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The African Presence in Beijing

In Zimbabwe, active preparations for the 1995 Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum started way back in 1993. Women from the NGO communities mobilised each other and grassroots communities to come up with critical issues of concern. These were related to the proposed activities in the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies (1985). Women reflected on the past ten years, critically analysing the situation of women and presenting their concerns and perspectives on issues not only related to women but to society at large.

The common consensus was that the situation of women had not improved the world over. In fact, in most parts of the Third World, the situation has even deteriorated. Women have been progressively politically marginalised. Access to health and education services has become impossible. Women have become economically dependent on marginal employment and handouts as retrenchees, unemployed, and refugees. Ownership of land is out of reach for most women. Violence against women is on the rise. Our preparatory activities focused heavily on the above key issues.

From Zimbabwe, a contingent of nearly fifty NGO representatives attended the Forum. (About ten of these were accredited to the official United Nations Conference, and I was one of them.)

There was a grand opening of the Forum at a stadium in Beijing. It was spectacular!

More than 5,000 workshops were scheduled to run during the ten days of the Forum. NGOs held workshops around issues such as the Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAPs), health, education, human rights, family planning, poverty, violence against women, girl-children, the elderly, women with disabilities, employment, political power, refugees and displaced women, and many others. Continental or regional tents were provided. For example, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas were assigned tents.

The African and Middle Eastern women were mostly concerned about domestic violence, inheritance, divorce, custody laws, girl-children, poverty, education, and female genital mutilation. (I watched a video of a girl whose genitals were being mutilated; the screams and the pain visible on the girl's face were just too much. Almost all those present were in tears.) European and North American women focused on economic problems and women's employment in their countries. They were anxious about the absence of adequate child care and barriers to parity in the workplace. Asian women were concerned with poverty, education for the girl child, trafficking of women, domestic violence, and female migrant workers. Latin American women concentrated on poverty and education.

Larger issues of concern affecting all women were: health and HIV/AIDS, patriarchy, how religion is used to oppress women, and the seemingly low self-esteem suffered by most women.

On the Zimbabwe side, I was in a health sub-committee which had two workshops. All Zimbabwean delegates had been given assignments throughout the whole Forum and Conference. We attended assigned workshops and did a report every night.

I saw women in all colours of the rainbow, and the excitement was infectious! The Africa Tent was the most colourful and was crowded with women from different parts of Africa. There was a conflict over languages. Somehow the English-speaking people assumed everyone understood English until the French-speaking people stood up, shouted in French, and made as if to leave. The problem was quickly resolved, and the interaction thereafter was smooth. The singing, clapping of hands, ululating, and dancing was an "unwinding" for all of us. The slogan, "Viva! Women of Africa!" was carried through to the end of the Forum. Some of our problems were different and others the same, but all these were under the umbrella of "oppression."

The African Women's Development and Communication Network (Femnet), which was the organiser of the African Tent, invited prominent women of the continent to talk around the issues of concern. Girl children also attended to present case studies and to role-play their plights asAfrican girl children.

Meanwhile, RC had workshop after workshop. The networking and mobilisation were incredible. The USers did a tremendous job of mobilising people and giving out RC material. A good number of African women got well-informed about RC, and many also attended RC workshops. I made contacts that I will follow up on from South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Bot-swana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, Burundi, and Congo.

Discussions at the Conference revealed that many problems facing women in different countries were similar. Most women had been subjected to oppression for more or less the same reasons for too long. However, controversial issues remained-equality as opposed to equity, reproductive rights, and the right to sexual orientation (Gays and Lesbians), to name but a few.

Several demonstrations were held to condemn violence against women, trafficking of women and girls, and femicide. Peace vigils protested the ill treatment of women as workers, mothers, wives, and refugees.

Zimbabwean NGOs presented workshops and activities on: women and the media, with special emphasis on community-based theatre and communication; violence against women, with specific reference to femicide case studies in Zimbabwe; women's health and reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS; politics and decision-making; and women and sports.

At the end of the NGO Forum, NGO submissions to the main conference were presented, and those NGOs accredited to the Conference continued to follow up on the issues. By this time I had to divide my time between the Forum and the Conference.

The NGO Forum in Huairou can best be described as an empowering experience. It signaled a transformation from docile women to women who can boldly demand basic human rights and equal and fair treatment. The ten-day event confirmed the fact that women are intelligent, capable, humorous, and determined to weave their way out of oblivion.

The NGO Forum was confident that the platform for action was going to be adopted by the official delegates to the UN Conference. What remained worrying was the commitment to its implementation by most governments and a lack of adequate resources to pursue the agreed-upon actions. Action is the key word in looking forward.

The NGO Forum was described by many as a resounding success. Women stunned the world by their activism, dedication, and momentum. The gathering of NGOs at Huairou actively reinforced the fact that women are invincible.

The Zimbabwe NGOs certainly enjoyed what might be described as a "once in a lifetime experience" to mingle and share the good and bad of a woman's life.

However, having said all this, I remain somewhat skeptical. The officials were ready with their pens for the final signing, but in reality, what is going to be done by the governing bodies?

In Cairo, for instance, some of our governments put their signatures on plans for action that are not legal and will remain that way. In some instances a great deal of funding would be needed to achieve the goals, and the funding would have to come from international organisations or other governments. With a bad track record of human rights here, I see no way forward except through RC.

Melphy Sakupwanya
Harare, Zimbabwe
RC Regional Reference Person for Africa


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00