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Gains for Women are Going Backward Due to Failure of National and International Leadership: Nordic Women’s Conference

As conservative agendas of governments around the world decrease the opportunities for women, it is vitally important that women work in solidarity with those still struggling for basic human rights as well as with those facing a roll-back of gains made.

Over 10,000 women from the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland gathered May 12-15, 2014, in Malmo, Sweden for the “Nordisk Forum: New Actions on Women’s Rights.” As a regional conference, it was a strategy to augment the work done in the World Conferences on Women that had been regularly taking place every five years from 1975 until 1995.

Due to the worldwide negative effects of conservatism on the status of women, particularly reproductive health and sex education, the Executive Director of United Nations Office for Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told the conference that in the foreseeable future, there would be no world conference of women similar to the 1995 Beijing women’s conference. She suggested that a world conference on women could jeopardize the positive steps that have been taken over the last 30 years by United Nations resolutions on the rights of women. She cited a “failure of national and international leadership in which progress and gains for women are being reduced or are going backward.”

Instead, Mlambo-Ngcuka encouraged regionals conferences such as the one for the Nordic countries. Mlambo-Ngcuka is the former South African Deputy President and Minister of Minerals and Energy and has been the chief of the UN Women Office for two years.

The first World Conference on Women was held in Mexico in 1975. Four years after that conference, in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was written. It has been ratified by 188 UN member states. CEDAW requires states to include gender equality in national legislation and to promote it in political and public life. Although the CEDAW Committee and the UN Commission on the Status of Women monitor the progress and recommend concrete measures, discrimination and violence against women are still global phenomena and women and children constitute the majority of the one billion people living in extreme poverty.

Following the 1975 conference in Mexico, similar worldwide conferences on women were held in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).

Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, no other worldwide conference on women’s rights has been convened. Many fear that the renegotiation of the Beijing Platform might roll back its ambitious goals due to current reactionary tendencies and economic crises in the world. Despite advances in some countries, in many others, women’s rights are still marginalized, ridiculed and threatened. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are systematically abused, raped, subjected to genital mutilation and killed, the brutal evidence that the principal of human rights is not observed in many countries.

Even in Scandinavia, conservative governments have been elected and far-right nationalists parties are rising in power.

Women from war crisis areas told the conference of the plight of women in their war-torn areas and their exclusion from the peace process.

The study “Equal Power-Lasting Peace,” conducted by the Swedish organization Women to Women (Kvinna till Kvinna) Foundation shows that international commitments to involve women in the peace process have not been implemented. The study examines obstacles for women’s participation in peace processes, based on field studies made in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Liberia. Only 2.5% of the signatories of peace agreements in the past two decades were women. Afghanistan and Syria are current examples of how women are being excluded from these processes.

Dr. Sima Simar, Minister of Women’s Affairs in the 2001-2002 interim administration of Afghanistan and now the director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that while more girls and boys are going to school in Afghanistan now under the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan than under the Taliban regime, rights for women under the Karzai administration have not been widely implemented. When an Iraqi woman at the conference told Dr. Simar that little progress has been made for the LBGT community in Iraq, Dr. Simar said very sympathetically that the same is true in Afghanistan and that to discuss the rights for the LBGT community is very difficult, in fact dangerous, due to the very conservative culture of Afghanistan. She added that any gains on the status and rights of women that have been made are in continuous jeopardy due to the same conservative culture.

I first met Dr. Simar in 2001 in Kabul, Afghanistan. As a member of the small team that reopened the US Embassy there in December, 2001, I visited Dr. Simar in her home for a discussion on the plight of women after seven years of Taliban rule. During Secretary of State Colin Powell’s first visit to Afghanistan in January, 2002, I saw Dr. Simar in action for women’s rights. Secretary Powell was to meet with interim President Hamid Karzai and four out of fifteen cabinet ministers. When we got to the Presidential Palace, we were informed that the cabinet ministers who had been left out of the meeting were very upset and to keep peace with this cabinet, President Karsai had now invited all of the ministers to attend the meeting – but only four were to have the opportunity to speak – and Dr. Simar was not one of them.

However, shortly after the meeting began, much to the chagrin of President Karsai and some of the other cabinet members, Dr. Simar jumped into the conversation to remind Powell of the very difficult period for women and children under the Taliban. Her intervention was short and powerful and Secretary Powell later said he greatly appreciated her breaking protocol to underscore the plight of women and children. However, one could tell from the facial and body language that her remarks concerning women were not well received by her fellow government officials.

Venetia Sebudandi, Rwandan ambassador to the Nordic countries, said the 1994 genocide and breakdown of infrastructure in Rwanda was so extensive that it caused a remarkable opportunity to restructure the lives and roles of the women survivors. She said that 70 % of the adult survivors of the genocide were women and that in order to pull the society back together, women demanded and received an equal role in society. As result in Rwanda, today 64 percent of the Rwandan Parliament, 50% of the judges and 48% of all government employees are women. She said that education of children is now a national priority of the country and 100% the children of Rwanda go to school. She said that Rwanda now provides universal healthcare.

In 2015, the United Nations will sponsor a worldwide “Beijing + 20” campaign to address continuing gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, low representation of women in leadership in public office and the private sector, child marriage, rampant violence and other violations against women and girls. Mlambo-Ngcuka commented on the campaign, “During the past two decades much progress has been made in women’s legal rights, educational achievements, and participation in public life, but much still remains to be done.”

Nordiskt Forum 2014 is a forum of 200 Nordic women’s organizations to develop strategies for the Nordic region for an equal society where all contribute to social and economic development and work for a sustainable future with men, in public and private sectors, in decision-making positions, with a variety of experiences from professional, social and cultural groups and civil society.

The twelve themes of the Nordiskt 2014 conference were:

  • Peace and Security;
  • Economic and Social Development;
  • Women’s and Girls’ Bodies-reproductive rights, health and sexuality;
  • Women in the Workplace-equal pay, education and career;
  • Violence against Women and Girls;
  • Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development;
  • Care Work and Welfare Society;
  • Political Participation and Development;
  • Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Equality in Organizations;
  • Feminism in the Future in the Nordic Region and the Organization of Women’s Movements;
  • Asylum and Migration;
  • New Technologies and Media

One of the twelve tracks of the conference was on peace and security. I was honored to be among a handful of American academics and activists who were invited to speak at the conference, including the eminent American scholar on militarization of societies, Dr. Cynthia Enloe, who spoke on feminism, militarism and hate speech

I was asked to speak by the oldest feminist organization in Sweden. The Left Federation of Swedish Women is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. My topic was “Women and the Military: A Feminist Perspective.”Although I am not grounded in feminist philosophy, I explained my 29-year career in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves and my 16-year experience with the US Department of State, my resignation eleven years ago in opposition to the Bush administration’s war on Iraq and now my decade long challenge to many policies of the United States, in particularly, its war policies.

I also discussed the US role in militarization of the world, with the biggest export of the United States now is weapons. Scandinavian women are greatly concerned about the increasing militarism in their region with Denmark, Norway and Iceland in NATO, and Sweden, which is not a member of NATO, providing a NATO bombing range in the north of Sweden and sending Swedish military forces to the NATO command for military operations in Afghanistan.

As conservative agendas of governments around the world decrease the opportunities for women, it is vitally important that women work in solidarity with those still struggling for basic human rights as well as with those facing a roll-back of gains made. The Nordic Women’s Conference was an important gathering of women to remind us of the need for communication and solidarity.

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