Title: What is a woman's issue? : Impressions of nairobi
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00089846/00001
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Title: What is a woman's issue? : Impressions of nairobi
Series Title: What is a woman's issue? : Impressions of nairobi
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Language: English
Creator: Safa, Helen Icken
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Bibliographic ID: UF00089846
Volume ID: VID00001
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In her closing address at the
development plenary on the last
day of the NGO Forum, Dr. Lucille
Nair, former Secretary-General of
the U.N. Mid-Decade Conference on
Women (Copenhagen, 1980), made an
evaluation of the past Decade for
Women which, I think, could
assist us all in understanding
the different approaches to
women's issues taken by women in
Third World, and advanced
industrial societies. Dr. Mair
noted that while there was
general agreement on the three
main goals of the Decade --
equality, development, and peace
-- different sectors tended to
emphasize one or another of these
goals as their main objectives
for the Decade. Thus, at the
initial U.N. Conference in Mexico
City inaugurating the Decade
(1975), there was a tendency
towards separating these goals,
resulting in considerable tension
between different sectors of the
women's movement. Western
feminists emphasized equality as
their primary concern, stressing
issues such as equal pay,
affirmative action, and
reproductive freedom. Third World
women stressed development as
their priority, arguing that
women's issues had to take their
place alongside other forms of
inequality based on class, race
and ethnicity, which could only
be overcome through radical
restructuring of national and
international power, embodied in
the New International Economic
Order. Women from the Eastern and
socialist bloc emphasized peace,
feeling that no progress is
possible within the context of a
global arms race and the threat
of nuclear war.

Thus, as might be expected, each

group of women spoke from their
own experience and some tried to
impose their viewpoint on the
other groups. The Mexico City
conference was dominated by
Western feminists, particularly
from the U.S.A., resulting in
open confrontation between them
and Third World women, chiefly
from Latin America. However, as
Dr. Hair explained, the
Copenhaguen conference saw the
beginning of more dialogue
between these groups, with wider
recognition of the linkages
between the goals of equality,
development and peace.
Nevertheless, it was not until
the 1985 meeting in Nairobi that
the three goals were finally seen
as indivisible; there is now wide
recognition among women that
militarization and the arms race
weaken all efforts at peace and
development, without which
equality between the sexes (and
between nations) becomes

Why this change in attitude and
perspective among Western
feminists and Third World women
over the past decade? What made
possible the growing recognition
that the three goals of
development, equality and peace
were truly indivisible, leading
to a lessening of tension between
groups with different
perspectives? As a U.S.
participant at both Copenhagen
and Nairobi, I would like to
offer some notions, which, though
admittedly impressionistic, may
give us new insight into the
growing worldwide feminist
movement. They may also help
explain the difference in
attitude at the NGO Forum which
exuded euphoria and vitality, and
at the official U.N. Conference

Impressions of Nairobi

- Helen Safe, University of Florida

here sharp political
confrontations took place between
government representatives of the
U.S.A. along with other Western
industrialized countries, and
Third World countries --
particularly on the questions of
"women's issues" vs. political
concerns such as apartheid,
Zionism, and national liberation.

One obvious factor contributing
to the change in attitude was the
change in the composition and the
venue of the three conferences.
U.S. and other Western feminists
still constituted the largest
group of participants at the NGO
Forum (U.S.A. participation alone
was estimated at 3,000 of 13,000
attending) but their
predominance was less than in
Copenhagen or Mexico City, while
the number of Third World women
increased enormously. In
particular, there was a notable
increase in the number of women
of color including not only
African women, but those from
Asia and the Middle East,
indigenous women from Latin
America, and Afro-American women
from the U.S.A. and the
Caribbean. This was the first
time that U.S. Afro-American
women participated in such
numbers (an estimated 1,000),
including such notables as Angela
Davis, Coretta Scott King, and
Betty Shabazz as well as many
academics, community and union
organizers and other grassroots
activists. Their presence was
palpable, and undoubtedly served
as a mediating influence between
Third World and Western

Holding the conference in Nairobi
also meant that the obstacles
facing Third World women were
evident first-hand to Western
feminists. While the city of
Nairobi had been cleared by
government decree of beggars and
prostitutes, there was still

clear eVidence of poverty and
sexual and class inequality in
terms of where people lived, how
they dressed, and how they were
treated. For those of us who
traveled in the rural area, the
burdens African women face became
even more apparent as we watched
women bent under heavy loads of
firewood, or talked to women who
lacked basic necessities such as
water, schools, and health care.
In the villages close to Nairobi,
many of the men have left to work
in the city, leaving mostly women
and children to carry out
agricultural chores. And despite
the efforts of the Kenyan
government to improve
agriculture, education and health
care, severe problems remain.

