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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Charlotte Bunch

NGO FORUM'95 on Women - Opening Plenary

Part I: Overview and Analysis of Global Forces --
Framing the Questions
August 31, 1995

This panel has confirmed my sense that we are indeed a global movement because although we are all supposed to speak from our regions, Gita, Gina and Wain have already given much of my speech. But I am not going to pass up the opportunity to reinforce what they said and to add how I view this critical juncture from what we used to call the "belly of the beast" - Europe and North America.

This Conference is occurring at a critical juncture in time throughout the world because it is a time of transition - a time when the ways of governing, the ways of living and of doing business, the ways of interacting amongst people and nations are in flux. In my region, Europe and North America, which has a long history of war and domination that has affected the entire globe, we see this transition in what is called the end of the cold war. We have now what I call the hot peace. Rather than a truly peaceful era, we are seeing a shift in power blocs in which the anticipated peace dividend has turned instead into increased racial, ethnic, religious and gender-based conflicts and violence. In this escalation, the role of women - questions of women's human rights and the violation of women as a symbol of their cultures and peoples - has become central.

These global changes are offering both opportunity and danger for women, as in any time of crisis. The opportunity is there for women to offer new solutions, to enter the public policy debate in a way that we have never been able to do before. And the danger is that even those advances we have made in this century will be reversed if we are not able to take this opportunity to move forward. When I talk about women entering the global policy debates and influencing those discussions, I don't see this as totally separate from, but rather building on, the work that women are already doing. Women are usually the leaders at the local community level. Women are the leaders who have held families and communities together in times of crisis. Women have managed budgets that were inadequate to raise children and have managed to keep people together in times of war and other conflicts. And yet, as power moves up the ladder from that local community to national and international policy making, women's voices and women themselves disappear. It is precisely a movement to change this that women have begun in the last two decades - we have begun to demand a place at the table of global policy making as well as at the table in the kitchen. The incredible failures of international policy in this century make it clear that women's expertise and experience must be brought to the global agenda if we are to see change in the 21st century. Let me give one poignant example - Somalia. For many years during the various conflicts there, women preserved the communities and sustained daily life as they have in many other conflict situations. Yet when efforts were made to seek peace, these women were not given any role. They were not recognized as important to the future. The international community did not bring them into the peace-making negotiations, did not ask them to participate in the peace keeping process. I believe that if these women had been legitimized by the United Nations, by my own government and by other governments in the world, then we would have seen a different resolution to that country's problems. And so too in many other parts of the world.

While there is much talk these days around the United Nations about global governance, there is not yet talk about global governance that includes our half of the population. But in reality we already have a form of global governance in the world. We have an undeclared, unaccountable governance by the global economy with the IMF and the World Bank and various military alliances making the basic decisions that govern our lives. The other speakers have described the impact this has in the third world in terms of structural adjustment policies. I would like to add that in the North we see the dismantling of social welfare in both formerly socialist countries and in the West, which is structural adjustment in our part of the world. This dismantling of social welfare has the same impact as structural adjustment in that it sacrifices human needs and human rights for economic expediency. And it is women who suffer the most in all of our countries from these policies because it is women who must make up for the services lost to family and community.

Both economic and cultural life are becoming more global as they are more dominated by global market values. Even in my own life time in the United States which probably seems very homogenous to most of you, I have seen the erasure of distinct geographical diversity and cultural variations in the process of the creation of a common MacWorld of consumerist culture that sacrifices difference. And now I see that process being transported throughout the world. Women have to find a better way for the world to have development and find common ground while still retaining cultural and other forms of diversity.

While we have a global economy and a growing global culture, we have no effective global political structures for overseeing these processes. On the contrary, in the world today, we are facing two polar opposites; we are told we either have to accept the global economy with its homogenized consumerist culture or we have to return to "traditional" cultural patterns and life. I believe that women must devise a third way, a third option.

On the traditional side, we see groups that are reacting against the global economy and their lack of control over their economic life by clinging to local identities which involve more and more narrow definitions of who they are and what they are about. We see the growth of a narrow nationalistic ethnic fragmentation into separatist enclaves where all "others" are demonized and seen as less than human. This is obviously expressed in ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia or in the ethnic battles in Rwanda. But it is also present in the neo-fascist, white supremacist forces that are rising in the United States, France, Germany and many other countries in my region.

Another form of such reaction is the rise of religious fundamentalist movements that take a narrow patriarchal view of religion, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish or others. These movements often cross national lines and sometimes become global forces, but they too are based on a narrow call for identity that dehumanizes "the other" as those who are not members of their religious group. And therefore, the identity, the commonality that is developed is in opposition to and seeks domination over others, rather than building a spirit of solidarity, of humanity and tolerance for those not like oneself.

