Each year the
Commission on the Status of Women attracts women (mostly) from all over the
globe to the United Nations for a two-week jam session that includes statements
made by government officials and cabinet ministers dealing with women’s issues;
side events sponsored by governments, UN agencies and the more activist
non-governmental organizations accredited to the UN; and long, drawn out
deliberations on resolutions presented by delegations. First and foremost is
the theme of empowering women.

This year’s
meeting commemorated the 15th anniversary of the UN’s Fourth World
Conference on Women, held in Beijing, thus attracting even greater than usual
attendance. It concluded with a major address by US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton – who in 1995 had been a leading protagonist at Beijing for the
reproductive rights agenda.

Pro-life voices

In the many
addresses given over the two weeks, one truly stands out: the statement made by
the Ambassador of Malta, Saviour Borg, – that was a passionate defense of life and
the family that distanced his country from the European Union statement on
behalf of the 27 member states, a common practice at the UN. The Maltese
address is worth quoting:

“On Monday
[March 1] the H.E. The Minister of Equality of Spain addressed this meeting on
behalf of the EU Member States.  In
this context, my delegation would like to take this opportunity to clarify
Malta’s position with respect to the issue of sexual and reproductive health
and rights.

As it did
in numerous international conferences including the Fourth World Conference on
Women held in Beijing fifteen years ago, Malta would like to reaffirm today its
stance that any position taken or recommendation regarding women’s empowerment
and gender equality should not in any way create an obligation on any party to
consider abortion as a legitimate form of reproductive health rights, services
or commodities.  Malta continues to
hold the view that any discussion of rights and services in connection with
reproductive health cannot take place outside the framework of one of the most
fundamental of human rights – the right to life.  Malta strongly believes that the right to life extends to
the unborn child from the moment of conception, and that therefore the use of
abortion as a means of resolving health or social problems is a denial of that right.

It is
within this framework of human rights – the right to life – that Malta has in
these last fifteen years held high the Beijing Platform for Action.  It is therefore in this spirit and
commitment that Malta will continue to implement the values and objectives of
international instruments including the Beijing Platform for Action.

In line with the Beijing
Platform of Action, Malta dedicates particular importance to the family and its
role as the basic unit of society. It is Malta’s view that women must continue
to play a critical role in the family. By empowering women the role of the
family is strengthened. “

The above
statement captures the flavor of the reality that pro-life countries and NGOs
face at the UN.

Malta’s was not
the only voice in the pro-life camp. In a three-person panel dealing with the
horrendous African practice of female genital mutilation, the Minister of Equal
Opportunities of Italy, Mara Carfagna, in her remarks clearly mentioned the
“diritto di nascere” – the right to life, to be born – proving once again that
Europe is not monolithic in matters of life, despite being so characterized by
many. (Ms. Carfagna delivered her presentation in Italian and may not have been
fully understood by many attendees.)

Events, events and more events

Topics of the
various other events ranged widely from the sublime to the ridiculous – and
even the repugnant. Many events were concurrent so, barring the gift of
bilocation, one had to pick and chose!

On the day that
marked “Women’s Day” (March 8th) a few pro-life, pro-family NGOs
distributed yellow tote bags emblazoned with “Celebrate Motherhood” as they greeted attendees at the special
event: “Recognizing the Critical Role of
Mothers in Society,” a well-attended panel that presented speakers from
Venezuela (introducing an innovative educational program for youngsters that is
spreading globally), Qatar, Nigeria, Saint Lucia, and the United States. One
speaker was the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. who stated in her presentation
that “motherhood begins at conception” and that reproductive health ought to be
“procreative health.” She received a warm applause.

One event on the
positive side, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the Norwegian Government,
dealt with assisting women who were successful with small businesses they
started with the help of micro-credits. “Women’s
Business Incubators – Innovation and Results” presented case studies of
initiatives undertaken to offer assistance to women business owners in Africa,
Asia and Latin America to take their business to the next stage in the form of
salesmanship, marketing, budgeting, packaging, and a host of other details
necessary for profitable entrepreneurship. Many women’s businesses in poor
countries have grown from humble beginnings to increase the status of women,
enabling them to provide for their families, including educating their
daughters – and sometimes even hiring their own husbands.

