Gritty backdrop of conference fitting metaphor for women's lives
BY RONNI SANDROFF AND MERLE HOFFMAN
A They sit in saris, business suits, blue jeans and colorful African dresses, huddled under canopies and umbrellas, earnestly listening, writing notes, pressing hands, trying to ignore the sheets of rain puddling around their feet.
Huairou County, the prettied-up construction site trying to pass as a conference area for the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum on Women - is awash with mud. The site seemed passable in the sunshine on the Forum's first morning.
But it's now been raining for two days. The tents are limp and damp. There is no drainage. The hastily laid pavement blocks are buckling. Some entrances have been closed because of electrical wire danger.
"Look at the world through women's eyes" is a theme of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. But the woman's eye-view at the NGO Forum reveals working conditions that reflect fear, disrespect and disregard for the serious work women have come together to do.
Thirty-thousand women from all parts of the world are wading though block-wide, ankle-deep puddles, searching for meetings they've spent years preparing for, looking for colleagues from other parts of the world who may have strategies to exchange.
Everyone hates to give up, to go shopping (as the Chinese hosts clearly want us to do). For the speakers are excellent. Their talks are grounded in years of hands-on experience and elevated by deep and serious consideration of how to translate ideals into incremental gains for women. And the questions from the audience are equally provocative and challenging.
Many Forum members have come to China at great personal expense. Others are very conscious of the costs to their purse-poor, mission-proud organizations. These women leaders have no intention of failing their difficult quest. But they're forced to work, to build alliances under conditions that no group of male leaders would put up with for a second.
"This has to be a conference of commitment," Noleen Hyzer of Singapore, the dynamic new director of the United Nations' Development Fund for Women told us before opening day.
"Past UN conferences have produced little but pieces of paper listing what should be done," she said. "But this is the largest number of women ever coming together after extensive national and regional preparation. We're frustrated, outraged, fed up that our needs have remained a piece of paper for so long. This is a last chance to address priorities, implementation, and mechanisms of implementation."
The sight of women leaders huddling in the rain seems an apt metaphor for the condition of women worldwide.
The Chinese government spared no expense for the thrilling opening ceremony - with its welcoming blimp, 20,000 doves and a cast of thousands of singers, dancers, musicians and clowns.
Then they tucked the conference away at a dangerous site an hour from Beijing, where the "dangerous examples" of committed, powerful women had less chance of rubbing off on Chinese citizens.
The welcoming ceremony, performed for all the world to see, was first-class. But the accommodations are creating tremendous obstacles to filling the mission of the meeting. So far, we remain muddied but unbowed.
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