Bringing Beijing Home...and into the classroom

Lyn Reese

The rain, almost a squall at times, beat insistently against the roof of our fragile tent, all but drowning out the calm voice of Hillevi Ruotonen from Finland. Valiantly ignoring the elements which threatened to bring a watery end to her workshop, she raised her soft voice. Her listeners gathered closer together, refusing to leave, determined to hear her describe what the "Nordic Education Model," (NORD-LILIA Project), a five nation research project, was doing to address multiple issues of gender within schools.
We learned that participants in the Nordic project are committed to making students and educators more aware of attitudes about gender, especially where these attitudes might be discriminatory. The project aims at improving the self-esteem of female students, and bringing the behavior of both male and female students more in line with the principles of gender equality. The Nordic project's apparent success was a result of its flexibility, solid funding from all involved nations, and, in some schools, total staff involvement in initiating and assessing equality activities. In creating the model, participating teachers developed and evaluated their own approaches.

Teachers at the workshop told us that they had at first encountered resistance to raising gender issues. The illusion that "there's no problem here" exists even in Scandinavian "welfare states" with high educational levels. Some had successfully overcome the resistance by holding in-school workshops that examined a whole range of teacher values and attitudes about teaching. The project has been helpful in drawing attention to a tendency to marginalize research on gender education, which added to the lack of knowledge about gender issues among school administrators.

The turbulent end of the monsoon season was the backdrop for the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Women's Conference held in Beijing-Hairou in September 1995. Those of us gathered in the Nordic workshop were only a small "raindrop" among the over twenty-five thousand attendees, many of whom were members of grassroots organizations (NGOs, or non-governmental organizations), which represented millions more women at home.

Daily demonstrations, some planned, some spontaneous, added color beyond that provided by the traditional clothes worn by many of the participants. At first, Chinese authorities attempted to restrict demonstrators to a "parade ground" in a designated section of the site. When women ignored this, the demonstrations came to symbolize our determination to express ourselves on our own terms. As Madeline Albright, head of the American delegation, noted, the conference should be "a place where women who are not allowed to speak in their own countries, or within their own families, can find like-minded women."

Many demonstrations, such as the one condemning violence against women, spoke to universal female issues. One titled Women Weaving the World Together was created by organizations which, before the conference, had woven panels containing symbols depicting their interests. In Beijing, the women stitched their panels together, forming an enormous woven "ribbon" which was paraded in a seemingly unending line throughout the site, a visual announcement of the efforts of hundreds of grass-roots movements. Later the ribbon was displayed at the Great Wall.

Numerous high-quality performances, ranging from street theater to full scale concerts, were another way to learn visually about women's concerns. Many encouraged audience participation. Sometimes we even created the drama ourselves. Once, I arrived at the Mongolian tent to hear an Irish singer perform traditional ballads about women. The singer never appeared-not an uncommon conference experience, as visas had been so difficult to get. Lacking the singer, we simply did what became the norm when workshop presenters didn't appear-we created the program ourselves. In this case, among us was a contingent from Morocco which, to our delight, had a tape of Moroccan music. The music was played and the dance lessons begun. Looking at my slides, I still feel the joy and sense of celebration we experienced at this moment. The slides show strong women who from experience have learned never to let obstacles stand in the way of their performance.

Back home, I discovered that I had been one of seven thousand conference attendees from the United States. I was at the eight-day NGO portion of the conference at Hairou with a group of San Francisco Bay Area educators eager to present a guide we had spent over a year developing. Our intent in creating the International Action Guide for Equity in Girl's Education was to give educators a useful tool in developing action strategies in their own communities. Our two overflowing workshops, spiced with lively discussions, encouraged us to believe in the usefulness of our effort, and confirmed our sense that there are some universal obstacles girls face even if they live in widely diverse nations.

Global Approaches to Education
Beijing offered an unrivalled opportunity to learn about strategies other educators have developed to combat the obstacles faced by girls across the world. Among the highlights were

Education was only one of the twelve critical issues the conference participants met to discuss. By the time the conference was over, 189 governments had adopted and signed the UN Platform for Action.

