Nattering Nabobs in Nairobi: The UN’s Conference on Women

The UN Decade for Women World Conference and the Non-government Organizations Forum held concurrently in Nairobi, Kenya in July, 1985, constituted a lost opportunity for the Western democracies and for Chris­tians in particular. These meetings could have been a showcase for democracy and religious freedom, and for the promotion of pro-life, pro-family policies. Instead, what resulted was the adoption of a radical feminist agenda.

At a Washington seminar sponsored by the Shavano Institute for National Leadership, Tom Wolfe asked the ques­tion: “Are the U.S. and the USSR Morally Equivalent?” That question was answered with an overwhelming “No” at Nairobi, The U.S. was Public Enemy No. 1; as for the USSR, with the exception of a few pro-lifers, some pro­testing Ukrainians, and a dissident Soviet Jew newly emigrated to Israel, the consensus seemed to be that the USSR is, at worst, morally neutral.

Forum 85

The Non-Government Organizations Forum was attended by over 14,000 participants. Anyone could register on payment of a $10 fee, and many thou­sand Africans who usually cannot afford to attend conferences overseas, trekked, biked or bussed to Nairobi. The Forum was a tremendous opportunity for women from Western democracies to promote for the newly decolonized countries of Africa the freedoms that have made our countries decent places to live in: freedom of speech, press and religion; the right to vote in elections for the party of one’s choice; the right to have a parliamentary opposition which can scrutinize and criticized the actions of the government; in sum, all the civil and legal rights we take for granted. There was no mention of any of these. White feminists (mainly from the U.S.) dominated the Forum, organized the programs, and chaired most of the workshops, and created the impression that the U.S. is inhabited by two separate tribes: men and women who have little connection except that fre­quently the men beat up the women in a ritual labeled “Domestic Violence.”

Typical of the more than 100 daily workshops at the Forum was a workshop entitled “Feminism and Pluralism,” chaired by Betty Friedan. In her introductory remarks Ms. Friedan equated Christians in the U.S. who oppose abortion with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, where prostitutes are stoned to death (they don’t let women do what they want with their own bodies), and then equated Ronald Reagan (he opposes abortion) with the Nazis who put people into gas chambers.

The next speaker at Ms. Friedan’s workshop was a Nicaraguan who ranted about U.S. support for contras in Hon­duras. It was difficult to see the relevance of this to the topic of “Feminism and Pluralism,” but Ms. Friedan nodded her head sagely and said this was “one woman’s pluralistic experience of feminism.” Then we heard a Brazilian who denounced the U.S. for asking debtor nations to pay some of the interest on overdue loans. It almost seemed she had cribbed her speech from booklets by Fidel Castro “Our Struggle is that of Latin America and the Third World” and “There’s No Other Choice: The Cancellation of the Debt or the Political Death of Democratic Processes in Latin America” which were handed out in profusion on the opening day of the Forum. Again Ms. Friedan nodded wisely and said the Brazilian’s was another pluralistic experience of feminism.”

The whitewash of tyranny became strikingly evident in the numerous workshops chaired by U.S. feminists on the “UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” This convention, which comprises a typical feminist social engineering strategy for creating a unisex utopia, has the status of an inter­national treaty. Since U.S. feminists have little hope of persuading Congress, let alone Reagan, to ratify the conven­tion, their tactic was to persuade women from other countries to lobby their governments to ratify, so that the U.S. is left like a shag on a rock, the odd man out.

The first speaker at one workshop praised President Obote of Uganda (overthrown in a coup a few days later) for ratifying the treaty; she was folfoled by a Laborite from Britain who assailed Margaret Thatcher for failure to support ratification. The irony of vili­fying a liberal democracy while praising a regime which has been cited by Amnesty International for hundreds of cases of torture, murder, imprisonment without trial, and numerous abuses of human rights was quite lost on the en­thusiasts at this workshop. When reference was made to the plight of a Ugandan soldier who had sought asylum in Britain because he was sickened at the barbarities he had witnessed and been forced to participate in (breaking people’s limbs, smashing skulls), and the difficulty he had in sleeping at night because of the memories of these horrors, the U.S. chairperson commented (to the general approval of the workshop): “If he can’t sleep he should take sleeping pills.” The workshop continued its denuncia­tion of Mrs. Thatcher. In the demonology of feminists, Margaret Thatcher runs second only to President Reagan.