These conservative reactionary forces, whether nationalistic or religious or both, all seek to control women. This control is absolutely central to religious or ethnic or cultural purity and identity. If they cannot control the women, they cannot ensure purity of race and identity, and in that very key point lies the vulnerability and potential strength of women. Women must refuse these narrow definitions and say that there can be diverse cultures and ethnic identities living together, that there can be tolerant religions that don't have to be in opposition to the other, that we can live in solidarity and respect with those who are different. If women do this, we can be the key to denying narrow fundamentalist movements their source of power and source of regeneration. In this area, women must speak more forcefully about how we are being manipulated, and we must redefine this debate and create the third force that I mentioned earlier.

Another reason women are key is that many of the fundamentalist forces see the family, women, and culture as areas that they can control even when they can't control global economic forces. This has fueled the conservative backlash against women's autonomy and against all minority "others" who might live differently, such as immigrants, gypsies, lesbian and gay people, etc. This brings us to the question of the very definition of the family. Feminists have been accused of being anti-family, but the conservative forces have continually narrowed the understanding of what the family really is. Women must point out that we are pro-family, but we are pro democratic, pluralistic, non-violent, tolerant families that are based on respect for the human rights of all. Such families do not form the basis for narrow ethnic enclaves which will fight other families and other ethnic groups but instead create the basis for family members who respect minorities and other groups.

The same forces that seek to return women to narrow definitions of our role in the family solely as reproducers and caretakers of the race are agitating against the rights of minorities, whether racial, ethnic or religious groups, gay and lesbian minorities, gypsies and immigrants. Whoever gets defined as "the other" in your culture, that is part of the way in which all of our humanity is destroyed. If we accept that any group is less than fully human and therefore deserves to have fewer human rights, we have started down the slope of losing human rights for all. And women especially should understand this. After all, as women, we live in a male-defined world where we are still the original "other," and most of the definitions of issues and approaches in this world do not fit our experience.

For example, many of us have worked for the last few years to transform the definitions and interpretations of human rights so that they will recognize the reality of the violations that women experience every day. The original terminology of human rights as we know it today came initially from the experience of the white propertied European/American male who did not need to worry about violence in the family or poverty because those were not his problems. His human rights needs, where he felt his humanity was most violated was in relation to the state, in terms of matters such as his right to freedom of religion and speech. While these issues are also important to women and other groups around the world, we have had to seek a redefinition of human rights that acknowledges that the first fundamental of all human rights is the right to exist, the right to life itself. This requires looking at the right to food and the right to freedom from violence both in the home and in the streets. Of course women also need the right to freedom from violence from the state. But many women do not even get to the point where the state is the problem because they are still so oppressed in their homes and by the economy that they are often unable to take political actions which might put them into human rights conflict in the political sphere.

This work on human rights is part of the process of redefining what women are doing in relation to all the fundamental questions of our global order - of democracy, development, environment, peace etc. We must look at these questions from the point of view of women's lives and from the point of view of all of those who have been marginalized by the dominant paradigm and definitions of these concepts. In this way we begin to pose alternatives, to move toward a model of society that is not based on domination and alienation and the divisiveness that we see in the world today.

The challenge in terms of human rights is to find a model that shows one can have respect for the common humanity and universality of the human rights of every person regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc., while also respecting and creating space for the incredible multicultural diversity that exists among us so that everyone doesn't have to become like the dominant group in order to have rights. Human rights is not static but is an evolving concept that responds to how people see their human needs and dignity over time. Thus as people exercise their human right to self-determination there will always be a dynamic process of both expanding the concept and ensuring that the exercise of rights does not allow for domination over others.

Women's involvement in this human rights dialogue is part of the process of breaking away from the polarization that the global economy has brought on between moving back to the past to preserve identity or moving to the future simply by accepting the values and domination of the global economy. Women must become more involved in seeking to develop global democratic structures for global governance and in demanding accountability and respect for human rights from those bodies like the United Nations that are engaged in these conversations. Because the United Nations itself is the ultimate expression of male domination, it can hardly become the body that will create global governance that respects women's human rights. That is, not unless it too changes. So as we enter into this NGO Forum and send our messages back to Beijing to the government conference, one of those messages has to be that women in the world are watching the United Nations. We are watching, and the UN itself is on trial here. We are watching to see whether the UN can become the governing body from which we develop global democratic structures of governance that fully include women or whether indeed, we will have to go elsewhere.

