptive use among women 74 percent 12 percent

of child-bearing age

Poor medical conditions are a major factor in the high maternal mortality rate in developing nations.

Maternal mortality rate per 8 500

100,000 live births

A Pakistani women is much more likely to have trouble finding a job. . .

Unemployment rate, 1991-92 female, 6.9% female, 16.8%

male, 7.6% male, 4.5%

. . .and if she is employed, it's more likely to be in a low-paying agricultural job.

Where women are employed, 1994 service, 81% services, 62%

industry, 17% industry, 23%

agriculture, agriculture, 15%