Many of the scenes at the Forum bordered on the hysterical. Angela Davis, former jail-breakout radical, stood on the lawns of Nairobi Universi­ty, slammed the Reagan Administration not only on women’s issues but everything else, and yelled, “When Maureen Reagan comes to Nairobi representing the U.S. she does not represent me,” to loud applause from the assembled sisterhood. But one’s sympathies lay with Maureen — who would want to represent Ms. Davis anyway?

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and many Africans assured us there was no such group as the “Lesbian Collec­tive of Kenya.” The workshop listed under this name had an Amsterdam ad­dress and was chaired by an Australian. “Lesbian moved to tears,” reported the Nairobi Standard. “A lesbian from Australia attending Forum 85 at the University of Nairobi main campus yesterday said nobody should look down on her because ‘it is the best part of me.’ ” Black lesbians from the U.S. were very emotional — the theme of their workshops (entitled “Lesbianism for Women of Color”) was that their ancestors had been kidnapped as slaves from Africa, hence they were now re­turning to liberate their Black sisters in Africa through lesbianism.


The piece de resistance was un­doubtedly the Peace Tent, lavishly decorated with posters of Hiroshima (none of Pearl Harbor), in which anti-U.S. sentiments reached a crescen­do with the distribution of maps outlin­ing “U.S. Military Intervention in Cen­tral America and the Caribbean,” il­lustrated with a multitude of arrows pointing like daggers at several islands, including Grenada. The Peace Tent in­cluded posters of women guerillas with machine guns. When I questioned the appropriateness of women machine- gunners decorating the Peace Tent, I was told it was all right if they were fighting wars of liberation. Michael Levin, who was covering the events for Commentary, and who raised the same query, was not so lucky; he was told men were not wanted in the Peace Tent, and when he pointed to another man, an African, the peaceniks said that was okay because the African was “just a cleaner.” A local newspaper quoted the sisterhood as saying “Isn’t it nice now that Nairobi is dominated by women with men only as cleaners and taxi- drivers.”

Population control and family plan­ning were constant themes. Family plan­ning workshops ran all day and every day. The International Planned Parent­hood Federation was shrill in denounc­ing the U.S. for having cut off funds for abortion-related or coercive birth con­trol programs. Some family planning agencies have big budgets and wield great power in the Third World. One African editor allegedly lost his job because he published in full the local bishop’s pastoral letter opposing abor­tion. The Washington-based Population Institute hosted a large and lavish four- course luncheon at the Nairobi Hilton during which awards were presented to radio, TV and newspaper journalists for favorable reporting on family planning and population issues. The cost of the Hilton luncheon would have fed an African village for months. Can one im­agine the outcry if the National Right to Life Committee primed the media with awards and free lunches?

The only alternative view at the Forum came from pro-lifers. The American Life League in conjunction with the Kenya Catholic Secretariat organized a Protect Life in All Nations (PLAN) Congress in Nairobi in early July, which was attended by delegates from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and several African countries. African physicians at PLAN expressed considerable concern at the use of Depo Provera (which can­not legally be used for contraception in the U.S.) by the Family Planning Association of Kenya and at the use of hazardous IUDs and pills. When the Dalkon Shield was withdrawn from use in America because of the serious associated risks, the manufacturers wrote to every obstetrician and gynecologist in the U.S. recommend­ing its withdrawal. For Third World countries only one letter was written — to the Ambassadors of those countries.

African obstetricians told of steriliza­tions done after as little as 20 minutes of counseling. Others told of women ask­ing why they could not get pregnant; in­vestigation revealed they had been in­jected with Depo Provera and told it was an immunization. The Africans ob­jected to the linking of birth control pro­grams to foreign aid packages, bank loans, nutrition programs and health care, An element of coercion is often in­volved — some women could not get the rehydration packets designed to save the lives of infants dying from gastroenteritis unless they agreed to ac­cept birth control devices.

The concern of the Kenyan Catholic bishops appears to have been justified. The birth control agencies’ calls for liberation of Kenya’s abortion laws and for ready access to contraceptives for young people have been predictably followed by an announcement that fer­tility will be restricted. The great gathering in Nairobi, allegedly in defense of women’s freedom, culminated in a statement from Daniel Arap Moi, President of Kenya, that any woman having her fifth or subsequent child would be financially penalized. No working woman will be in the future entitled to maternity leave should she bear more than four children, and she will be required to pay school fees for any extra children if they are to attend state schools. Kenya, of course, ratified the UN Convention on Women as a prelude to the UN Conference, notwithstanding the fact that the coun­try apparently has no intention of doing anything about polygamy, even among members of Parliament. The local newspaper that carried news of the ratification, had on the same page a pic­ture of a former Cabinet Minister being greeted by “one of his wives.”

