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In chaos of China forum, Md. women find clarity


HUAIROU, China -- While the grass-roots women's forum in China was dominated by organizational mishaps and celebrity visits, people like Baltimoreans Sara Batterton and Sogand Zamani managed to have fulfilling experiences.

Students of Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School, they put up with canceled workshops and muddy conditions, uncertainty over whether they would be allowed into China and foul weather once they got here.

But along with thousands of women from around the world -- dozens of them from Maryland -- they managed to discuss problems that women face, propose solutions and influence a parallel conference in Beijing sponsored by the United Nations.

"Being immersed in the different cultures, something comes up inside you. It's hard to explain, but it's been great," said Ms. Zamani, a 17-year-old senior at Bryn Mawr, looking back on the 10-day Non-Governmental Organizations Forum on Women that ended yesterday.

Ms. Zamani and Ms. Batterton, a 16-year-old Bryn Mawr junior, came as representatives of New Moon, a monthly magazine written by and for girls. They spent most of their time learning about women's issues and lobbying delegates to the parallel United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women about issues affecting girls.

They stayed near the conference site, a remote 100-acre tract of land set aside by the Chinese government for the NGO forum. With more than 100 countries represented, it was a bright, colorful gathering of different nationalities, part world bazaar and part lecture series.

Because they were isolated, there was not much opportunity to interact with Chinese. But Ms. Zamani said an encounter with members of the Israeli delegation helped her decide to study Hebrew and Arabic when she attends a university next autumn.

"We talked about politics, the West Bank and many things," she said. "These are experiences I would never have had otherwise."

In a fax to Bryn Mawr, Ms. Zamani told fellow students back home about the diversity and the moving stories of other women:

"At times I felt like I was going to cry while sharing experiences with the 24-year-old from Nigeria who was sexually molested and raped," she reported.

". . . I was overwhelmed by the Solomon Islander's pride after her traumatic experiences running the YWCA."

Besides attending forum events, the delegates spent time sightseeing, visiting the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Beijing's silk market.

"Yesterday we mounted the Great Wall," the two Bryn Mawr students said in their fax. "The only word that could describe it is 'Wow!' "

Especially impressive for another delegate from Maryland was the opening ceremony Aug. 31, which featured speeches and a cultural show.

"I was just struck by the fact that I'd never seen such a gathering focusing on women," said Sally Mericle, 42, a teacher of graphic design at the College of Notre Dame and representative of the Women's Caucus for the Arts.

"There we were in a sports stadium, where it's usually men who are the focus of attention, but the focus was on women.

Ms. Mericle said she took part in a four-hour panel on women and the arts.

The NGO forum had two main functions. It drew together women from around the world to share experiences and ideas for solving problems of women, such as domestic violence, a lack of women in positions of power and the disproportionate number of women living in poverty.

And, the forum was held parallel to a once-a-decade U.N. conference, giving grass-roots NGOs an opportunity to influence official delegations to the U.N. meeting.

The U.N. conference is supposed to draw up a plan of action to help solve the problems faced by women around the world.

Organizational problems and harassment of delegates by Chinese security forces affected both aspects of the NGO forum.

The NGO forum's location -- in the farming town of Huairou, an hour's drive north of Beijing -- meant that it was harder to lobby the U.N. delegation at this conference than at previous U.N. meetings. At the same time, poor organization meant that many workshops were canceled without notice; and a lack of space meant that other workshops filled quickly.

zTC Carola Weil, executive director of the University of Maryland College Park's Center for International and Security Studies, organized panels on women and the military, resolving conflicts and peacekeeping. She said that one of her workshops was canceled and rescheduled without consultation.

"It's very chaotic here, and there's no information," she said.

"The Chinese have gone through a steep learning curve over the past week."

Beth McMullen, 21, a junior at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, said the half-finished buildings on the site contributed to the problems. In one building that had no walls, the noise from outside made it hard to hear speakers.

"The logistical problems have definitely affected what came out of this conference," Ms. McMullen said. "It hasn't hindered it 100 percent, but it's had an effect. But you try to stay positive and overcome it."

One Marylander who felt that the conference improved as it went along was Chun-wuei Su Chien, 57, who works in Baltimore for a West Virginia-based NGO called Future Generations.

Future Generations brought Tibetans to Beijing to work at a booth to hand out information and discuss their harsh lives.

Fortunately, Mrs. Chien said, her group was not affected by the confrontations between Tibetans from China and those living in exile, who staged protests against China's rule over the Himalayan land.

What disturbed the Lutherville resident more was the lack of understanding between the United States and China.

"Like a human relationship, we should value people's positive side," Mrs. Chien said.

"We shouldn't always focus on the negative. Or else how do people make progress?"

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