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One step for women Progress in Beijing: U.N. document points the way for improvements in lives of women


MANY OF THE news reports from the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women centered on the Chinese government's clumsy attempts to keep a tight lid on the official meeting and its companion gathering of non-governmental organizations. But those ham-handed reactions to the threat of free-speech and new ideas did not stop the work of the conference, which will have repercussions for years to come.

The most significant achievement was the reaffirmation of the consensus reached a year ago in Cairo, where a U.N. conference on population agreed to a 20-year plan to strike a balance between the world's people and its resources. Rather than focusing strictly on numbers of people, the plan took into account the economic and social factors that also bear on population growth -- factors such as the health and welfare of women and girls.

In many countries, an affirmation of the human rights of women to control their reproductive and sexual lives can spark far-reaching changes. Bride burnings in India by the families of dowry-hungry husbands, coerced abortions in China, forced marriages, exploitative systems of child labor -- the conference put the spotlight of public condemnation on such practices. It also stressed the importance of the right of females to inherit family property, of having protection against rape in wartime and against domestic violence or ritual genital mutilation of girls at any time.

It's tempting to deride the U.N.'s penchant for orchestrating these mega-conferences as a preference for talk over action. But talk counts. Ten years ago in Nairobi, the official document of the Third World Conference on Women included a short reference to domestic violence, then hardly a recognized issue even in the United States. Look how far that cause has come.

This year, as women return to their homes from Beijing, they take with them the seeds of peaceful revolutions that have the potential to improve the lives of women and their families everywhere in the world. Beijing was an important step in that long journey.

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