T V technicians set up their cameras in a large conference hall in Dakar, Senegal, and conversation flowed as delegates and visitors met old colleagues or made new contacts. Suddenly, the buzz stopped. Spontaneously, the whole meeting rose and began singing and clapping.The 200-strong delegation of South African women had entered the hall for the opening ceremony. For the first time, they would participate in a forum of this kind, in the words of one South African delegate “as women now belonging to a respectable and
hopefully responsible and accountable democratic nation.”
Such moments of spontaneous solidarity typified the meeting last November of the NCO forum of the African Regional Preparatory Meeting towards the UN’s Fourth World Conference and NCO Forum on Women, to be held next September in Beijing.The African Forum was the fifth and last of the regional preparatory meetings. Four others had been held in the Asian and Pacific, Latin American and Caribbean, European and North American and Arab regions. As in these other meetings,the Forum preceded governmental and Ministerial sessions. The meeting was organised to help shape the official processes of Beijing by ensuring that preparation incorporated recommendations from a wide range of women’s organisations. The forum also allowed NCOs to appraise their role in the women’s movement and to plan towards and beyond Beijing. Key tasks were to discuss and amend the Draft Africa Platform of Action prepared by the UN Economic Commission fo r Africa (ECA) and adopt an NCO Plan of Action.The Forum was organised by the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET),a Nairobi-based regional NCO, with the support of a steering committee consisting of two planning groups in Nairobi and Dakar. Fortv-five workshops were registered, covering health, legal rights, education, environment, economic empowerment, the girl child, gender and development,culture, family and socialisation and women with disabilities. The Forum themes – carried through from Nairobi a decade ago – were development, equality and peace.
Participants at the Forum came from all regions of Africa and included local, national and regional NCOs, church groups, foreign NCOs operating on the continent and UN bodies.
The main business of the Forum was conducted in a large hotel complex with tents set up to supplement the rooms designated for workshops.Exhibitions of literature, technology,
handicrafts and textiles vied for delegates’ attention with several workshops running simultaneously each day.
Double-booking of both accommodation and workshop rooms was a persistent problem. Almost five thousand delegates and visitors overwhelmed facilities planned for less than third of that number. But groups were creative in using presentations,panel discussions, films, role
plays, poe try and music to highlight workshop themes and hold attention- illustrating the different strategies women have employed to make themselves heard at home and abroad.
Njoki Wainana, chairperson of FEMNET, se t the tone in her opening address when she called on Forum participants to assess critically the Forward-looking Strategies (F1.5) the document of the 1985 Nairobi Conference. The FLS remained largely unimplemented and the situation of women had in fact worsened. “We are he re in Dakar to as k ourselves why,”she challenged. However, she acknowledged the gains women ha d made during the in intervening decade, especially in networking Id ea s and experiences to improve their own lives. The Forum, she said; was one example of such successful networking. A major thread running through the event was the recognition that unequal power relationships were a t the heart of women’s marginalisation. As Wainana noted, “we will be bold in asserting that the disadvantaged situation of women a rises from unequal power relations between men and women…Ten years ago, we shied away from talking about power relations.Now we know there can be no meaningful development nor equality nor peace nor social justice where over 50% of the population is powerless.”Many workshops reinforced this point by stressing the differential
impacts of processes and policies on women and men, particularly those workshops on the girl child, violence against women, women with disabilities,economic policies (particularly structural adjustment programmes SAPs-and their socio-economic impacts) and the effects of religious fundamentalism. Other workshops sought strategies to improve women’s capacity to solve these problems through alternative media, gender sensitivity training, capacity-building
for organisations and individuals,lobbying, networking skills, fund- raising and resource mobilisation.Everywhere, the agenda was concrete action. “The women and NGOs arc saying get to the grassroots people and find out what they arc doing, but the men will be talking about issues such as conflict management in a very abstract way,” noted Acha ta Pate Okeyo, Unifem Africa· A number of regiona l networks he ld thei r own preparatory strategic meetings before the Forum, including Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN), Women in Law and Developmen t in Africa (WILDAF) an d the African Women’s Economic Policy Network (AWEpON).DAWN, an inter-regional research and advocacv network of women in
the Third W(;rld dea ling with alternative approaches to development, was vocal about the negative impact of economic policies on women. Under the theme “challlenging the gh’en,”
DAWN’s panel on economic policy disputed World Bank claims that SAPs in Africa had become successful and that the re we re no a lternatives.
The workshop demanded a complete overhaul of development policy.DAWN made a number of recommendations for a new development agenda. These included mobilising to demand the equal pa rticipation of women wit h men in the for mulation and execution of economic policy.
Equal weight, said DAWN, should be accorded to social and economic considerations. Recognising th at the market is not the best allocator of resources, policy-makers must end the
exploitation of women’s work to subsidise economic policies. Women had developed successful strategies to cope with the negative effects of economic policies and these must be acknowledged .AWEPON, an emerging network involved in economic justice issues.used role-play to great effect in the discussion of the gender-differential effects of SAPs on African families.The workshop also discussed strengthening NGOs to address some of the negative consequences of SAPs. The WILOAF workshop, which discussed strategies to promote respect for women’s rig hts, stressedthe need for ,1 legal framework to provide dignity and equality for
women so they can par ticipate fully in development. WILDAF was also concerned with the legal aspects of violence against women. Darlene Rude, a social advocacv co-ordinator from Zambia, noted For killing a wife the sentences a relenient and charges often drop from murder to homicide where the sentence is lessthan five years.