NEW YORK - Ten years after adopting an ambitious plan of action for women's rights at a landmark international conference in Beijing, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women opened its 49th session at the UN headquarters last week to review its progress.
The event, dubbed "Beijing +10", is a two-week affair where member states, policy makers, and non-governmental organizations from around the world can assess implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action - international instruments that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
While acknowledging that "a lot of progress has been made since Beijing," Rachel Mayanja, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on gender issues and advancement of women, also said, "There is much more that needs to be done to put the platform for action into practice, especially in terms of alleviating poverty, improving health, creating opportunity for economic advancement and political leadership, and reducing human rights violations."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his opening speech at the conference, noted that the continued trafficking of women and children is one of the biggest obstacles to development goals. The other biggest factor is the spread of HIV/Aids.
Trafficking - one of the world's fastest growing industries with an annual profit of $5-7 billion - and the violence it places on women are issues of great import to many members of the Philippine delegation to the conference - a group made up of various NGO workers and other civil society experts.
The Philippines, which passed an anti-trafficking law in 2003 notably due to the intense lobbying of women's organizations, was the first country in Asia to pass such legislation.
Minda Pascual and Elisa Ebrele, two members of the Philippine delegation to Beijing +10, were at the forefront of this struggle whose stories reflect how personal this issue is to Filipinas. Both are former prostitutes in the Philippines who have managed to rise up from their difficult pasts and help other women in need.
Pascual is the president of Bagong Kamalayan Collective, Inc., an organization based in Manila which provides livelihood services to street prostitutes. Ebrele is a member of Buklod ng Kababaihan.
Based in Olongapo City, Buklod was founded as a drop-in center for prostituted women outside the former U.S. Subic Naval Base. Today, it has shifted its focus toward helping the urban poor and bar women in Olongapo, as well as to promote the welfare of their children, particularly those of Amerasian descent.
Asked why she came to Beijing +10, Pascual replied, "bilang mga survivors, gusto namin iparinig ang aming mga boses at para marinig namin ang mga pinaguusapan sa conference (As survivors, we want our views to be heard. We also want to know what's going on in this conference)."
Ebrele looked more to promote the passage of the Philippines' anti-prostitution bill, "para maging batas siya at makatulong sa amin (so it can be enacted to help us)." The anti-prostitution bill, if passed, would repeal the Philippines' Vagrancy Act which many human rights defenders deem as a law causing more abuses than it prevents.
Both women claim that the trafficking and prostituting of Filipina women, especially those from the provinces, remain a big problem in the Philippines - a situation exacerbated by the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which has strengthened the presence of American military forces in the country. Referring to the recent migratory trend of traffickers, pimps and prostitutes, Ebrele said, "Kung saan ang Balikatan [military exercise], doon sila pumupunta (They are present where the military exercises are held)."
However, while trafficking is condemned across the board by all participants, there is controversy over the issue of prostitution.
The U.S., which is set this week to introduce a resolution proposing a global ban on prostitution to help stop trafficking of women and sexual tourism, is facing opposition from other governments and parties that favor its legalization. These groups claim that criminalizing prostitution would only drive the industry underground and leave prostitutes without legal protection or important social services.
Ebrele had a different view. She sees the movement toward legalization as "nakakalungkot ... parang sinasabi nila na maging legal na ang lahat ng violence sa amin (sad ... it's like legalizing all the violence inflicted on us)." Pascual echoed her sentiment, saying that legalizing prostitution simply amounts to governments saying to women that, "puede tayong bilhin (you are for sale)."
Meanwhile, Abigail Acuba, research and documentary coordinator of the Asia-Pacific region arm of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW-AP), expressed the other big concern of the Philippine delegation - globalization and poverty. Acuba expressed hope that the impact of globalization would be acknowledged during discussions on empowerment issues.
Gabriela, the Philippines' largest national alliance of women's organizations, declared that based on surveys taken in the country, six out of 10 Filipino families "live in a hand to mouth existence" - meaning their daily income is way below the poverty line. In their statement paper regarding Beijing +10, Gabriela said, "In reality, this means families not eating three meals a day. Results from a survey from July to September last year indicate that about 12 million Filipinos (15 percent of the population) experienced hunger at least once within the time frame of the survey. Women, especially mothers, are the ones who usually give up their own share of meals in favor of their husband and children."
Another contentious topic at Beijing +10 is the issue of reproductive and sexual rights.
Jean Enriquez, deputy executive director of CATW AP, stated her reason for attending the conference, "I'm here to participate in the review of the Beijing Declaration ... to reaffirm its principles and defend the most controversial parts of it, [including] reproductive and sexual rights."
The U.S. stalled the conference last week by taking four days to argue that the new declaration affirming the Beijing Platform for Action did not create any new human rights. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, chief U.S. delegate to the UN Conference, claimed that the Bush administration had concerns that a phrase in the Beijing platform endorsing women's access to "reproductive health services" could be interpreted to mean access to abortion.
After four days of divisive debate, in which no other participant supported its position, the U.S. withdrew its demand and joined the consensus. Observers claimed that such a move by the U.S., solely based on promoting the administration's ideology, wasted valuable time that could have been devoted to other issues.
Another U.S.-backed resolution expected to generate controversy this week is that urging governments to promote women's economic rights by amending inheritance laws that favor men, allowing women to own property and offering them small loans. This resolution has already drawn 10 pages of amendments from countries that object to what they view as America's interference with their laws and customs.
Approximately 100 women participated in protest action on March 8 - International Women's Day. The group demanded an end to war and militarism - events that disproportionately affect women and children.
This article was originally published in the March 9-15, 2005 issue of Philippine News. It is reprinted here with permission.