The 1995 NGO Forum on Women

October, 11 1995

The Revolution in China

By Alison Stuebe

The Non-governmental Organizations Forum of the Fourth World Conference on Women opened in China's Olympic Stadium, a track and field pavilion packed with the excitement of Duke's Wallace Wade at graduation--except that it wasn't raining.

Sitting next to a woman from Malaysia, behind a group from Yokohama, Japan, and surrounded by women from Australia, Brazil, India and Iran, I was among the former legislators, grass roots activists, mothers, grandmothers and kids in diapers that comprised the crowd at the hour-and-a-half long opening ceremony--the only time all 20,000 of us were in one place. It also was probably the only time we sat still before we headed to the conference site in Hairou for 10 days of workshops and strategy sessions aimed at the conference's goals of equality, development and peace.

There was plenty to do. But not because the 20,000 women who gathered in China last month were interested in claiming their half of the planet; instead, they wanted to start over and create a world worth claiming as half their own.

The revolution brewing in Hairou was messy, marked by mud and mobs of women armed with sopping umbrellas pushing each other through narrow doorways and looking to speak their mind about issues ranging from domestic abuse to Israeli politics. My third day there, I met a legislator from New Guinea among the women clawing through the melee to return a pair of headphones used for translation. We were both appalled by the chaos.

"If they are going to act like men, they should have stayed at home!" she exclaimed.

On learning I was from the United States, she let me know that she wasn't interested in building a pseudo-American suburban paradise anywhere in New Guinea. "I don't want your crazy lifestyle with your cell phones and fax machines," I remember her saying. "I like my life the way it is." New Guinea has its problems, but she was resoundingly unimpressed with the Beaver Cleaver world of 2.4 children, a garage, television and VCR. And the fact is, she was in the majority.

Back at home, where "developed country" is synonymous with "United States," and "developing" suggests mud, squat-toilets and no cable TV, the prevailingly anti-American sentiment at the conference may sound like the crowing of throwback communists, crazed feminists who probably want to ban nuclear weapons and abolish the military. And we all know that's not reality. But for 10 days in Hairou, women from all over the world explained, pointedly and poignantly, that maybe it's time for the world to work differently.

During a global tribunal on human rights, Tanzanian poet and activist Mahfouda Alley Hamad attacked blind faith in free-market economics, explaining how a World Bank-imposed restructuring of her country's economy had cost thousands of women their livelihood. For example, she said, the reforms consolidated Tanzania's poultry-raising business into a single factory, putting thousands of small-time poultry keepers, mostly women, out of business.

Neoclassical economists call that efficiency. Hamad calls it an atrocity. "We are told these days that our God is a market economy," she said. "The policies of the IMF and World Bank are a gross violation of our human rights."

Hamad was among dozens of speakers who rose to the podium in the conference plenary hall to condemn capitalist models of development and demand an end to multinational corporate control of the international order. Like the New Guinea legislator, these women were not interested in being part of a pseudo-United States "developed world." They wanted a world where they were free from domestic violence, a world where their daughters could walk outside at night without fear of being raped, a world where women shared responsibility equally with men. A Wal-mart around the corner and a subscription to "Cosmopolitan" were not on the list.

Closing her comments with a poem, Hamad declared, "We raise our voices to ears full of cotton wool, and say, `Enough is enough.' If the oceans were the ink and the mother earth the paper, these would not be enough to say, `Enough is enough.'"

At times, the rhetoric and the conspiracy theories smacked more of a rejected Oliver Stone script than insightful analysis of global problems. At one workshop, a Canadian peace activist explained that the military owns a controlling interest in North American media, and thereby promotes violence on TV in order to sustain defense spending. Another speaker claimed that the American media had created the war in Bosnia. When a woman from the former Yugoslavia raised her hand to disagree, the speaker said, "Well, you have your opinion, I have mine." The Yugoslav woman walked out.

The conflicts and the free-for-all structure of the conference's 5,000 workshops--anyone could host a program, regardless of their credentials--made it easy to dismiss some of the more radical explanations for the world's problems. But fundamental assertions about the impact of globalization were hard to deny.

Hamad's condemnation of the work wrought by the free market in Tanzania followed a two-hour workshop on the plight of garment workers on the global assembly line. In an overflowing classroom, women from Southeast Asia and Latin America described 12- to 15-hour work days without housing, without overtime, without health benefits, and with the thinly veiled threat of having their job terminated or even death if they attempted to unionize.

Workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines and the United States-Mexico border described stitching clothing for subcontractors in sweatshop conditions. The women said labels are often sewn onto garments in secret, so they could not find out what companies distribute the clothing abroad. In Bangladesh, speaker Shirin Akter explained that 7 to 10 percent of the country's 1.2 million garment workers are children from 10 to 14 years old, working 12-to-15-hour days for $12 to $20 a month. "We don't want child labor anywhere, any time" Akter said, "but this is the reality.... If they have no work, they have no food."