Seeing the importance of the recognition of women's human rights and the need of all these nationalistic and fundamentalist movements to control women's sexuality, reproduction, and labor helps us understand why this conference and the Cairo conference are under so much attack. These events represent women's efforts to move into the global arena, to have a voice, to become a global force that must be reckoned with. When I look at the list of the global forces that we are to speak about today, I realize the one most important to me is the global force of women in movement around the world today. This global force of women around the world has many different names, call it feminist, call it womanist, call it women in development, call it women's rights or women's human rights. Call it many different things because each of us has found different terms that describe best for us that reality of domination and change. Women are the most important new global force on the horizon in the world today with the potential to create a more humane future and a humane global governance.

For women to be such a force, however, carries great responsibility. We can not be a movement that thinks and speaks only from our own experiences. We began our movement in this past few decades with the concept that the personal is political and with the need to put women's experiences on the agenda because these were missing. Women's issues, women's perspectives, women's experiences were and still often are left out of policy deliberations. But if we don't want to be simply an added on dimension, we must also bring in all those whose voices are not heard - all the diverse women and men whose voices have been muted - so that we show it is possible for this world to hear from all its peoples. There will be conflicts, but we must seek non-violent ways to resolve them that move toward the future and away from the militaristic models of domination that the world operates from today.

This Beijing conference comes at a critical time in the process of women becoming a global force in the world and has become in many ways a referendum on the role that women will play in the twentieth first century. In that regard, it is also a referendum on the human rights of women. It is about how far we have come in being recognized as full and equal citizens of the world, with equal human rights and with full responsibility for the future direction of the globe. Whether addressing poverty, education, health, violence, etc. all of these are issues of women's access to full humanity, to full human rights, to the conditions necessary to exercise political rights and to take responsibility for enacting visions of where we want to go in the world. This is what it takes for us to become a global political force involved in shaping the twenty first century.

In this process of empowering women to become greater actors in shaping our societies, women's human rights are key in many ways. Perhaps the simplest way to put this is, how can leaders talk about creating a democratic, sustainable development or a culture of peace and respect for human rights in public life if there is still pervasive denial of development and violation of the human rights of half of humanity in private life? The violence and domination of women that prevails at the core of society in the family undermines any talk of such goals. I believe that it is this connection that women have understood. The public and the private are not separate spheres. As long as we teach violence and domination at the core in our homes and allow them to permeate children's lives from the beginning, we are never going to be able to end the militarism and violence that dominates other relations around differences of race or religion or nationality. Children are taught very early to accept domination based on differences and to see violence as an acceptable solution to conflict and to believe that they have to be either victims or the conquerors. To alter such a dynamic and this violence in public life requires eliminating it in private life as well.

I want to add that I think the United States has a severe problem in its cultural tradition of violence. We often refer to cultural traditions as if they only existed in the third world. One of the traditions of the United states is a tradition of violence. This violence extends from the family to the media to our sport stars to our militarization around the world. And it is this cultural tradition that we must counter in our region just as women from other regions challenge the domination of women in their cultural traditions. So I ask that we never again make the mistake of talking about culture and tradition as if they did not apply to every country and every region of the world when we speak of the changes necessary for the achievement of women's human rights.

Finally, at this conference, we must take one step further into the global arenas of this decade. I think of these UN world conferences as global town meetings. They are opportunities where we meet and talk to each other across the lines of nationality, across lines that we don't often have other opportunities to cross. But as global town meetings, they are also occasions for us to show the world our visions. Looking at the world through women's eyes is an excellent slogan for this forum because this is the place where we can demonstrate the visions of possibility that come from women. In this week at the NGO Forum, we must send forward to that UN conference next week in Beijing the idea that we believe the world can be transformed by looking at it through women's eyes. In so doing, we are opening ever wider the horizon so that what gets onto the global stage, into the internet, and onto that CNN television screen reflects more of reality and more of what women believe can be done for change. So we put the UN and the governments on trial not only this week, but this year and this decade. We are participating now, we are watching, we are demanding, and we are here to see if this can become the arena of real participation where global governance and policies can be created with a human face that is both male and female and where all the diversity of both male and female can emerge. And if this does not prove possible, women must say to the United Nations and to all of our governments, that we have a vision for the future and that is were we are going. We hope that they will allow us to participate and to lead. If they don't, we will take leadership anyway and show that the world can be better for all in the twenty first century.

© Charlotte Bunch. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Center for Women's Global Leadership
Douglass College, 27 Clifton Ave
New Brunswick, NJ 08903
Tel: (1-908)932-8782 Fax: (1-908)932-1180
E-mail: [email protected]




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