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My Beijing diary

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith was a member of the UK delegation to Beijing in 1995, extracts from her diary capture the ‘mood, the madness and the magnificence’ of that event - on the eve of this year’s CSW which meets to review what’s happened since then

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The day before...

Just in the middle of packing to go off to China (hooray!) and got a call from BBC World TV; can I come and say something nice and upbeat about Beijing before I go, maybe at six o’clock tomorrow morning for the world news slot?  UK coverage un-useable, too negative – and won’t go down well with worldwide audience...Not too happy about the early start time but the doorman at the beeb said it was one of the most upbeat interviews he’d ever heard; well chuffed with that!

So glad that for the first time we’ve got an NGO rep on the UK govt delegation to Beijing, but I’ve got mixed feelings about being invited to be that representative myself! On the one hand it’s a great experience but on the other hand, I maybe I would be happier with my sisters at the NGO Forum like I was at the Nairobi conference - much more fun? (As you’ll know there are always two parallel conferences, one for NGOs and one for the Governments)

Day one:

Beijing is buzzing! Hillary Clinton is coming to head up US delegation and Benazir Bhutto is here from Pakistan. Talking to other delegates it looks like there are about 180 countries represented all together, some like the US sending delegations of up to 40 people. And that’s nothing compared with the numbers expected at the NGO Forum – they say up to 30,000 women are descending on Huairou at the moment – this should make the Guinness book of records as the biggest UN conference ever!

Day three:

There are far more women and more NGO representatives on most official Government delegations than there were at the Nairobi conference ten years ago.  This is first time we’ve had significant numbers of NGOs on the British delegation too. At last the expertise and experience of NGOs is being recognised by all - a real breakthrough!  Also NGOs are lobbying their Governments like mad in spite of the logistical difficulties here, in order to get their language into the text.

The UK has quite a line up here in Beijing compared with Nairobi, where Baroness Young flew in for a few days and invited us to a cocktail party! NGOs weren’t allowed to speak on that occasion – far too posh – and we were all a bit unhappy about that.  We wrote cracking speech lamenting lack of progress in the UK and lack of access to the UK Government delegation. I drew the short straw and my chums, including Georgina Ashworth, made me read it out at the cocktail party. I was completely terrified! You should have seen the look on their faces! But it worked.  Ever since then we’ve had proper serious briefing sessions between the UK Government delegation and NGOs leading up to, during and after the conferences.

Went out with some of UK delegation to a restaurant last night, turned out to be a truly bonding experience. The whole menu was written in Chinese and none of us spoke a word of the language. It was hysterical to see senior Civil Servants honking, clucking, and quacking with associated arm and leg movements in an attempt to place our order, all to no avail – don’t they know all the animals in Beijing only speak Chinese? In the end we just pointed to what was on the plates at the next table. Turned out to be delicious.

Day four:

The mud, the madness, the magnificence of the Beijing NGO Forum!

I am going to miss most of the action at this rate just on the road going up and down to between the Govt conference and the Forum in Huairou. Why oh why did they change the Forum site so far out of town? Actually, we know why - because they don’t want us anywhere near the Government delegations, they want to make it as difficult as possible to lobby effectively, especially on Human Rights issues.

So they’ve moved the Forum to a half-finished site, miles from Beijing Centre.  Conditions there are getting worse by the day. The rain is making things impossible. Leaking, half finished buildings with rain drops dripping from exposed live wires; it’s a nightmare...every night I can’t sleep to think what might happen...The NGOs are doing a fantastic job, somehow the rain is not dampening the spirits, it’s just increasing the solidarity

Heard a rumour today from one NGO that Chinese taxi drivers have been advised by the Chinese authorities to carry bed-sheets in the back of their taxis just in case, because they’ve been warned that western women like to take all their clothes off as a protest for women’s rights; so if that happens they are instructed to just throw a sheet over us to cover us up. Now where did they get that from!! Woman from NAWO who told me this said “Now the taxi drivers realise we are all quite harmless they are inviting us home to dinner to meet their families”.

Day five:

The Forum is in full swing now: Energy and Spirit in Huairou is incredible, women are coping amazingly well in spite of challenges, British Council serving free cups of tea at their stall and acting as meeting and information point for UK NGOs. Dance, theatre, songs, marches, art exhibitions, massage, meditation, disability tent, regional tents, lesbian tent (which was always packed with Chinese women; it seems they don’t get enough information on sexuality!) There are around 3,500 workshops arranged over the two weeks, but sometimes there are so many distractions on the way to the workshop I plan to attend, I never actually get there. Women lobbying on sexual rights, violence, unpaid work; silent vigils - hundreds of women dressed in black holding candles for the victims of violence – very moving; Best of all, the Women Weaving the World Together tapestry, 1 kilometre long - a stunningly beautiful and vibrant expression of women’s art and creativity from all over the world – WNC sent along a panel. Good to think women have sent along their stitches even if they couldn’t get here themselves... they took the whole tapestry up to the Great Wall so maybe it could be seen from space.

