NEW YORK-Just days before Meryl Streep swished across the Academy Awards red carpet in a white dress, she came to the United Nations in a gray suit and glasses and lent her expressive voice to a plea for women's rights. "Women should not have to wait," she said before introducing Sarah Jones, who took the stage and said in a British accent that she was nervous about speaking before the distinguished body: "I thought a very civilized British accent might kick things off with a bang."
She drew laughs, the accent melted away, and she said she decided instead to be herself-a girl from Queens, New York. Then she launched into a one-woman performance of her play "Women Can't Wait," taking on the persona of seven women who suffered discriminatory laws, ranging from the absurd (women are still not allowed to wear pants in Paris) to the tragic-honor killings and rape. In the character of a bustling Indian woman who had suffered marital rape-a practice banned in India only five years ago-Jones joked about the blockbuster film, Avatar: "I agree that the blue alien women seem to have more rights on their planet."
But the 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which drew Streep and Jones, isn't controversial because of its stance on clothes and rape. Held March 1-12 at the United Nations, the session marked the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In 1995, the Beijing Platform expressed concern about "unsafe abortions" as a "grave public health problem" that contributed to the rise of maternal mortality. Fifteen years later, safe abortion, reproductive health, and maternal mortality are still the buzz words-and the agenda included a new agency to better promote the principles of the Beijing Platform. Christian and conservative groups came to campaign both against the new entity and against abortion as a form of violence against women.
An array of pro-life organizations opposed the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign-a campaign to consolidate four UN women's issues agencies into one agency with its own under-secretary-general, $1 billion in starter funds, and greater programming capacity. In September the General Assembly passed a resolution that would enable the entity's creation, and the movement gained power when the United States made several statements in support of the new agency.
Denmark and the Netherlands led the GEAR Campaign at CSW but met with frustrations. It's that $1 billion that is making nations balk, said Joan Robinson of the Population Research Institute. Member states left GEAR out of the CSW's outcome document, and despite its support of the new entity, the United States left GEAR out of its resolution on maternal mortality. Said Robinson, "The CSW wasn't as much of a success as GEAR wanted it to be."
While GEAR emphasizes maternal mortality to push its case for a stronger agency, maternal mortality is low in some nations that have restrictions on abortion-calling into question the link between illegal abortions and maternal mortality. A recent study from Chile shows that although Chile made its abortion laws stricter in the 1980s, its maternal death rate underwent the largest reduction of any Latin country between 1960 and 2000-from 275 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births to 18.7 deaths. Chile, which now has the lowest maternal mortality rate of any South American country, does not allow abortions if the woman's life is in danger and has rejected United Nations recommendations that it liberalize its abortion laws.
Other pro-lifers countered the idea that even legal abortion is safe. In a parallel event, the Endeavour Forum presented evidence for a link between abortion and breast cancer. Although the National Cancer Institute has denied such a link, Baruch College biology professor Joel Brind and breast surgeon Angela Lanfranchi argued that the Institute's pro-abortion politics have obscured the biological and epidemiological evidence.
Denise Mountenay, Canadian representative for Endeavour Forum, interspersed their presentations with her personal story. Raped at 13 and pregnant at ages 16 and 20, she suffered from a post-abortion infection that damaged her cervix and uterus. "Just because abortion is legal doesn't mean it's safe and doesn't mean it's right," said Mountenay, pulling out a picture of her son and beginning to cry when she said, "He is my only survivor." Carolynn George also spoke of getting an abortion at age 18, developing pelvic inflammatory disease as a result, and falling into depression, suicidal thoughts, and abusive relationships.
Other Christian organizations set the abortion issue aside and focused on violence against women. Amanda Marshall, program development adviser for gender issues with a United Kingdom Christian NGO called Tearfund, can recite a litany of brutal statistics: One in four women will suffer violence in her lifetime. Between the ages of 15 and 44, women are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from war, malaria, cancer, and car crashes combined. In the United Kingdom, two women a week die from domestic violence. In El Salvador, it's one woman per day, and in Russia, one per hour.
Tearfund has developed a program that uses the language of healthy relationships to fight violence, emphasizing love instead of control and selfish power. Tearfund starts with teaching healthy relationships-what Marshall says the church does best-and then teaches that when institutions formally acknowledge rights, they acknowledge the need for relationships based on human dignity. Marshall said Tearfund tested the program in an African village, where the village chief and church members saw the transformation of a man named Amos-once an abusive drunkard but now a man who loves his wife and teaches others to do the same.
Another panel, sponsored by Family Watch International, emphasized the importance of motherhood in cultures where traditional values are under assault. African women who have just given birth go to the "fattening room" where they can be pampered, since motherhood deserves to be rewarded-an honoring that the panelists urged the audience to support. Alveda King, niece to Martin Luther King Jr. and a vocal pro-life advocate, gave the most explicit pro-life plea, echoing the themes of maternal mortality and calling for basic prenatal care instead of abortion advocacy: "Reproductive health should be viewed as procreative health. Pregnancy is a unique, life-giving capability of women that should be affirmed by governments and not treated as a disease to be eliminated."