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Mongolian Women Typify a New Global Activism

Society: Organizers at grass roots help set public agendas with greater effectiveness than even elected officials.


Civil society not only provides a fast track for women searching for different routes to power; it can also transform politics by holding government accountable between elections.

Operating from three small rooms in the back of the National History Museum in the Mongolian capital, Women for Social Progress has set up a television link to monitor the parliament's activities, prompting Ratnaa Burmaa, the energetic executive director, to dub the movement "the CSPAN of Mongolia." It demanded the release of state telephone numbers, which had been classified secrets, and published them in a Citizen's Guide to Government. It pressured three presidential candidates into the country's first public debate in 1997. It is currently working on campaign finance reform.

"Women are also adding a sense of morality, putting big issues like corruption on the table. Only women can do that with credibility because we're seen as not corrupt," said Sanjaasurengin Oyun, a female member of parliament with a doctorate in geology and a black belt in karate.

For its efforts, Women for Social Progress was one of 50 organizations worldwide that in 1998 received the Democracy and Civil Society Award from the United States and the European Union to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. The group's success is also the reason that 30% of its trainers and 6,000 volunteers are male.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 25, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Women's suffrage--A graphic Tuesday included U.N. figures for the year women received the right to vote in selected countries. The figures used referred to suffrage for all women in those countries. For example, non-aboriginal women in Australia won the right to vote six decades before universal suffrage was recognized there.

There is no reliable estimate of the number of women worldwide who are pursuing empowerment by participating in citizens groups. But the pattern is reflected in participation in three women's conferences sponsored by the United Nations. The 1975 summit in Mexico City attracted about 1,000 women. The 1985 Nairobi, Kenya, conference brought together 10,000. By 1995, 50,000 women assembled in Beijing.

Experts contend that citizens groups have brought millions of women into the system over the past decade, many from grass-roots sectors never before involved in politics.

In Mexico, women's activism did not make serious gains until a movement known as Diversa was launched in 1996, challenging the mainstream political culture.

"Diversa is forcing the public to debate and embrace issues that wouldn't otherwise be on the agenda--on indigenous people and minorities, the environment, women's rights, gay rights," said Rachel Kyte, a Washington-based activist who trains women in Latin America and Asia. "But most of all, Diversa is proving that you can't build a modern state without including women."

In South Africa, several women's organizations assembled an alternative "women's budget" in 1995 that assessed state spending on females; assigned monetary values to housework, care-giving and mothering; and calculated the cost of gender discrimination. The results were so startling that the government began its own gender analysis a year later. The "women's budget" has since been widely discussed at the United Nations, and several countries, from tiny Barbados to giant India, now have similar projects.

Some female activists are mobilizing over emotional issues. In Russia, the Soldiers' Mothers Committee was one of the first independent groups formed in 1989, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and Moscow withdrew from a bloody decade in Afghanistan. During the 1994-96 war in the southern republic of Chechnya, the mothers exposed the use of raw recruits as cannon fodder. Some even went to the battlefront to reclaim sons from Russian commanders or negotiate their release by Chechen captors.

Almost single-handedly, the committee transformed public opinion against the conflict. It was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has since become the largest citizens group in Russia. In November, committee chief Natalya Zhukova won the release of 650 conscripts from the latest Chechen war.

In Japan, the Kanagawa Network Movement was founded by housewives in the mid-1980s as a consumer cooperative. It first lobbied local governments to ban the use of synthetic detergents in favor of natural soaps.

When the network failed to convince city councils, the housewives formed a grass-roots political party to field candidates for office. Since then, 39 of its members, both men and women, have been elected to local councils, where they push for clean air, safer foods, campaign finance reform and decentralization of power.

Women's Participation Seen as Democratic Key

The new tapestry of civil society transcends borders. In 1997, the world's legislatures issued a declaration saying that "the achievement of democracy presupposes a genuine partnership between men and women in the conduct of the affairs of society."

"No one, 20 years ago, would have dared define women's political participation as one of the keys to democracy. Now it's a cornerstone," said Christine Pintat, assistant secretary-general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

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