Therein lies the easiest out for American consumers--after all, this is better than nothing, right? That is, an industrial-style, transnational factory is better than no factory. And, anyway, a quick perusal of U.S. history suggests that labor conditions have improved as workers have organized, and that industrialization can't occur without a few growing pains. But I found it impossible to walk away from the conference and believe that these old paradigms promise a better future for workers who produce the clothing I wear and the computer on which I type.

When the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 New York City workers in 1911, many of the mostly-female employees leapt from windows onto the street below, providing consumers with a visceral window to the meaning of labor abuses. Today, the American mall shopper runs virtually no risk of encountering the teenage girls who stitch their clothes in El Salvador and Bangladesh and Thailand.

More importantly, transnational corporations have accumulated more power than any government that might try to regulate labor practices or set standards. "The apparel industry is the most global in the world," said Lora jo Foo, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. "Levi Strauss operates in 60 countries simultaneously.... When there's labor strife, they can just move their work right out."

For countries without an existing industrial base, is this really "better than nothing?" Is it better to have a factory that follows neither environmental nor occupational safety regulations, that pays rock-bottom wages for mandatory overtime, and that can pull out at any time if conditions change? It is certainly better for the company, which can rely on cheap production anywhere in the world, but is it better for the people who live there to make ends meet from ages 10 to 14 by sewing t-shirts for $14 a month? Shouldn't they be going to school so that they can earn more than 10 cents an hour during their adult lives?

I spent the global assembly line workshop wedged between a folding chair and a newly-whitewashed wall, staring guiltily at the exploited-women-stitched seams on my khaki pants and wondering what I was doing in this room full of workers fighting to end imperialism. We were asked, when the session started, to identify what work we were doing on garment issues. I resisted the urge to raise my hand and say, "I buy the clothes."

The economic issues brought by women to the conference, whether of lost poultry-keeping income or childhoods spent in Bangladeshi garment factories, demanded much more than a blanket commitment to women's equality. After all, we could all agree, at least abstractly, that women need to be treated better, need to be afforded the same opportunities as men, need health care and human rights. But what if the problem is much larger? What if the entire world economy is built on low-wage labor in countries south of the equator, to the detriment of millions of women?

Speaker after speaker laid out the economic facts. Some 70 percent of the world's poor people are women. Women are the first to lose jobs when factories close down and employment ebbs. When worldwide recessions force economies built on exports into a huge downward spiral, girls stop going to school, working instead at home while their brothers continue to be educated. In war-torn countries, men and boys join the military and receive rations--girls and women stay home and slowly starve. Concluded Esther Ocloo, of Ghana's Sustainable End of Hunger Foundation, "The impact of global trends on women has been adverse."

At times, the litany recited amid the mud and rain in Hairou overwhelmed me. If oppression is everywhere, if the inevitable march of capitalism spells female poverty, if everything from images of women in the American media to tribal traditions in Ghana conspire to overwhelm us and keep us down, then why did we come to Hairou? And if there is a battle to be won, where do we start fighting, especially given that the enemy appears to be everywhere?

My despair began to ease as the week moved forward and I found workshops that focused more on solutions than statements of problems. At a workshop on revising gender roles in Malaysia, Cameroon and Bolivia, the presenter described how women in all three cultures came home from days in the fields to cook dinner and clean the house, while the men lingered outside smoking cigarettes. The project, run by UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and the Baha'i International Community--a religious organization--began by asking men and women to list the average tasks they performed every day. In all three countries, the list for men was half as long as the list for women, initiating conversations about how to share responsibilities more equally.

In the Baha'i project, empowering women has helped improve life for everyone in the participating community. For example, a villager-produced skit from Cameroon outlined the perils of giving men sole control of a family's finances. In the story, the husband squanders his peanut-farming income at a local bar, leaving the family penniless when their son becomes deathly ill. A generous doctor provides medicine for the boy, and the husband agrees to discuss future spending with his wife. Part of a theatre-based effort to encourage joint-decision making, the skit illustrates a development reality--if men control the cash, studies report, they tend to waste much of it on alcohol and other indulgences.

In this global context, the glass ceilings and paltry corporate-board representation of American women often seemed irrelevant. But during a workshop on gender equity in education, a Save the Children presenter turned to women from the United States and Europe. Why, she asked, in countries where women have access to education and legal protection from discrimination, is domestic violence just as prevalent as it was in England 200 years ago? Why do women remain the primary care-givers? And how can we use the shortcomings of "developed" countries to improve the plight of women everywhere?

Her question sparked one of the most interesting conversations of the conference. A woman from China cited 2,000 years of feudalism; a woman from the United States took the blame for welcoming the birth of a son with more excitement than the birth of a daughter. A woman from France dismissed the whole notion of "the weaker sex" as a myth--while women live past 90 and endure child birth, she said men collapse from a mild case of the flu.

Change begins, said the session moderator, by finding the groups in society who make decisions about what is acceptable. Until tribal leaders decide girls should go to school, until editors decide models who are not 22 percent underweight belong on magazine covers, until wife-battering takes on the connotations of cannibalism, women will continue to be uneducated, underfed and unempowered.

The Save the Children workshop, being that it actually was the first one I attended at the conference, provided a framework and a challenge for the coming 10 days. After all, most of the groups that decide what is acceptable were not in Hairou among the women and men who crammed into un-airconditioned classrooms and structurally questionable tents to take notes on how to implement the revolution. They were at home, doing what was deemed acceptable, and probably enjoying it.

