NEW YORK — A common wisdom holds that meetings--large gatherings of human beings assembled for the primary purposes of eating, talking, drinking and more talking--end as they begin: in a sea of words and a forest of papers. But while lacking in neither words nor papers, last summer's Conference to Review and Appraise the U.N. Decade for Women in Nairobi, Kenya, those who were present agreed, was a major exception.
"Just the word Nairobi has become a connotation of happy, good things for women," Los Angeles community activist Billie Heller said here this week. "Nairobi has become a positive term for women. It means hope."
"Nairobi sensitized women, women around the world," said Guyana High Court Judge Desiree Bernard, head of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
The energy and enthusiasm of Nairobi, said Stephen L. Isaacs of Columbia University's Development Law and Policy Program at the school's Center for Population and Family Health, was in large part what helped generate a major, global watchdog organization, the International Women's Rights Action Watch. Dedicated to assisting compliance efforts under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the project was launched here this week with a $500,000-plus grant from the Carnegie Corp. in conjunction with the Columbia Law and Policy Program at the Center for Population and Family Health as well as the Women, Public Policy and Development Project at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Or, as the latter group's Arvonne Fraser noted at a "launching party" for the Action Watch, "This is known as the group with long titles. Once you have given the name of the convention, you have described it as well."
Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 19, 1979, the anti-bias convention is essentially an international bill of rights for women. The document seeks to establish internationally accepted principles and measures to achieve equal rights for women. As an economic and social covenant, the convention is an international treaty with the force of law. The measure compares, said Rebecca Cook of Columbia University's Development Law and Policy Center for Population and Family Health, to the U.N.'s International Law of the Sea Treaty.
The convention, Cook said, "sets international minimum standards" with regard to the treatment of women.
Said Bernard: "The convention is one of the best things that ever happened to women in the world. Now it is up to us to make it work."
"I find it absolutely mind-blowing that someone could sit down and write a document for all of the women in the world, all of the women--and I think the convention does that," Heller said. "We need for people to understand that this is not an issue of superiority, dominance or inferiority. It's simple justice."
About 93 U.N. member nations--including the United States--have signed the convention, acknowledging it but not necessarily agreeing to adhere to it. By the standards of the United Nations as well as by the gauge of international treaties, that number is gigantic for a document just 6 1/2 years old, Fraser said.
"Probably of all U.N. conventions and instruments, it's the one that has moved the fastest," she said. "This is testimony to the power of women's organizations."
This week, Great Britain became the 86th member country to ratify the document, thus promising to follow standards that include an initial, in-depth report on the status of women within a year of ratification, with subsequent reports and reviews by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women every four years thereafter.
"The (committee) is not fooling around," Cook said. "They are a group of 23 experts serving in their personal capacities"--rather than acting as emissaries from specific governments. "They are tenacious in discharging the committee's duty."
The committee, Cook said, "functions as the engine which drives the convention to its goal of eliminating discrimination against women."
Action Watch, Arvonne Fraser said, seeks "to facilitate and monitor law and policy reform under the convention." But she said the group's real mission "is to become an international clearinghouse on what women's organizations are doing and how to get the convention ratified."
Regardless of the international issue, Fraser said, "nothing really happens unless organizations that are interested push and pull governments. I suppose what we are is a coalition of organizations that are going to push and pull governments."
Those who were celebrating the formation of Action Watch, Isaacs said, were "present at the creation of what we expect to be a major new force" in the implementation and regulation of international policy toward women.
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