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War Over Words Divides UN Women's Conference

MERWAT TALLAWY is in the hot seat of the United Nations women's summit in Beijing. An Egyptian diplomat, and currently her country's ambassador to Japan, Ms. Tallawy is mediating the battle over issues on sex and reproductive health, the most divisive and far-reaching of the Fourth World Conference on Women.

At issue in her committee, one of several trying to hammer out a compromise global agenda for women in the next century, are such contentious issues as sex education for teenagers, punishment for illegal abortions, and a general manifesto on sexual rights.

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"This is a very sensitive area if you take into account the various backgrounds and cultures of each region," she says. "We are starting a process of educating ourselves. A lot is unknown. We should not expect too much. It has to be an evolution of knowledge and thinking."

For the past week, the war of words over an international document for women's rights has raged in Beijing among delegates from more than 180 governments and crusaders from scores of women's interest groups.

The once-a-decade conference has retriggered debate over abortion, women's roles, the family, government commitments to women, and other contentious issues affecting the lives of millions of women around the world.

The centerpiece is the so-called "Platform for Action," up to one-third of which was in brackets or in dispute when the 12-day conference opened on Sept. 4. The conclave, which overlapped with a forum of nongovernmental advocacy groups attended by more than 20,000 people, will have produced a new document by its close on Friday.

As the conference formally takes up the draft agenda today, small working committees have been horse-trading and chiseling away at bracketed sections of the 120-page document in search of a compromise.

The debate has pitted a peculiar alliance of the Vatican, Muslim fundamentalist countries, led by Iran, and American conservative groups who say the draft agenda is antifamily and motherhood, against most delegates who want to keep liberal wording thrashed out at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo last year.

In addition to sexual issues, extending human rights assurances universally without exempting individual countries is also a major sticking point.

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"We are in a lot better shape for consensus than we were at this time in Cairo," says Melinda Kimball, an American diplomat and senior negotiator.

In many ways, the meeting is a rerun of the Cairo conference that glossed over disagreements on sexual issues with fuzzy wording hammered out in all-night, last-minute negotiations.

The Vatican has been in the forefront of challenging parts of the draft that it charges promotes "negative" feminism over women's roles that focus on the family. Rallying to the Catholic cause are Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, and Ecuador.

The church wants "to emphasize that marriage, motherhood, and the family, or the adherence to religious values, should not be presented only in a negative manner," says Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who is heading the Vatican's delegation.

The draft document "is not bold enough in acknowledging the threat to women's health arising from widespread attitudes of sexual permissiveness," she says.

But many other women say the platform is not an agenda of radicals, but a manifesto for women who are now part of the political mainstream. They are determined to protect hard-fought compromise language on birth control and human rights worked out during earlier conferences.

Already, delegates have pushed through a plan to use the word "gender" over the opposition of conservative factions who say it was too ambiguous and would legitimize homosexuality.

Another such semantic nitpicking is substituting "equity" for "equality." Fundamentalist Islamic countries say use of the word equity would allow more flexibility in interpreting inheritance, divorce, and employment laws. They fought the word equality because it gives women the same rights as men.

"The greatest tragedy would be if we women at this conference are not able to take this process forward," says Attiya Inayatullah, a UN official from Pakistan, who is representing the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

But in such battles of semantics, liberals and moderates have run up against a powerful Muslim bloc led by Iran.

Although Tunisia and Morocco usually side with the liberals, fundamentalist countries spearheaded by Iran and Sudan have reopened issues thought to have been settled in Cairo.

"We are likely to end up with a very watered-down document by the end of this," predicts Ali Yousif Ahmed, the Sudanese ambassador in Beijing.

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