UN Conference

The official UN Women’s Decade Conference, attended by 4,000 delegates from 157 countries, the PLO, SWAPO [South West Africa People’s organization], ANC [African National Congress], some interna­tional women’s organizations and media representatives, produced as much vitriolic anti-U.S. rhetoric as the Forum. The American delegation led by Maureen Reagan was under sustained attack from Soviet bloc and Third World regimes; other targets were South Africa and Israel, but the U.S. was held primarily responsible for their actions as well.

If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then the title of the main document under debate was undoubted­ly designed by a UN Committee: “Forward-Looking Strategies of Im­plementation for the Advancement of Women and Concrete Measures to Overcome Obstacles to the Achieve­ment of the Goals and Objectives of the UN Decade for Women for the Period 1986 to the Year 2000: Equality, Development, Peace..” The document had 370 paragraphs, with sub-themes on employment, health and education.

The Conference, which was characterized by gross unpunctuality and interminable delays, divided into three sections: the Plenary, Committee 1, and Committee 2. At the Plenary, representatives of each country made speeches about how much they have done for women during the decade. No one paid much attention until the Israeli delegate rose to speak, whereupon the Soviet bloc and Arab countries staged a noisy walk-out. The Israeli was not given any extra time even though the demonstration had made her quite inaudible.

The most entertaining Plenary ses­sion was that of the “Credentials Com­mittee.” Everyone who had a gripe against anyone else challenged their credentials. Cuba challenged Grenada and also refused to recognize the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea; South Yemen and 39 other countries refused to recognize Israel; the U.S. and Pakistan challenged Afghanistan — “a puppet regime kept in power by the Soviets”; Vietnam and the USSR re­fused to accept the credentials of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea; and Chad, Mali, and some of the North African countries who have border disputes challenged each other. Iran and Iraq exchanged insults and then joined forces to abuse Israel; everyone challenged South Africa (which didn’t attend anyway; its seats were oc­cupied by SWAPO) and much fun was had by all. It didn’t make any difference to anything, and after this UN mating dance everyone settled back into the ritual denunciations of the U.S., South Africa, and Israel, who, as everyone knows, are the main causes of women’s problems.

Committee 2 dealt with the feminist resolutions, the majority of which went through without controversy, the delegates outdoing themselves in dot­ting an “i” here and crossing a “t” there. Most of the paragraphs in the “Forward Looking Strategies” camel had already been agreed upon at preparatory meetings in Vienna and New York; the remaining political issues with foreign affairs implications, such as sanctions against South Africa and whether Zionism is a form of racism, were dealt with in Committee I.

Family planning was a major theme at the UN Conference, as at the Forum, with Forum feminists attempting to ex­ert pressure on the official U.S. delega­tion. The National Organization for Women (NOW) held a press conference to protest the U.S. Justice Department’s brief to reverse Roe v. Wade and tried to give the event legitimacy by in­cluding an Indian’ lawyer who spoke on dowries and the burning of brides, and a Zimbabwean who spoke on “fundamen­tal rights.” Presumably, NOW believes fundamental rights are better honored in Zimbabwe than in America, and although it wasn’t actually stated, the thought definitely hung in the air that anyone who opposed abortion (e.g., Ronald Reagan) must be for the burn­ing of brides.

Committee 1 met in a towering cir­cular building, aptly nicknamed the tower of Babel. The Jordanian delegate made such an impassioned attack on Israel that her microphone drowned out the translators, and thei;‘chairperson several times had to send emissaries to move her back from the mike. Vietnam called the U.S. “a permanent threat to Southeast Asia and the Pacific,” pro- yoking Maureen Reagan to respond: “We know which are the aggressor countries and so do their victims. Millions of refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, are in that tragic condition as a direct result of Vietnam’s brutal occupation of Cam­bodia.” The USSR criticized U.S. policies in Central America and the Middle East, and Afghanistan said the U.S. was “spending billions of dollars to fund mercenaries indulging in ban­ditry and brigandage” and that the three-and-a-half million Afghan refugees in Pakistan were only “absentee landlords.”

In the Plenary and Committee 2 the speakers were women, but in Commit­tee 1, where the difficult political debates occurred, the delegations were led by men. Alan Keyes, U.S. Am­bassador to the UN Economic and Social Council (the only male in the American delegation, was always at Maureen Reagan’s elbow during the tough sessions. My scheduled inter­view with the former cosmonaut, Valentina Tereskhova, ostensible leader of the USSR delegates, was abruptly cancelled during the last crucial day when the real leader, a man, took over negotiations. Perhaps the Soviets were nervous that Tereskhova might say something indiscreet.

