November 1, 1995

The Beijing Conference on Women: One Documentarian's View

For me, as an independent documentary filmmaker, attending the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing was both personal and political. In graduate school I had specialized in international organizations and attended several U.N. conferences. In 1980 I had gone to the U.N. Women's Conference in Copenhagen to crew on a live teleconference from Copenhagen to six studio sites in the United States.  I interviewed Palestinian activists there until they realized I was American ... and Jewish. It was my first media job. Fifteen years later, I was going to capture what events might transpire for the Tibetan refugee women who had been able to get visas to go to the U.N. conference in China for a documentary I am making titled Tibetan Women Refugees. I see the Tibetans' ongoing efforts for recognition at the United Nations as analogous to Palestinian attempts to be recognized as sovereign from the Israelis. That the conference was being held in China made these Tibetan women's attendance that much more dramatic.

Prior to the conference in September, tension arose between China and the United States due to the Chinese arrest of Harry Wu, an activist who has exposed Chinese prison and labor camp conditions and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Wu was convicted of espionage but deported before the start of the conference, which allowed for normal U.S. activities there, especially First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's attendance. I think the conference got more press coverage because of this incident.

I was going to film the Tibetan women, to give a workshop, to attend the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum on Women that was being held August 30 to September 8, coinciding with the U.N. conference, and to cover these events for ID. We who were registered to attend were advised to be careful. Having been warned of strict security, I didn't know what to expect. I arrived after midnight on an Air China flight from San Francisco. There were special tables and signs and a custom clearance track marked "UNCW," but because of the late hour, no one was there to search us, greet us, or help us with directions.  I was to meet my partner, Vanessa Smith, at the Holiday Inn in Beijing.  I was happy that I had reserved a room over their 800 reservation line after being told by travel agents that there would be no rooms in Beijing.  Disinformation and conflicting orders would reign supreme at the conference.

 

Bureaucracy and More Bureaucracy

My attempts to get press credentials became difficult because of ponderous bureaucracy on the part of the United Nations and the Chinese Organizing Committee for the conference.  Prior to leaving, I had faxed all the pertinent forms to the U.N. Media Accreditation Office for my press pass.  I was told they were having trouble processing the thousands of requests and they were going to set up shop in Beijing. Whomever I spoke to in New York told me just to go with the proper paperwork and handle it there, but once there I was told there was a problem.  The editor of ID called the U.N. press office in China and was told I had the "wrong kind of visa," although no one had informed me I needed a special journalist's visa before I left.

Several extremely rude United Nations civil servants informed me that this magazine is not considered "real media"  because it is a trade association newsletter.  I was accused of  "just trying to get into the governmental conference after the NGO Forum." Even if that were true, I'm not sure what the accusation meant.  Was it wrong for an independent filmmaker to report on the conference?  As a huge bureaucracy, the United Nations does not recognize the spirit of independent professionals operating alone.  Unless one is with a network or broadcast station, one is not legitimate at the United Nations. I have never had trouble getting a press pass before.  I am a member of three NGOs officially accredited at the conference,  and that is ultimately how I got to attend.

The governmental conference was held at a facility quite like the L.A. Convention Center. It was closed in an interior conference space adjacent to the Continental Hotel, where many delegates stayed. As such, the security going in was tighter than at the NGO Forum in Huairou, which took over the entire provincial town an hour from Beijing. But once you were inside, it was like being in any United Nations facility in the world rather than in China.

Because the two sites were so far apart, a day had to be planned carefully. Buses connected events for attendees, but they were slow. When it rained, the tent sites in Huairou turned to mud , and most things scheduled there were canceled. The NGO Forum had scheduled 5,000 workshops in ten days. Events began at 9 a.m. and continued as long as you could keep your eyes open. My partner and I were scheduled to present a workshop on development communications. Although we had registered the workshop in April , it had mysteriously not appeared in the printed directory, so we had to put up signs and ask people to come. As a result the attendance was small. Other workshops were listed, but the conveners were not able to get to the conference. Grassroots organizations, academics, international agencies, and private people were all welcome to have their say.

The workshops followed the 12 content areas of the Platform of Action, the document the government delegates were to agree upon at the U.N . conference. These areas were: poverty (women constitute 70 percent of the world's poor); education (of the 1 billion illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women); women's health issues; violence (domestic violence against women seems to be escalating worldwide); armed conflict (women and their dependents comprise 75 percent of the world's refugees); economic participation (women starting small businesses is big news globally); power sharing and decision making (women do not have much decision-making authority in business or government); national and international machineries (how do we track the status of women?); human rights; mass media; environment and development; and the girl child (how can we improve her future?).

