THE most significant development at the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing earlier this month, may well be the one that has received the least comment. Mid-way through what sometimes seemed like endless round-the-clock negotiations, a working session finally agreed to recognize that the human rights of women include the right to exercise control over their own sexuality - free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.
With this consensus, the vast majority of the world's governments acknowledged that previous guarantees of political and economic equality remain hollow so long as women are unprotected from physical violation and sexual abuse in the home and outside of it.
For international diplomats to take on such sensitive subjects - and to assert that full equality for women requires ''mutual respect, consent, and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences'' - is a historic breakthrough. But just as important as the substance of these agreements was the process by which they were determined.
Naysayers and many ostensibly objective press reports alike would have us believe that the introduction of explicitly sexual subjects into the UN deliberations is the devious work of way-out Western feminists. But Bella-bashers and other skeptics should understand that these provisions were hammered out under the skillful leadership of a seasoned Egyptian diplomat. She, in turn, authorized a conference committee to resolve differences. It was chaired by a Caribbean representative from Barbados, who work ed beside officials from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as from Europe and North America.
With representatives of the European Union holding out for even more exacting standards - and with US delegates reticent, in deference to the political power of the conservatives back home - the debate on sexual rights was carried forward by delegates who are neither white nor liberal nor necessarily feminist. Testimony was poignant. Delegates from sub-Saharan African nations were especially concerned about protecting women from the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Latin Americans
spoke forcefully of the desperate need to give governments power to intervene in domestic violence.
For decades, discussion of sexuality has been kept off the international agenda by countries opposed on moral or ideological grounds to intruding on what were widely considered to be matters of individual conscience or national custom. Now as it celebrates its 50th birthday, the UN has finally come of age by recognizing that, for women especially, the personal is necessarily political.
The watershed agreement reached at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo last year committed the international community to a wide range of policies and programs addressing the complex relationships between the social status of women and global well-being. For the first time the reproductive and sexual health of women was linked directly to considerations of sustainable population growth and economic development. In Beijing the equation was extended to explicitly affirm wom en's rights regarding sexuality.
Applying universal human rights standards to women's sexuality also gives women potential legal grounds for refusing unwanted pregnancy and childbearing, along with unwarranted medical interventions or bodily mutilations, such as coercive sterilizations or abortions and female genital mutilations. Though explicit references to sexual orientation were rejected, these broader tenets may also be used in some countries to lobby to protect lesbians from discrimination and harassment.
The conference also grappled with such deeply sensitive issues as inheritance, which is frequently governed by strict religious codes. The Beijing accord, like the Vienna Human Rights Agreement, demands that all women's rights - whether they protect sexuality or property - should supersede national traditions. This is the most decisive stance on such matters ever taken by an official international assembly.
The platform for action produced in Beijing is not binding, but it does set a far-reaching standard, which women can take to their respective countries as an agenda for tangible reform. The document includes many specific recommendations for enforcing change.
Once the gavel was rapped on the consensus over sexual rights, for example, further agreement was announced on a concrete stipulation that calls on all governments to review laws that punish women who have had illegal abortions. The Cairo conference for the first time focused world attention on the universal tragedy of unregulated, underground abortions, which so often result in the injury or death of desperate women. Beijing goes further in recommending that women who seek medical attention after a bot ched abortion not be penalized.
Opponents of these policies are raising an all too familiar canard. The conference document is ''guilty of an exaggerated individualism,'' said Vatican representative Mary Ann Glendon. But in fact, the document explicitly acknowledges the family as the ''basic unit'' of society, in need of strengthening, protection, and support.
Over and over again, as officials at Beijing worked their way through the remaining differences and reached consensus, rooms that were filled with typically demure delegates and nongovernmental observers from all over the world erupted in exuberant applause and cheers. And outside, the foul weather that had created havoc in the first days of the conclave finally began to subside.
In China, ancient lore extols a natural harmony between yin and yang, the two opposing elements, one believed to be female and the other, male. Indeed, our Chinese acquaintances had sheepishly been blaming the unseasonable storms on an atmospheric imbalance brought on by an excess of women in Beijing.
At first we were dubious. But then we decided to turn this proposition on its head. Perhaps nature wasn't protesting the presence of too many women in China, but was instead marking the end of their long subordination. If so, we can celebrate that fateful day in Beijing when the skies cleared and the international body politic was revitalized by a long-overdue injection of the female element.