The most incongruous sight of all were Khomeini’s black chador-clad “flying nuns,” flitting around the auditorium and alternately babbling about equality and abusing Israel. When asked how she reconciled her costume with “equality,” one of them replied that the costume was “part of her revolutionary ideology” and claimed women were better off under the Ayatollah” because now we can tell our government anything.” I asked: “What do the women tell the government?” She replied: “We tell the government we want the war with Iraq to go on until the final victory so everyone will learn a lesson.”

While the Arab bloc in Committee I was blaming Israel for the world’s ills, news filtered through that in Kuwait a move to give Kuwaiti women the right to vote had suffered a setback; the Inter­pretation Committee of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs had declared that “the nature of the electoral process befits men, who are endowed with ability and expertise. It is not permissible that women recommend or nominate other women or men.” The Kuwaiti delegates at Nairobi claimed not to have heard about this little hiccup in their march to equality.

Controversial resolutions that could not be resolved in Committee I went to a closed negotiating Committee chaired by Munir Akram of Pakistan, and when this group failed to reach consensus, the resolutions were sent back to a final marathon Plenary session which ran from 4 p.m. on Friday, July 26 to 4:30 a.m. on the 27th.

Final Voting

Four paragraphs attributing the une­qual position of women to the developed countries’ failure to establish a New International Economic Order were adopted by 103 votes to 1 against (U.S.), with 29 abstentions. Another paragraph stating that the coercive methods used by developed countries, including trade restrictions and economic sanctions, had adverse effects on the integration of women in develop­ment was adopted by 109 votes with none against and 29 abstentions. Eleven paragraphs on the situation of women under apartheid, calling for sanctions against South Africa, were adopted by 121 votes to 1 against (U.S.), with 13 abstentions.

The most contentious paragraph was one defining Zionism as a form of racism. The Western bloc had refused to accept this definition in Mexico (1975) and Copenhagen (1980) and had consequently refused to adopt the 1975 Plan of Action or the 1980 Program of Action. The 1985 host country, Kenya, was determined to prevent a threatened walkout by the American delegation, and in a marathon closed negotiating session persuaded the PLO, Arab and Soviet bloc countries that they would not necessarily have the numbers (the support of the African countries in the group of 77 non-aligned nations). The PLO finally indicated it would accept the phrase “all forms of racism” in the paragraph, without specific reference to Zionism inasmuch as the UN had cited the latter as a form of racism in previous decisions. The U.S. said it also could accept the formulation on the under­standing that it contained no reference to Zionism.

Finally, a two-part paragraph on Palestinian women and children, citing their problems resulting from forced dislocation and denial of their rights and calling for implementation of the UN Program of Action for the Achievement of Palestinian Rights, was adopted by a vote of 97 to 3 (U.S., Israel, Australia), with 29 abstentions.

One lesson that can be drawn from this finale is that when the West stands firm, as the American delegation did, it can swing over some of the Group of 77. However, although the Conference concluded with consensus on the “For­ward Looking Strategies,” it was in no sense a victory for women, freedom, or the democracies, because these nations are now committed to a feminist agen­da. Among other things, this agenda calls for comparable worth; review of textbooks, curricula, media and adver­tising to eliminate stereotyped roles of men and women (i.e., the traditional family), and “equal participation of women in all fields” (i.e., equal numbers). Men and women are regard­ed as interchangeable commodities, and the document calls for affirmative action until “equitable representation of women” is achieved.

None of the totalitarian countries of Third World dictatorships will imple­ment any of the paragraphs that are in­convenient. Kenya won’t outlaw polygamy, China won’t allow women to have babies as required by Article 16e of the UN Convention (“Women should have the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children”), and Islamic countries are not about to give women the vote. Maureen Reagan was right in referring to the conference as an “orgy of hypocrisy” and in suggesting that the U.S. reconsider its participation in such events in the future. She also deplored the fact that the U.S. received little public support from the other. Western democracies: “The West Europeans, by and large, let us carry the ball a great many times when it would have been nice if they had joined the Americans. We know what their feelings are but when it comes to putting your placard in the air and daring to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, they are unblessedly silent.”