There was a great spirit of cooperation at the conference and concern among the women attending that the international media were reporting only the difficulties. Despite logistical problems and bad weather, attendees persevered and stayed focus. At one point I was acting as my own crew, rolling around camera and tripod on a dolly. Unknowingly I knocked over one of the many flower pots that had been set up throughout Huairou. Without comment, several attendees hastened to right it. At that moment I realized how pristine the streets of Huairou were: there was no litter, the festive conference banners and posters were untouched, and the place looked as spruced up as it had when we all first arrived. What was truly delightful about this global event was that one constantly met people from the far reaches of the world. Often in restaurants we sat at tables with people from five or six countries, communicating as we could.

 

The Chinese Context

On the positive side, I saw no homeless people or hungry people in Beijing. Everyone was dressed. Electricity was everywhere and constant. There was public transportation. The children I saw were treated with considerable affection. Speaking no Chinese, I could talk to few people. But those who spoke English were guarded. The thousands of Chinese delegates read their talks and did not speak extemporaneously. Freedom of thought, information, and individual expression is not seen as a right; it is an alien concept, perhaps tainted with bourgeois values. Chinese women were clearly proud of their active role in rebuilding China, of being in the government and industrial workplace. The young people are interested in business development and prosperity in China.

My partner and I did not know if we would be able to show a rough cut of Tibetan Women Refugees at our workshop. We had decided to take on the project last year because we realized that, while everyone knows who the Dalai Lama is and while Tibetan monks on various tours in the United States have gotten recognition for Tibetan Buddhism, almost nothing is recorded about Tibetan women's role in preserving their rich heritage. In Dharamsala we had interviewed the most extraordinarily committed group of Tibetan women who work for the government-in-exile. Many hair­ raising stories of difficult escapes over mountain passes from the Chinese torture and imprisonment made us apprehensive about this trip. The refugees consider Tibet an occupied country, where their people are denied religious freedom and where they have become a minority in their own native land. The Chinese position is that they "liberated" Tibet from an oppressive feudal system and the Tibet Autonomous Region is thriving under their "guidance." I had never been to China before and wondered if my activities on behalf of Tibetan refugees would be noticed there.

I witnessed a threatening confrontation directed at the Tibetan refugee delegation. Someone told me it made the front page of the New York Times. A video of refugee women produced by the Tibetan Women's Association in Dharamsala was not flattering to the Chinese. Although it was shown, some plainclothesmen tried to take the tape away from Eva Herzer, an American lawyer active in the International Lawyer's Campaign for Tibet. She would not let it go, although a Chinese man tried to tear it from her hands. So many women surrounded them that the Chinese men backed off. The Tibetan refugee women were followed and harassed at other times also. The huge international press attention they received seems to have protected them. They were interviewed by hundreds of media people.

So many items disappeared from conference goers' rooms that an official complaint was filed to the Chinese Organizing Committee. The things that disappeared were not valuables, like jewelry, but tapes, cassettes, and printed matter. We had been warned by the U.S. State Department of possible arrest for meeting in small groups, distributing literature, or proselytizing. But no conference goers were arrested. Although there were Chinese eyes and ears everywhere, no one wanted tension to escalate. And the overwhelming majority of the issues raised at the conference and forum were not directed at China.

 

Global Media Issues for Women

One quickly went into information overload at this conference. Global statistical data had been gathered, policies recommended, and plans of action drafted. Following are some of the highlights that emerged on the media issue. (The information is gleaned from U.N. documents prepared for the conference. They are available online at http://www.lgc.apc.org/beijing/.)

Today, more women work in the media than 20 years ago, but few make policy decisions. In most countries, mass media give a distorted picture of women's roles and their contributions to communities and countries. Relying on stereotyped images, the media reinforce outdated views. The media are generally controlled by men and may therefore reflect men's perceptions and priorities.

Women's overall share of jobs in all media is low. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the female average is below 25 percent for broadcasting and the press . In Europe it reaches 30 percent for the press and 36 percent for broadcasting . Women are rarely placed in top media jobs. Studies by UNESCO of 200 media organizations in 30 countries worldwide show that only seven are headed by women. A ten-country study by the United Nations shows that only 1.4 percent of television news items deal with women's issues, and three-quarters of these are presented by men.

The purpose of U.N. issue conferences is to establish policies and guidelines for change, after determining what needs to be changed. Preparations take years and entail regional policy meetings and data collection to determine the status of things. General actions proposed by U.N. agencies for governments are to promote women's equal participation in the media; to encourage and recognize women's media networks; and to promote research and implementation of an information strategy for ensuring a balanced portrayal of women.

Actions proposed by U.N. agencies for national and international media systems and NGOs are to develop balanced and diverse portrayals of women by the media; to encourage the establishment of media watch groups to monitor the media; and to train women to make greater use of information technology.

