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U.N. Conference Asks Where Are Women in 2005?

Ten years after the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing established its Platform for Action for gender equality, are women any closer to being equal to men? Yes, in some ways, according to delegates to the just-concluded 49th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. But, the consensus at Beijing + 10 was - much more needs to be done.

Thirty years ago, the first world conference for women was held in Mexico City, marking the beginning of what the U.N. called the "Decade for Women's Equality." Ten years ago, in Beijing, representatives set forth a Platform for Action to achieve equality. This month, at U.N. headquarters in New York, delegates from 130 countries and thousands of activists discussed equality and gender violence, education, legal reforms and security.

Noeleen Hayzer, Executive Director of the U.N.'s Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) says the last decade has seen much progress. "Many governments now, in fact 120 of them, have policies on gender empowerment." For example, says Ms. Hayzer, there have been changes in "family codes" in some Arab countries. "Like in Morocco, we've seen changes in land inheritance laws and rights to land," she says, adding that many more countries are seeing an increase of women participating in the political process. "In fact, many countries coming out of conflict have some of the highest numbers of women in the world in their parliaments," she says. "Rwanda is a good example at 49%."

But Ms. Hayzer acknowledges that change has been slow and there is still much more work to be done. Women still represent the majority of the world's poor. They are the fastest growing segment of those infected with HIV-AIDS. And in many countries, women are still denied education, and the right to vote, own property and hold public office.

The Women's Economic and Development Organization (WEDO) - an independent, activist group - recently issued a report assessing the progress that has been made since 189 governments signed the Beijing Platform for Action ten years ago. WEDO's executive director, June Zeitlin says the results of the report, entitled "Beijing Betrayed" are not encouraging. "It sums up our overall conclusion," she says. "We can't continue business as usual where we talk about a commitment to gender equality but we don't' really act on it."

The report also acknowledges the advances governments have made for women in the last decade. The increase in the number of countries that have ratified CEDAW - the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against women is significant, Ms. Zeitlin says. Often referred to as the Women's Bill of Rights, 179 countries have now signed the treaty, up from 146 in 1995. But, she says there is one glaring omission. "Our own country, the United States is the only industrialized country that has failed to ratify CEDAW."

The United States has made some positive change, says Ms. Zeitlin, particularly in its laws against violence towards women. There has been an increase in public awareness, better training of police and judges and more funding for resources for women in need.

But both U.N. representative Noeleen Hayzer and WEDOS's June Zeitlin agree the United States appears to have weakened its support for family planning and for reproductive rights. "This is one area where we have gone backwards since Beijing," Ms. Zeitlin says. "Our policies are more restrictive, the amount of dollars for family planning both abroad and at home have been cut dramatically. This is not supposed to be an ideological issue. This is an issue of health, safety, survival and the human rights of women."

June Zeitlin says she is encouraged that this year's Conference on the Status of Women met its goal for unilateral reaffirmation by governments to uphold the Beijing Platform and pledge to do more to end gender discrimination. In September, those resolutions will be addressed at the United Nations' Millennium Development Review -- a project established in 2000 aimed at eradicating poverty, combating diseases and promoting gender equality and empowerment for women.