The Platform contains 361 paragraphs detailing guidance for concrete action in twelve areas of "criticaquot; concern. In general, the document consolidates the gains that women have achieved over the past twenty years, while identifying some new areas of concern. It advances concepts such as the valuation of women's unpaid work and the protection of women from rape in wartime.

While the vast majority of countries agreed to adopt the Platform for Action, over forty countries indicated that they had a problem with certain portions of it. There was wrangling over language, notably the meaning of "gender," a concept that doesn't exist in many languages, and over what "feminization" might mean. Most reservations were taken by Islamic and Catholic countries that stressed that the document must be interpreted according to the religious or cultural traditions in their countries.

The issue of whether human rights are universal or relative was debated, but in the end it was accepted that the international community cannot condone practices that violate universally accepted human rights. The concept of women's rights to equal inheritance, limited through custom in some regions, was affirmed. Language on sexual orientation did not get into the document, although the right of women to control their own sexuality did: "the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence." The promotion of sex education in schools was fought over and finally included.

This document is a blueprint of specific actions governments should follow to promote gender equality. Even with its flaws, and even if unenforceable, the UN Platform for Action is the strongest international official statement on women to date. If implemented, it could result in great changes. Parliaments, legislators, and ministers of the world, including the United States through the White House Interagency Council on Women, have begun its implementation.

Following Up in the United States
Throughout the year, those of us who are educators have asked ourselves how lessons learned at Beijing can be brought into classrooms. Are there places in our curriculum where information about women's global concerns rightly belongs? Can students be made aware of links between the concerns of the world's women and their own? Can we share with students what we commonly had to learn to do at Beijing-seeing every issue from cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-ethnic perspectives? Can the positive examples of the ways in which women in many parts of the world negotiate and work for change be transmitted to students? Will they understand the extent to which the concerns women identify as obstacles to their progress are linked to the progress of their country?
Some educators have begun to address these questions, undertaking greater efforts to enrich old tried and true lessons by including the global perspectives of women. Examples include:

In another example, Susan Groves, who teaches U.S. history at Berkeley High School, has used case studies from our International Action Guide, which she helped develop, as a way to personalize obstacles some girls face in receiving an education. After reading an account of an African girl's efforts to achieve the same education as her brother, her students explored what "access" might mean in the U.S. by focusing on female access to sports, access for the disabled, and access to education of undocumented immigrant children. Groves also led her students to a better understanding of the main points of the UN Platform for Action by sending them into the community to do research or volunteer work in community organizations. They returned with a heightened interest in comparing their findings with those discussed in the UN's Platform, as well as an increased understanding of the role of non-governmental organizations.

The Beijing conference also inspired women's organizations to produce classroom materials related to the event. Among current projects, for example, Linda Birnham of the Berkeley Women of Color Resource Center is working with a group of teachers and high school students to create lessons that examine consistent issues confronting the world's women. High student-interest topics, such as violence, sexual abuse, gender stereotyping, health, reproduction rights, and work, will be drawn into an examination of how women's lives globally have been impacted by changes over recent decades. These include the power of multinational corporations, structural readjustment policies, trafficking in women, threats to the environment, low wages for women and children, and gender stereotyping.

The Wellesley Center for Research on Women has begun a complementary project for the younger adolescent student. Two lessons from this effort should be available from the Center this winter. One uses student concepts of fairness to encourage an examination of ways in which women globally have suffered injustice and do not have full human rights. Images and information from the conference will show how the extension of full human rights to women is an active on-going process, and how grassroots groups can make a change. Another activity makes visible linkages between students as consumers and the lives of women in countries that produce their products.

These lessons will do more than make visible the walls that must be breached before women and girls achieve full equality and economic opportunity. The springboard for these developments was a conference which, in its size, sophistication, and clout, may have proved the "coming of age" of the international women's movement. Knowledge of the momentum gained by the women's movement in the past decade, and of the bonding women have achieved even across the North-South divide, can challenge prevalent stereotypes that see women as weak and ineffectual victims. The key word at the conference was "activism"-searching for examples of what works to put into effect back home. For educators, whether they went to Beijing or not, the actions taken "back the classroom" will be key to the ultimate success of the Fourth Women's World Conference.

Lyn Reese is Director of Women in World History Curriculum, Berkeley, CA, and the author of most of its published material. She attended the Beijing conference as a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Girls' Education Network.