The most plaintive plea of all came from Yulia Vishnepolskaya who came to Israel recently from the Soviet Union and was added to the official Israeli government delegation at the last moment, when she was already in Nairobi for the Forum. “I had hoped the delegation would use me as a witness to the situation in the Soviet Union. They didn’t. Maybe it was because everyone was so preoccupied with refuting the ‘Zionism equals racism’ calumny. They acted as if the plight of Soviet Jewry were my own personal problem, not a state problem. But why then was I included in the of­ficial delegation?” Yulia returned from the conference bewildered by the democratic system which enabled communist Israeli Jews to go to Nairobi only to join in denouncing Zionism as racism. “Why did the government let them go?” she asks, and ponders over the causes of this “self-hatred.” The “self-hatred” is not peculiar to Israel but is endemic among Western feminists.

Yulia Vishnepolskaya would have been equally bemused at the stupidity of U.S. foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie) who, having made their wealth via the free enterprise system, spent thousands of dollars in funding their local Marx Sisters. The Ford Foundation alone gave $640,000 to fund feminists attending the Forum. Yulia did not go to Nairobi out of concern for the status of women. “The status of Soviet Jewry is not dependent on sex,” she stated. She could not feel empathy with those who cried “join us against male oppression” as long as Jewish men and women alike are im­prisoned in the Soviet Union. (So are Catholics, Baptists, Ukrainians, Balts, and others.) “In the Soviet Union and in other non-democratic countries, you know who the enemy is, you feel it with your skin.”

Those who have the good fortune to live in freedom should heed Yulia’s message. Western governments make a serious error in selecting feminists to represent them at UN conferences. Feminists have their own agenda, which does not coincide with their country’s best interests. It is tragic that after five years of a conservative administration in the U.S., only five patriotic or pro- ife American delegates were able to attend the NGO Forum, as against 2,000 feminists. (Patriotism and pro- life attitudes are synonymous in a political sense: if one does not care about the unborn child, one has little stake in a country’s future.) Present were James Deger and Gabrielle Avery from the American Life League, Dr. Carolyn Gerster from Right to Life, and Catherine Sutherland and Anne Schlafly from the Eagle Forum. Any registrant could run a workshop. The American Life League and Right to Life held workshops, as did Women for Life from New Zealand, and I chaired two workshops: one on the role of homemakers, and the other entitled “Women and Freedom,” on the plight of Lithuanian and Afghan women under Soviet domination.

There were of course many other Catholics at Nairobi, such as members of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO) and its affiliates; WUCWO has con­sultative status with the UN. However, these women and other Christians were politically naive and isolated themselves throughout the Forum by centering their activities at a Karibu (Welcome) Centre about a mile away from the Nairobi University campus where all the Forum action took place. For UN conferences WUCWO needs to coordinate its strategies far more closely with pro-life lobby groups; the UN is a political organization and treating it as a social gathering is inadequate.

WUCWO could play an invaluable role in dispelling the UN myths which equate population growth with famine, and which recommend abortion and contraception as the solutions. Even though there were only a handful of pro- lifers (besides the five from the U.S., there were a few from Europe, one from India, two New Zealanders and myself from Australia) we did make a dif­ference; we provided the only effective opposition to the prevailing anti-U.S., pro-population-control ethos. We pro­vided data showing that in comparison with other continents, Africa is not densely populated and that the real causes of famine in Africa are civil wars, dictatorships, corruption, the heavy hand of socialist bureaucracy, and the forced collectivization of land and cattle. We were a thorn in the side of our own feminist delegations (they kept referring to us as splinter groups), and our half-dozen workshops at­tracted media attention even though feminists held over a hundred workshops daily.

When the Vatican delegation was criticized by some liberal Catholics, in­cluding feminist nuns, it was pro-lifers who defended the church against the usual charges of not allowing women to be ordained or to take part in decision- making. In many African countries the Catholic Church is the only oasis of stability, and citizens have come to rely on it for education, medical supplies, even their mail. Western missionaries and African bishops and clergy do a heroic job; there are many teachers of natural family planning and many voca­tions to the religious life. In the not too distant future, Africa may well be sending missionaries to the West. Meanwhile, Western progressivism and feminism continue to constitute a betrayal of Christians living within the Soviet bloc and Third World countries.


  • Babette Francis

    Babette Francis (born 1930 in India), mother of eight children, twenty grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, lives in Melbourne (Australia). She is an independent journalist and regular columnist of their local newspaper as well as several Australian magazines, and for many years she worked for "Radio Australia". She is considered an expert on the women's movement at the international level. Babette Francis led, among other things, a delegation to the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and was an accredited observer at the UN Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996. She reported on the UN Decade for Women World Conference for the Australian journal Quadrant from which the present article is adapted.

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