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Conferences: The Triumphant Spirit of Nairobi

13 minute read
Susan Tifft

When the moment of agreement finally came at 3 a.m., bleary-eyed delegates erupted into whoops and cheers on the floor of Nairobi’s cavernous Jomo Kenyatta International Conference Center. After almost two weeks of often bitter debate, delegations from 160 countries managed a relatively harmonious conclusion to a conference marking the end of the United Nations Decade for Women. A series of compromises enabled the conference to adopt unanimously a document of “forward-looking strategies” for women that avoided ideological extremes. “The U.N. won in spite of itself,” said Delegate Rosario Manalo of the Philippines, “and it took women to do it.”

Until the final hours last week, 13 of the document’s 372 paragraphs remained unresolved, and it appeared that the conference was destined to become a replay of many U.N. meetings, including the Decade’s contentious kickoff meeting in Mexico City in 1975 and its politically charged midpoint conclave in Copenhagen in 1980. But one by one, divisive issues were ironed out. One of the most sensitive of these was defused when the host Kenyan delegation succeeded in removing language equating Zionism with racism. “I said I was coming home with a document that did not have Zionism in it,” said President Reagan’s daughter Maureen, head of the 29-member U.S. delegation. “And I did.”

In all, the U.S. delegation voted no on three sections of the document: one blaming women’s unequal status on developed countries’ refusal to redistribute the world’s wealth, another calling for economic sanctions against South Africa, and a third criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. These votes, coupled with abstentions by other Western countries, succeeded in changing only the first of the disputed paragraphs. But that may not have been the primary objective anyway. The trio of negative votes, shrugged one member of the U.S. delegation, “was for the people back home.” The same issues kept the U.S. from signing the final document at the Copenhagen meeting. But in Nairobi, the U.S. seemed determined, if possible, to lend its imprimatur to the conference’s concluding report. Said Delegate Reagan before the final vote: “My No. 1 concern is to have a document adopted by consensus that will give a legacy for ten or 15 years.”

Indeed, the delegates’ almost frenzied effort to complete their work and not let the conference collapse in discord reflected the nearly universal feeling that the Nairobi meeting represented an important step toward an international women’s movement. For most of the participants, the gathering created a synergy that transcended the protests and the eye-glazing speeches. Women not only shared their common experience of oppression and inequity but reveled in positive personal qualities: determination, humor, intelligence. Many felt that it would only be a matter of time before “the spirit of Nairobi” would translate into action back home. “There has been tremendous change,” said Chafika Sellami-Meslem, an Algerian who served as deputy secretary-general of the conference. “Women’s issues can no longer be dismissed by the governments of the world, and it would not have happened without the Decade.”

The Nairobi meeting, convened to review the accomplishments of the previous ten years and develop strategies for action to the end of the century, was really two overlapping conferences. The U.N. conference involved delegations appointed by member governments, often led by spouses or relatives of heads of state and sometimes featuring diplomats like Alan Keyes, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council. The larger, unofficial gathering, called Forum ’85, was attended by a loosely confederated group of about 150 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International. While more than 2,000 delegates convened for the U.N. conference, about 13,000 participants flocked to Kenya for the forum, including such well-known American feminists as Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Most of the women had high hopes for a sisterly exchange. As it turned out, however, neither assembly was free of overheated rhetoric or polemics.

In early speeches at the U.N. meeting, South Africa’s policy of apartheid took a drubbing from almost all the participating countries. Delegates from Iran and Iraq traded gibes over their countries’ five-year war. When Israel’s chief delegate, Sarah Doron, rose to speak, representatives from Muslim, Third World and East bloc nations marched out of the hall shouting “Zionist terrorists, go home!” As Washington had expected, speakers from Third World and Soviet-aligned countries trooped to the rostrum to rebuke the U.S. for its support of Israel, its military buildup and its policy of “constructive engagement” in South Africa. The U.S. in turn proposed that the conference’s final document include a paragraph condemning an unnamed “group of outlaw states” for aiding international terrorists. The proposal, which was defeated, sparked indignation among many delegates, who said the U.S. was guilty of doing exactly what it had asked other countries to avoid: saddling the conference with political conflicts unrelated to women’s issues.

