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Women Link Up From Austria to Zambia

WHETHER by moped or modem, the world's women are linking up like never before.

Networks of women's activist groups are extending their political influence far beyond family, village, or nation, say the groups' leaders.

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This web of women's organizations has been expanding for at least a couple of decades, but the pace has picked up over the past year as thousands gear up for this September's United Nations conference on women.

While the gathering in Beijing will tackle women's problems from sex slavery to the corporate glass ceiling, its size is already seen as a triumph: The number of expected attendees -- mainly nongovernmental activists -- will be four times that of the first such UN meeting two decades ago.

Several preparatory conferences to define issues have been held on different continents, and ''two to three times more women were turning up than had been planned for,'' says Anne Walker, director of the International Women's Tribune Center, a New York-based women's research organization that grew out of the first conference in Mexico City in 1975.

More than 1,500 attended recent UN nongovernmental organizational (NGO) conference meetings in both Argentina and Austria, and more than 5,000 African women attended the NGO forum in Dakar, Senegal.

''Women have always been deeply involved in community affairs at every level,'' Ms. Walker says. ''But they are now getting organized and requesting assistance.'' She says she gets requests for project funding from women's groups from all corners of the globe, sometimes written by hand on scraps of paper.

Many women's groups are local, informal, fluid, and thus difficult to count. But their numbers have grown to more than 20,000 worldwide, Walker estimates.

Their growth comes partly as a result of UN and Western efforts to bring women's groups together.

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''Women haven't gotten everything they've wanted. But from where I'm sitting and watching this, [women organizing] is new, it's different, and it's definitely having an impact,'' says Barbara Adams, senior program officer for the United Nations nongovernmental liaison service.

Widening reach

Communications advances, from fax to Internet, have also helped spawn the women's network.

''Having women from other countries or urban areas talk about their experiences is key,'' says Katherine Kilbourn of Grassroots International, a Boston-based funding organization with projects dedicated to women's advancement. ''It gives [rural women] a vision of what could be. The cross-fertilization of ideas woman-to-woman is extremely important.''

And the growth of democracy, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, has created ''a climate for women to organize for their own rights,'' says Jill Meric, communications director of the Washington-based International Women's Center for Research, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women's development internationally.

''It's very strengthening for women,'' Ms. Meric says, whose group cosponsored a round table of Latin American women to put women's issues on the agenda for last December's summit of Western Hemispheric leaders in Miami.

''It's like what the old boys have done for so long,'' she says. ''It gives women ... political muscle.''

The string of UN women's conferences -- in 1975, '80, '85, and '95 in Beijing -- as well as more focus on women in almost all international agencies, has helped shore up money for women's projects from developed countries.

''There was a recognition by the UN that women's issues were important,'' says Magaly Marques, program adviser for International Planned Parenthood Federation in Brazil. The UN conferences gave women something to organize around and provided a way for them to hold their governments accountable, she says. ''What we want the UN to give us is more visibility.''

Bound for Rio

At the 1992 UN conference on environment in Rio de Janeiro, a group of 1,500 women led by former US Congresswomen Bella Abzug drafted a ''Women's Environmental Agenda'' that was presented to conference leaders. Ms. Abzug's complaint: ''They were deciding the fate of the earth without input from 50 percent of the world; and not only 50 percent of the world, but the earth's primary caretakers.''

While their efforts achieved little concrete action at the time, the success of unifying women at Rio led Abzug to found the Women's Caucus, a massive collection of women's groups that now organizes in concert with most international UN conferences to represent a woman's perspective. The Caucus was active at the Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and the UN's population conference in Cairo last year.

Their efforts not only try to influence policy, but also help women improve their organizing skills. ''The experience of working through the process is as important as the document itself,'' says Marsha Freeman, senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch.

Hard times

In many cases, women have been forced to organize.

In South Africa's northern Transvaal region, women fought for representation on traditional male-only village councils after most of the men in the area left to find migrant work. Women realized they must make decisions for the village, says Shamim Meer, founder of Speak, a magazine in South Africa dedicated to women's issues.

And in Haiti, during a 1991 to 1994 military dictatorship that forced many men into hiding, women were often left on their own. Many become targets of violence. As a result, women's groups mobilized to talk about the violence -- a taboo subject at the time -- and looked for ways to protect against it.

''Women have always found ways of looking for help and getting it,'' says Nuhad Jamal, program coordinator for Grassroots International. ''Women turn to each other when their structures are in crisis. They tend to find each other and say, 'What can we do?' ''

Despite new opportunities for women to organize, some successes have led to setbacks.

In Eritrea, for example, women were very active in the country's 30-year fight for independence from Ethiopia. But after peace broke out in 1991, women soldiers -- some 30 percent of the armed forces -- found themselves pushed back into a male-dominated society. ''Eritrean women are finding it's not so easy to bring about the change of tradition,'' Ms. Jamal says.

In the political arena, women have yet to show much progress. ''I don't know that society is totally prepared for that,'' Ms. Marques says. In 1988, 15 percent of elected officials worldwide were women, according the Inter-American Commission of Women, an arm of the Organization of American States in Washington. In 1991, only 11 percent were. (The 1991 rate included more countries.)

Even the UN, which has bolstered the women's movement in so many ways, is criticized for its under-representation of women at high levels.

''The UN and all its international agencies do not recognize equal-employment roles,'' says Fran Hosken, director of the Women's International Network, a clearinghouse for women's organizations, based in Lexington, Mass. ''Instead of setting an example, the UN considers itself above the law.''

Though there is a long road ahead, most women's organizers look at how far they have come for strength to face where to go next.

''It's always about people making the claim, moving the agenda forward, even if it takes a generation to do that,'' the Humphrey Institute's Ms. Freeman says. ''Teaching women that life does not have to be the way it is right now is the catalyst.''

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