A San Francisco non profit organization called the Institute for Global Communications made their online email system available to all at the conference. Over 3,000 people signed up as users. The enthusiasm for e-mail as a low-cost means of keeping in touch and exchanging information internationally was high. IGC created Womensnet (e-mail address un.wcw.doc.eng ) for women's organizations to communicate after the conference. A web page (www.igc.apc.org/beijing/) also provides current information about the conference and documentation.

The United Nations Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) released a status report called Content Discontent: Toward a Fair Portrayal of Women in the Media. It too noted the ever-increasing impact of media with new technologies being developed around the world. They emphasized that the power of the media extends not only to what is covered but also to what is omitted and called for more information about women's real lives.

Traditionally women's news has been seen as "soft news." How women have become important social, professional, and economic providers can be forgotten by looking at most news and media portrayal. INSTRAW recommends supporting alternative media. By United Nations standards,independents are considered alternative media. INSTRAW also provided a checklist for the fairer portrayal of women in the media. They recommend that media offices increase the visibility of women working i n media, cover women's sports, use more material by women journalists, have both sexes represented on decision-making bodies, and use nonsexist language .

 

Women at Work in the Media 

Women earn 25 percent less over 30 years working in the media than men. Women increase their salaries 15 times in the course of their careers; men increase theirs 30 times. Only a tiny minority of women are in senior management and technical jobs in the media. Across 79 radio and television networks, only 6 percent of top management positions were held by women.

The Platform of Action at a U.N. conference is the essential document the government officials gather to deliberate upon and approve. The process is arduous word-by-word negotiation. The platform is drafted before the start of the conference by the U.N. with input from NGOs and regional conferences. A number of sessions at the NGO Forum were initiated by the Swedish Institute for Further Education of Journalists (FOJO) to build on the work they started in Sweden. FOJO educates journalists and fosters exchange between north/south journalists. In Huairou they included all the media women who wanted to join in the meetings. We reviewed and adopted their declaration-called the Kalmar Declaration, after the Swedish city where it had been formulated-in Huairou, and a Swedish delegate to the governmental conference introduced it there. (For information about the Kalmar Declaration, contact FOJO at phone number 46-480-44-6400 or fax 46-480-44-6420.)

In this gathering of media women, I was amazed at how small our independent documentary community is. CNN was there, as were all the major news services, a new Canadian government-run satellite station about women, one women's radio station from Latin America, various national television stations. Newspapers and networks reported the conference throughout the world. But it is the independent media that have the most ability to look at the mainstream and outside with a critical eye. It was the independent documentary filmmakers at the conference who were actually enacting the Platform of Action recommendations about the portrayal of women in the media and the benefit of women working in media.

One of the many events was an ongoing video festival. The diversity of issues was incredible. Many of the videos were made for international organizations, with moving pieces for Amnesty International, the National Film Board of Canada, and Women's International Production Inc., which commissioned five-minute shorts from around the world. A few independent works were presented, including an unforgettable piece on the banned tradition of footbinding in China and an independent look at the international monetary system. We were there, proud to represent an independent view and bring our chosen issue to light. But we were so small, individuals among these huge global bureaucracies.

The mood of the forum very much supported grassroots women and organizations, but all agreed that economic realities make it difficult for small-scale projects to flourish. Although the virtues of decentralization were praised and new media were seen as a means to this kind of diversification, there is no road map to this new world. Here we were making a video about Tibetan refugee women who face extreme circumstances and provide leadership for their communities, portraying women in a way rarely seen in mainstream media. As producers we embody the vision of the media as stated in the Platform of Action. So what if the U.N. wouldn't give me a press pass? So what if the fund raising has been slow? So what if we don 't know how we'll complete it or exactly what kind of distribution it will get? There was satisfaction in playing a part on this global stage.

The conference was enormous, with over 27,000 women attending from all over the world. The demographics assembled in status reports about women's conditions are grim. Domestic violence worldwide towards women has increased in the past decade; women's legal rights are not equitable in many countries and hard to enforce when they are; the mortality rates for girl infants are higher than for boys. These are difficult issues with only complex solutions possible. Our documentary project shows one refugee group in an ever-growing global refugee population. Each group had a right to be heard there. We talked macro and micro, policy and detail, art, culture and technology. It was a women's world fair of ideas. Coming from the struggling, cynical, natural-disaster ridden world of Los Angeles where I live, it was reaffirming to attend this conference and connect to a global progression for women, their concerns, and the functions they serve today.

The first United Nations Women's Conference was held in 1975. Many of the women's "rights" agreed upon universally in 1995 were considered controversial or even heretical in 1975. There is a historical intellectual evolution going on in the world having to do with what it means to be human and what basic human rights should and can be. I believe the media are truly a driving force in this evolution and was pleased to contribute to the expression of global images and ideas about women at the NGO Forum, in my own small, independent way.

 

Roslyn Dauber is an independent documentarian based in Los Angeles. She can be reached via the web page http://www.igc.apc.org/dfs/ or e-mail rdauber@igc.apc.org.