The U.S. delegation came under fire from many of the 2,000 Americans across town at the NGO forum, who charged that the U.N. group reflected only the Reagan Administration’s conservative views on women’s issues. American feminists who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment bristled when Maureen Reagan breezily asserted in her opening speech that “all legal barriers to political equality have long since been eliminated” in the U.S.

Despite the rhetoric, delegates made intense efforts to succeed at the main business of the conference: ratifying the document on “forward-looking strategies.” In one section of the report, the members urge their countries to put an economic value on the work of women who raise families, keep house and grow crops. The action was inspired by the London-based International Wages for Housework Campaign, whose organizers attended the NGO forum. The group of activist homemakers has called for a oneday, worldwide housework strike on Oct. 24 to demand government salaries for cooking, cleaning and child care. As radical as the notion may appear, it dramatizes a discouraging fact: domestic labor, seen everywhere as women’s work, is universally undervalued. Indeed, according to a recent survey by Economist Ruth Leger Sivard, director of World Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, the cash value of the unpaid labor of women represents $4 trillion a year, equivalent to a third of the world’s gross economic product. Said Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Selma James, a leader of the strike call: “Women are very determined that our work no longer be invisible.”

The political nature of the U.N. parley was echoed at the NGO forum, where the Great Court of the University of Nairobi campus provided an outdoor bulletin board for the world’s causes and conflicts. A Japanese peace group displayed life-size photographs of atom-bomb victims. The Pan Africanist Congress, a black South African liberation group, tacked up a banner showing a female guerrilla fighter. Free-form discussions of war and peace went on all day in three large blue-and-white-striped tents, known collectively as the Peace Tent. There all the gathering’s anxious, angry or exhausted vented their hopes and fears. Over and over, women spoke in sweeping terms of the absurdity of the arms race. “Men never talk about peace, only arms,” said Edith Ballantyne, general secretary of the Geneva-based Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “We must push our governments to talk about peace.” Inside the Peace Tent, women pushed themselves to talk, even with their supposed enemies. “I got up and said Palestinians have a right to exist,” marveled Galia Golan, who heads the women’s studies department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I didn’t know I could say that and not be a turncoat.”

Political discussion was only an aspect of the diverse NGO forum. Groups as varied as International Planned Parenthood, the Girl Guides Association of Thailand and the World YWCA organized about 1,800 workshops and seminars with such titles as “Women in Rural Development” and “What If Women Ruled the World?” American women in tank tops, Africans in brightly colored kangas and Indians in diaphanous saris wandered through exhibits like “Tech and Tools,” inspecting innovative fish smokers from Ghana and concrete stoves from Fiji. Although several of the forum participants, including 19 Chinese, were double delegates representing the policy of their governments at both meetings, many found themselves in exchanges far more freewheeling than they could have had at home.

In one corner of the grassy Great Court, which served as a gathering place for the lunchtime throngs, Saudi Arabian women lectured on a feminist interpretation of the Koran. In another, a black American conga drummer from Harlem spontaneously threw up her arms and shouted to the assembly, “You have changed my life!” In yet another, a raven-haired Bolivian in a felt bowler talked excitedly to a veiled woman from the Western Sahara. Each day at noon, Betty Friedan conducted an informal seminar in the cool shade of a fig tree. And nearby, a dozen black-robed Iranian women assembled on the green to argue the merits of Islamic fundamentalism. Gesturing toward a group of bare-faced Westerners, the Iranians’ male guardian commented, “They think these women are bodies without souls.”

Underlying the celebratory tone was the fact that women’s gains over the Decade, while uneven, have been encouraging. Women’s literacy, life expectancy and level of schooling are up worldwide. In Africa, which has the globe’s highest illiteracy rate, the percentage of women who can read and write grew from 18% to 27% between 1970 and 1980, and is expected to jump to 40% by 1990. “Education was only a word 15 or 20 years ago,” said Barbadian Dame Nita Barrow, who organized the NGO forum. “Now you see women holding positions in banking, in their communities, women in authority in their villages.” Aiding this shift in some small measure are two programs set up at the start of the Decade: the U.N. Development Fund for Women, which funnels $3.5 million annually into self-help projects for Third World women, and the Women’s World Banking, a $4 million fund providing financial education and loan guarantees for female entrepreneurs.