Day six:

Square brackets are everywhere! (For those of you who are new to the process, all the text which hasn’t been agreed yet when the conference starts are put in square brackets to be negotiated during the conference.) Square brackets are everywhere! Is this document going to make any sense in any language to anybody? More a “Platform for Faction” than a “Platform of Action”.

Big areas of controversy at the moment seem to be around Universality of human rights, sexual rights, families, and the actual wording of the declaration that goes at the front of the Platform for Action. All our UK issues have to be filtered through the EU negotiating line as well before it gets put on the table – will there be anything recognisable for us at the end that we can actually use?

There are UK Govt briefings with NGOs every day, either in Huariou or at Ambassador’s residence. The British Ambassador and his wife are fantastic, very friendly and enthusiastic  - said they were dead thrilled to have the conference here in Beijing They had a reception for us last night at the Embassy, The British Embassy provides transport for women who need to get back to Huairou in the evenings. They’ve already visited Huairou five times to meet NGOs and see the conditions for themselves; they are really taking up logistics issues actively on our behalf with the Chinese authorities.

Day seven:

My role on the delegation is to make sure there is a good two-way communication process between the UK NGOs and the UK Government Delegation on issues relating to AID and Development. I’ve been to the site most days so far, taking back NGOs concerns about poor facilities, lack of transport, safety in the buildings in around the site, fire and health risks, high food prices, problems caused by heavy rain, lack of access for those with disabilities, poor signposting. Feel a bit of a fraud acting as messenger and not getting down and muddy all the time with my sisters. On the plus side the UK Govt delegation are very responsive and they’re taking up our concerns with the organising committee. (Maybe they were relieved to be on NGOs side without reservation for a change! )

Real dilemmas being an NGO rep on Gov’t delegation. Conscious of being a member of two teams for the duration, each one with issues of confidentiality, realpolitik, need for support, trust. If you don’t engage with this and understand it you don’t make the most of your position as a bridge. Feels more of a tight rope that a bridge at times. NGO colleagues are so great – we’re all committed to making it work. WNC is used to this role, they are the experts, and helping me a lot! Feels like a really important job to do - Hope we are getting it right at least some of the time!

Day 8:

Turned out to be my most stressful day yet. Bitten by mozzie in Huairou, a constant problem, my whole ankle swelled up, hobbled in to delegation briefing wearing large bandage, much sympathy. Cheered myself up collecting these sound bites over the week:

 “The next millennium is ours”

“Rainbow of women fighting everywhere for justice and equality”

“Let’s take the square brackets off women and children” Bella Abzug WEDO

Hilary Clinton – “We’re not doing this for ourselves but for our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, so that what we achieve can take root and flower in their lives.”

“Not so much a world conference on women, more a women’s conference about the world” Noyleen Heyzer, UNIFEM. (must remember to quote that in a speech when I get back!)

Day 10:

In the check-in queue on the way home, found myself next to Clare Short! Asked how she’d found it. “Well it was very interesting Jane, but it was difficult, because you see, the Government don’t tell us what’s going on, they don’t brief us properly.” Was she travelling back first class on the plane?  “No chance I’m not the Government.”

Back in UK realising this conference is even more life-changing than we’d thought. Personal transformation...Met up with mates yesterday and one says she’s getting married, the other divorced, another going back to China. And I’ve decided to go freelance...

Though not too transformational for our own dear UK government whose commitments after the conference were limited to just three:

  1. Publishing the criteria used to measure gender equality by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Women
  2. Expansion of out of school clubs for children
  3. Withdrawal of reservation to CEDAW

Well done, all worthwhile then!

Scope of PFA: “Empowering women is not only an important end in itself; it is essential to realising the full potential of society as a whole”

 Women’s rights are human rights:

  • Focal point for Universal data collection on gender.
  • More known than ever before, real spur to collecting data – we can track progress through the data collected in preparation for  UN conferences over 30 years.
  • Valuing/counting women’s unpaid work and action against the feminisation of poverty
  • Equal access to resources and equal sharing of responsibility for the family between men and women
  • Commitment to new and additional resources to address women’s poverty and achieve their rights

Key role of NGOs in implementing PFA

We didn’t realise we were writing a block buster best seller at the time. We were more worried about what wasn’t in it rather than what we’d achieved. Now we appreciate what a magnificent document it is – the most comprehensive document ever produced by the UN – affirming important universal principles, demonstrating that every issue is a gender issue, building on other conferences like the Nairobi Conference and the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, and other conferences  building on it in the future. Yeah, it’s not perfect, It’s the best a woman can get – and we’ve needed to defend it at subsequent conferences so we never lose a word of it. People may say it’s just words, but we need the words in order to hold Governments to account. - And above all, implement it!

What’s even more amazing is that back in Beijing we did the whole thing with no emails, no mobile phones, no blogs, no websites, no blackberrys, no facebook, no you tubes and no conference calls. And yet somehow we still managed to communicate and keep in touch with each other. How did we do it?!

About the author

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith has been actively involved in the women's movement for over 30 years as an independent facilitator. She was a member of the UK Government delegation to the UN Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, and is a former chair of the Fawcett Society and member of the Women's National Commission


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