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Human Rights and Women's Rights Universal, Says Speaker at ESCAP Meet

Onsite Report from Rina Jimenez David of the Women's Media Team*

Bangkok, October 28, 1999 -- Though "women's rights are human rights" was a battlecry at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, human rights were in fact marginalized in the discussions of the final Platform for Action, a panel presentor at the "Beijing +5" regional review meeting said.

Savitri Goonesekere, a professor at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, observes that the human rights of women was confined to a mere section in the Beijing Platform for Action. Almost five years after the Conference, she notes, "there is need to go beyond Beijing and take human rights out of that little box."

This may explain why one of the main themes of this regional meeting to assess the gains and challenges faced by governments in this region after the Beijing conference, is "a rights-based approach to the empowerment of women." In sum, a "rights-based approach" posits that women should be empowered not just because their conditions are pitiable, or that their role as caregivers to the next generation gives them a certain entitlement. Rather, they should be empowered because empowerment is a human right and empowerment of women is simply a matter of justice.

In some countries in Asia and the Pacific, however, governments have found it difficult to accept the concept of human rights and women's rights as allied and entwined. "Countries with a strong religious tradition that is integrated into state administration and governance perceive human rights as a secular ideology antagonistic to religion and cultural traditions," Gooneskere observes.

But, says Gooneskere, "cultural relativism in interpreting the meaning of gender equality has in recent years been undermined by the idea of the universality of international human rights." The Sri Lankan academic challenges the notion that culture is static, with fixed and unbending norms. If globalization, not just of trade but even of culture, is so pervasive, why can't the concept of human rights and women's rights be globalized, too, enforceable through international monitoring systems? A participant in the plenary on "a rights-based approach to the empowerment of women" raised a point about governments and their responses to the issue of violence against women.

Women in the region should "recognize, endorse and applaud" the progress that's been made in responding to the problem of gender-based violence, the participant said. But to truly raise consciousness and get policy-makers and decision-makers to commit to addressing the issue, governments must begin "counting the costs" of violence against women and children.

"There are no current economic models, no design that counts the costs of violence against women," said the speaker. And in international meetings of finance and economic ministers, there is no discussion about measuring the costs to society of violence against women. The participant urged governments in the region to give "serious thought to doing research and counting what's happening to women and children." In particular, governments would do well to count the social and economic costs of violence done to children, and what society will have to "pay" in the future when this "damaged" generation comes of age and into positions of responsibility.

Another panel discussion on the third day of the regional meeting was on an issue central to the work of consolidating the gains and addressing the gaps in women's issues since the Beijing conference. This is the issue of empowering women in politics. In a review made in preparation for the 1995 World Conference of Women, it was found that women had made tremendous gains almost all areas save for two: economic empowerment and political participation. Five years after Beijing, how have women fared in these two areas?

Speaking in behalf of the International Parliamentarians Union, Thai parliamentarian and Minister with the Office of the Prime Minister (and chair of the Regional Meeting) Khunying Supatra Masdit asked rhetorically: Has the Beijing process failed? Yes, she admitted candidly. "Women still find it difficult to enter politics," she said, citing IPU statistics that showed the number of women parliamentarians in the Asia and Pacific region essentially stuck around 10 percent of the total. Still, Masdit acknowledged, "the Beijing spirit percolated through the national political systems of countries around the region," leading to renewed efforts by women to organize politically, as well as by political parties to harness the vote-getting power of women.

Linda Tidalgo Miranda, executive director of the Manila-based Center for Asia Pacific Women in Politics (CAPWIP), agreed with Masdit's assessment that even after Beijing, "there has been no dramatic increase in women's political participation." The barriers to women's full political involvement, she said, can be attributed to such factors as traditional gender roles and stereotypes, especially about women's capabilities and "personalities." There are also institutional barriers, such as the "all boys' network" and the system of after-work socialization that tends to exclude women, such as golf games and drinking binges. Then there is the formidable and well-nigh impregnable wall of political parties' exclusionary policies that keep women at the lowest levels of decision-making.

* The women's media team for the High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to Review the Beijing Platform for Action in Asia and the Pacific is composed of Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, Lorna Israel, Isis International-Manila; Suchita Vemuri, Women's Features Service; Babita Basnet, Sancharika Samuha-Nepal ; Adelle Khan, Fiji Women's Crisis Centre; Ung Vanna, Khmer Women's Voice Centre; Lim Siu Ching, All Women's Action Society-Malaysia; Fatmawati Salapuddin, Bangsa Moro Women and Development Foundation-Philippines; Rina Jimenez David, Philippines; Chitraporn Vanaspong, Thailand. The women's media team is supported by UNIFEM.

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