NAIROBI — The conferences marking the close of the United Nations Decade for Women got off to a less-than-smooth and premature start this week, with thousands of women arriving here and finding problems with their accommodations.
Late Tuesday afternoon three women, speaking for a hastily formed but firmly united group of 99, held a press conference in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. Under the harsh light of ornate chandeliers, Toni Killings, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Committee for Racial Justice, read a resolution hammered out the night before and adopted by 99 of 100 women from various countries refusing to give up their prepaid rooms at the hotel on July 12 as demanded by the Kenyan government. Joined by Betty Shapiro, past president of B'nai B'rith International, andJessie Hackes of Planned Parenthood, the three answered reporters' questions, saying that while they doubted there would be any police action, they would deal with that problem when they came to it.
Technically, Forum '85, the 1985 non-governmental world meeting for women, starts today. However, some of the women who have come to Nairobi from all over the world were in no mood to wait for forum conveners, government or international officials to tell them what to do. They have started without them, taking matters in their own hands. From the consternation that their action seems to be causing, it is safe to say no one was prepared for matters to take this turn.
The forum is an unofficial gathering that is open to anyone who registered properly and is primarily intended as an exchange of information and ideas. It ends July 19, but on Monday the official conference of government-appointed delegations to review and appraise the achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women begins.
The two conferences overlap, and in that lies a major problem. Although the conference has been five years in the planning, although the Kenyan government itself has set and reset the dates for the forum three times this year, and although it has been estimated for months that 10,000 people could be expected to come, the government seems unprepared to accommodate the crowd that is materializing.
As a solution, conference organizers have commandeered hotel rooms and ordered occupants to surrender their rooms to official governmental delegations. Alternate housing is being arranged for the participants of the forum for non-governmental organizations, most of it at university dormitories, some of which are far from town.
In the face of this, 100 forum participants, of the 140 staying at the Intercontinental, had met. Their resolution, the result of a proposal made by a South Korean, Dr. Tai Young Li, states that while they will not give up their rooms, "we welcome the conference delegates and invite them to share our rooms when they arrive." Li went so far as to offer to share her room with members of the North Korean delegation.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, most of them women, are being affected by this situation. They are arriving--having applied for rooms through proper U.N. and Kenyan procedures established for the conferences--with confirmations of rooms and receipts for their deposits in hand, only to find themselves with no hotel room at all, or with one they must vacate when the official delegations start arriving.
The place where this is all being worked out is the 24th floor of the Kenyatta Conference Center, a towering, cylindrical building in the heart of the city where the official conference will be held. There in a room of scattered tables and chairs and files piled on the floor, Monday afternoon's low-keyed, immobilized scene was typical of what has been happening. Dazed, jet-lagged women clutching worthless, official-looking papers sat, stood or tried to form little queues, all vainly trying to catch the attention of a government worker. The bureaucrats, in turn, were polite, patiently reassuring one moment, wandering off or evasive the next, not sure themselves what was to be done with all these people.
Three Danish women lamely smiled and explained what they were doing: "We've been sitting here for several hours and every so often we fill out a piece of paper." They seemed prepared to do it for quite some time.
Nearby, two Los Angeles women, Virginia Carter, senior vice president at Embassy television, and Judith Osmer, both representing the Population Institute, told their situation with bemused detachment.
After applications, deposits and four telexes to Nairobi had brought no response, they had arrived during the weekend not knowing anything about their accommodations. They were sent to Kenyatta University. It is far enough away that it took some women who are housed there three hours to reach town Tuesday because of transportation problems and traffic congestion.