Western feminists also
experienced first-hand the
powerlessness of women as we were
evicted from our prepaid hotel
rooms to make room for official
delegates. Although we understood
that the housing problem resulted
from the unexpected huge turnout
at both the Forum and the
official conference, the lack of
response to our complaints made
many of us feel treated as
objects and second-class citizens
in comparison to official

The 13,000 women who participated
in the NGO Forum, plus an
additional 2,000 at the official
conference, testify to the growth
of a feminist consciousness in
Third World countries ranging
from Fiji to Botswana, to migrant
women in Europe, and indigenous
women in Latin America and
Africa. This development also
contributed to the lessening of
tension and confrontation at the
Forum. Perhaps the greatest
achievement of the Decade has
been the growth of feminist
consciousness among Third World
women generally. Initially,
feminism was viewed with

W e*ptitlaE or disdain in moat
Whird World countries, as another
fora of cultural imperialism
imported from the West. Third
World women were careful to voice
their concerns in more structural
terms, stressing the need for
greater eqal ity and
redistribution nationally and
internationally, without singling
out gender relations. However, as
feminist consciousness has grown,
Third World women have become
increasingly aware that attacking
capitalism and imperialism will
not solve all their specific
problems as women, and that
patriarchy must also confronted.
A document drafted by a group of
leading Latin American and
Caribbean feminist scholars
regarding the impact of the
economic crisis and the foreign
debt on women engendered
considerable debate among Latin
American women in Nairobi; some
felt that the document dealt
largely with macrostructural
issues and did not adequately
address the specific concerns of
women. The document statement
that "the resolution of these
macrostructural problems cannot
be expected to lead, in
mechanical form, to the integral
advance of women." did not
satisfy those who felt that the
specific strategies for
combatting gender subordination
should have been stated more
concretely. It would appear that
the growth of feminist
consciousness is more visible in
Latin America than in other Third
World areas because of the
greater politicization of the
women's movement in the region.

The women's movement has also
spurred the development of many
grassroots activists in Third
World countries (as well as the
West), ranging from centers for
battered women, to protests
against dowry and widow burning
in India, to a variety of

cooperatives for self-employed
women in the informal sector.
These activities have brought
more women of lower socio-
economic origin into the
movement;in some areas, they have
helped to challenge the
leadership of more established
feminists, most of whom are
academics of middle class origin.
Activists, such as a shanty-town
community organizer or a
representative of a Peruvian
domestic worker's union,
occasionally accused Third World
feminists of dominating the
women's movement and not
adequately addressing the needs
of most women in the country. In
point, an initiative to organize
a Grassroots Forum in Madras in
1990 was launched at the NGO
Forum by by a group from
India,the Philippines, and the
U.S.A. This suggests that
confrontation has moved to
another level, beginning to
reflect class issues within
countries and regions, weakening
the split between Western and
Third World women which had
plagued previous UN conferences.

In the case of women from the
U.S.A., another factor which may
have contributed to these changes
in attitude was the economic
situation in their country,
making them more cognizant of the
restraints placed upon the
progress of Third World women.
While the Decade was launched in
a period of prosperity and
economic growth, it had ended in
a period of economic crisis no
longer confined to Third World
countries. Western feminists have
now also experienced high
unemployment (among men as well
as women), inflation, a rising
cost of living, and cutbacks in
public services. This experience
bring the realization that the
economic issues raised by Third
World women are relevant,
particularly to poor women; that

equality is linked to development
and economic growth. Many Western
feminists -- who attributed the
subordination of Third World
women to passivity or a lack of
motivation or to a patriarchal
cultural tradition -- are now
less likely to dismiss economic
issues, and are more willing to
listen and even learn from their
Thirc Worlc saisers. Undoubtedly,
the defeat of the Equal Rights
Amendment made many U.S.
feminists question the validity
of taking the U.S.A. as a model
of woman's rights, and became
more tolerant of differing
viewpoints. The growth of a peace
movement in the country in
response to increased
militarization and nuclear
proliferation has also made U.S.
women more sympathetic to
emphasizing peace as a primary
goal for women.

Forum 1985 thus displayed a
marked shift away from the
earlier ideological divisions
toward a consensus that the
questions of equality,
development, and peace were
indivisible and equally relevant
as women's issues. There are
those who will argue that the
Forum was taken over by Third
World women and that Western
feminists were intimidated and
afraid to speak out on their own
behalf. That is not my
impression. I came away from the
Forum proud of the participation
of U.S. women who, on the whole
demonstrated a remarkable degree
of unders:enrcng and willingness
to listen and learn about
differing viewpoints.

Unfortunately, t=ns spirit of
sisterhood and utua l
understanding d id not

characterize the official U.N.
Conference. Even before the
opening of the conference, the
conservative Heritage Foundation
(Washington D.C.) launched a
vicious attack on the
"politicization" of the
conference, proposing ways to
avert it including possible
withdrawal of U.S. funds. The
U.S.A. and other Western
governments tried to move the
adoption of a consensus rule
which would give the U.S.A. veto
power over politically motivated
resolutions. Nevertheless,
despite often bitter debate, the
"spirit of Nairobi" prevailed
even at the official conference,
and a final document of "Forward-
Looking Strategies" was adopted
unanimously. The strategies
adopted again emphasize the three
goals of equality, development
and peace, although the U.S.A.
dissented on some ideas like the
New International Economic Order.

Although the NGO Forum is often
accused of being more
"politicized" and dominated by
"radical" elements, it would seem
that in this instance political
considerations were more
predominant at the official
conference than at the Forum.
This is not to suggest that
"political" issues like the
Middle East conflict, apartheid,
and the Nicaraguan Revolution did
not arise at the Forum. They
certainly did, and debate was
often heated and strong. The
achievement of greater consensus
does not imply total harmony and
cohesion. But at the NGO Forum,
there was a sense of commitment
to the bui d ing of an
international women's movement
which overrode these differences
and augurs well for the future.

1 ,.-*--'
I *.:=.

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