Women have also made strides in the legal arena. Since 1980, 80 nations have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a legally binding document that commits countries to achieve equal political, social and economic rights for women. With some notable exceptions, such as the U.S. and most Muslim nations, a majority of countries have established constitutional and legal equality between women and men. The number of countries with equal-pay laws has zoomed from 28 to 90 since 1978.

One by-product of the Decade has been an explosion in research on women. The numbers and graphs not only visibly describe change, but also have helped transform attitudes. “There were such appalling and unexpected facts,” said Vina Mazumdar, director of the Center for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. “The picture was so against the professed attitude of our political system.”

Indeed, despite clear advances, statistics compiled by the U.N. show that women still shoulder more of the world’s responsibilities but enjoy fewer of its benefits. Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work but earn only one-tenth of its income and own only a hundredth of its property. They make up a third of the globe’s official work force but are paid less than three-quarters of the wages men earn for similar jobs. Since few husbands do their share of the world’s child-care and domestic work, women who are employed outside the home put in an exhausting double day. In Europe, a working woman has, on average, less than half the free time her husband enjoys. Said Margaret Papandreou, head of Greece’s delegation and wife of Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou: “I have, yet to hear a man in the [Greek] Council of Ministers banging his hand on the table and saying, ‘We need more child-care centers!’ He would if he had the sole responsibility of raising children.”

In most countries, women are still hampered in their quest for equality by cultural, religious and social tradition. Despite laws to the contrary, for example, female circumcision and wife beating are commonly practiced in the Third World. In India, which banned dowry systems in 1961, just last year thousands of cases were reported of husbands torturing their wives to extract dowry payments or even murdering them to marry other women. “I saw the body of a girl who had been bound, sprinkled with oil and then burned” by her husband, said NGO Delegate Ranjana Kumari, a political scientist at the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. “Unless the law is understood and used, it is a dead word.”

Many feminists consider a woman’s most basic freedom to be the right to choose when and whether to have children, but that goal is still unrealized in large parts of the globe. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Kenya, where men’s resistance to contraception has contributed to a stratospheric birthrate of 4%, the highest in the world. Birth control was a running controversy at the Nairobi meetings, where antiabortion groups and organizations opposed to artificial contraception clashed sharply with pro-choice and family-planning advocates. “Women must control their own fertility, which forms the basis for enjoying all other rights,” insisted Sally Mugabe, head of the Zimbabwe delegation and wife of that country’s Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe. International Planned Parenthood, charged James Deger of the Washington-based American Life League, “is bigoted and racist. Basically, its activities fall within the definition of genocide.”

Without doubt, both the forum and the U.N. meeting had their cacophonous, disorganized and divisive moments. Skeptics felt that the gathering, even at its most high-minded, was fundamentally unimportant and ineffective. Before the conference took place, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, a committed feminist, dismissed it as “one giant commemorative stamp.” But for many participants, particularly those at the NGO forum, the significance of Nairobi was found less in the official proceedings of the U.N. meeting than in the peaceful and joyous way the swirling mix of women from the developed nations, the Third World and the Soviet bloc worked together on a one-to-one basis. Time after time, women linked arms and belted out what came to be the conference’s unofficial theme song: “We are the world/ We are the women.”

Whether that temporary epiphany can hasten true equality between the sexes remains to be seen. Like most U.N. ideals, the warm feelings of sisterly unity that infused Nairobi may be difficult to translate into concrete action in the rough-and-tumble forum of international politics. But many women nevertheless voiced their determination to try. Said Filipino Irene Santiago, of the Asian Women’s Research and Action Network: “We are preparing for the long haul.” –By Susan Tifft. Reported by Jane O’Reilly and Maryanne Vollers/Nairobi


[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Female population in millions

% of women inlabor force

% of women whoare literate

% enrolled in school Elementary and secondary

% enrolled in School University

Female life expectancy

Estimated births per woman

Females as % of national legislature



























































































[*] Not available

Source: Selected countries from Women … A World Survey by Ruth Leger Sivard

TIME Chart by Renee Klein

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