The women who knock on their doors and demand change, however, were omnipresent in Hairou, holding protests against everything from imperialism to Norplant and furiously honing their arguments and gathering new ammunition for their return home.

The conference confirmed my hunch that non-governmental organizations, not federal fiat, bring about the only real change. Amid constant reminders of how far the women's movement must go to approach the conference goal of "Equality, Development and Peace," the veterans who ran workshops and held protests and traded stories on the long, bumpy busride to Beijing each night celebrated a lifetime of victories. Said Francisa Cavazos, an Arizona activist, "As long as we do our work with love, with compassion, with respect and with dignity, we're going to get a lot of things done."

A woman from Chicago described how a gynecologist's condescending diagnosis had sent her to a community-operated women's health clinic, where the treatment was so good that she quit her law practice and started working there full time. Two women from Ghana told of a successful national campaign to abolish a ritual that required families facing bad omens to sacrifice a virgin daughter into a life of slavery at the village temple. Now, the virgins have been replaced with sacrificial animals. A domestic worker from the Philippines who was harassed and raped by her London employer discussed the support group she formed for foreign housekeepers. For every horror, women in Hairou could describe the beginnings of answers.

But inevitably, discussions of women's equality turned back to harsh economic realities, and after 10 days of feminist economics and fierce challenges to the free-market, international order, I remember turning on CNN International my last night in China and catching third-quarter growth statistics. A Caucasian man in an Atlanta studio droned through stock market dips and growth predictions.

These statistics, which fuel the world's financial markets, do not account for gender disparities in income or education. They take no notice of unpaid overtime. They do not consider whether a business decision to pull a factory out of Thailand and move it to Bangladesh will displace thousands of workers. And they do not deduct points for countries with higher levels of domestic violence, or wider gaps between rich and poor.

In the words of a speaker at the plenary session on globalization, the end of the Cold War made the world safe for capitalism. The women in Beijing were asking what capitalism makes the world safe for. For free enterprise? For the Horatio Alger triumph of anyone with the brains and the gumption to get a good idea and make it go? For corporate tycoons with aspirations of international empire? For unlimited exploitation?

Few suggested we need a full-fledged retreat to communism, or even socialism as we know it. But what about a world with an internationally-enforced eight hour workday? With a prohibition on child labor that includes free elementary education? What about development strategies that rely on local initiatives, like a community commercial kitchen in Taos, New Mexico that markets locally-grown vegetables to area restaurants? What about garment factories that promote workers into the corporate power structure, rather than condemning them to a life of stitching t-shirt seams and zipper flaps? These kinds of policies won't come from the efficient markets of unfettered capitalism. Something has to change.

Part of the revolution will grow from the thousands of non-governmental organizations already working on women's issues--and the thousands who came home from the conference with a new perspective on global feminism. Duke senior Becky Jones said she left Hairou with a commitment to making solutions to globalization part of whatever career she chooses. "My main goal is to help other people to gain a global perspective," Jones said, "so that when they get into their position of power they will not simply look at the bottom line to determine the next step of their organization."

On campus, senior Anji Malhotra said she hopes to involve students in consumer-awareness campaigns to hold multinational companies accountable for abuses and demand that they end unfair labor practices. "Our blind consumption habits are fueling a system that is exploiting women and children and causing so much of the poverty and injustice that people face today," Malhotra said. "We don't even stop to think if the luxuries we are indulging in--from our shoes to our gloves--were made at someone's expense."

I left Hairou exhausted and overwhelmed, wishing I knew which aspect of the world's problems I want to tackle. I'm nursing plans to work on micro-enterprise projects to get women off welfare, or perhaps to develop an internet-based guide to gender equity issues in elementary and secondary education. And then there is journalism. Speakers at the conference targeted the media as one of the bastions of institutional sexism, from scanty coverage of women's issues to an overwhelming reliance on male "expert" sources.

Whatever issue I choose, I know I have the luxury of a college education and virtually limitless choices of what I can do with my life. Many of my peers in other countries are struggling to make the hour-long walk to well water, squeezing in basic literacy classes after putting their children to bed.

One may argue that I have those limitless choices because I have benefited from the unfettered capitalism women gathered in Hairou to denounce--and that the changes these women advocate will only drag all of us down to the poverty wrought by command economies during the past 75 years. But I'm not sure.

A month after the conference opened in Hairou, I spent a day at the Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York. A park ranger led us through the shell of the church that hosted the first American women's conference in July, 1848. Describing the women who had the audacity, in 19th century America, to write: "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal," the ranger told us that many of them were abolitionists. "To be an abolitionist was extremely radical in 1848," she explained, "because it meant opposing the way the entire economy was structured."

According to many of the women in Hairou, to be feminist in 1995 means to oppose the way the global economy is structured. Equality, development and peace--for all places and for all peoples--may depend upon it.

This article was published in The Chronicle on October, 11 1995
Copyright © 1995, Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may be distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice. However, it cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc., Durham, NC

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