Another positive
event, co-sponsored by Spain and the UN women’s agency UNIFEM, covered the
topic of “Migration and Remittances.”
Emigration has been a source of alleviating poverty ever since transportation
allowed displacement of people. Given economic needs in developed countries
today, women are often the emigrants. One example elaborated at this presentation
was a study of Philippine migrants to Italy, many of whom are women who find
work as maids, housekeepers, baby-sitters, and eldercare providers. Women
migrants often leave behind husbands and children, to the detriment of family
unity. Other presentations referred to the brain drain that occurs when
educated women from poor countries leave home for better opportunities in
developed nations. Their “earnings gain” however, often offsets the brain drain
as emigrants’ remittances can amount to a third or more of GDP in some of the
poorest countries.

Also interesting
was a panel presentation entitled “Good
Governance and Women’s Political Participation” presented by three cabinet
members of Spain, Portugal and Austria dealing with women’s issues. They spoke
about the increased presence of women in various European Parliaments. The
audience included several women members of the European Parliament who made
brief statements afterwards. After this meeting, I met one of these
parliamentarians, from Denmark, in the hallway and we had a long, one-on-one
conversation about issues ranging from ethnic stereotypes, anti-Muslim
cartoonists, population decline, to families in Europe. In discussing faith and
families I was pleasantly surprised to hear her remark about the positive
influence of the many images of the Madonna in art originating in Southern
Europe and concluding: “We have nothing like that in Denmark.”

One disappointing
event was sponsored by the Holy See, which invited Joseph Stiglitz, economics
professor at Columbia University and Special Adviser to the President of the
General Assembly, to address the topic of whether
globalization can lead to fraternity, guided through the prism of the
latest Papal encyclical “Charity in Truth.” To widespread disappointment, Mr.
Stiglitz gave a general overview of the current economic situation in the
United States, peppering his remarks with direct attacks on investment banks
who sold complex financial instruments (some of which were created by nerdy
university professors!) to unsuspecting buyers such as Greece. In response to
my question (after the meeting) on what inspiration had he derived from
“Charity in Truth” to guide him in his current UN assignment to reform the
international economic and monetary system, Mr. Stiglitz replied: “I only
skimmed through it….I didn’t read it.” So much for Nobel Prize economists!

Following the
Stiglitz remarks, a short film was shown on how a few companies are devoting a
third of their profits to alleviate poverty in various countries. Inspired by
the founder of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Lubich, this idea of a “New Economy” was a good example of
corporate social responsibility. Perhaps the late Chiara Lubich was a better
economist than some of the more prominent personalities of the profession.

Deliberations and resolutions

After all the
palaver, what will remain are the resolutions approved by consensus by the
delegations. This year, four documents were presented and approved. These dealt
with: “Women, the girl child and HIV and Aids;” “Ending female genital
mutilation;” “Women’s economic empowerment;” and “Reducing maternal mortality
and morbidity through the empowerment of women.” The last was sponsored by the
United States – and therefore by an anti-natal administration. Unfortunately,
the language of this document contained references to “family planning” and
“access to sexual and reproductive health-care services” – which in the beliefs
of the anti-natalists includes abortion and in the conviction of pro-life
defenders does not since the phrase has never been defined in any legally
binding UN document. Both sides are aware of the legal implications of
repetitive language – an item best relegated to legal scholars. Nonetheless,
pro-life NGOs – some coming from across the United States and Europe – made
every effort to remove offensive language through lobbying efforts aimed at the
few life-affirming member states.

The Clinton finale

The culmination of
the two weeks was a speech by Secretary Clinton – an “invitation only” event
hosted by the US UN Mission, but “favored daughters” found ways of getting vetted
balcony and standing room only tickets. Attempts by other NGOs to find their
way into the massive conference room were met by dissonant language from UN
guards and the most incredibly ignorant US UN staff who politely answered “I
don’t know” to every question posed. Last minute developments included a room
change, time change and a sea change in the text content of Clinton’s speech
compared with what her immediate predecessor Condoleezza Rice might have said.

Clinton’s speech,
as per the US UN web site, had a cheerleader quality to it, championing the
role and responsibilities of women in poor and rich countries and the myriad
problems that need to be solved going forward. Taking to heart the maternal
mortality issue – near and dear to pro-lifers clamoring for more skilled birth
attendants – Clinton went on to say:

“We aim to reduce maternal and child
mortality and increase access to family planning. And we especially commend the
commission and the UN’s adoption by consensus of the resolution on maternal

Coincidentally, on
the weekend between the two-week conference, The Economist magazine had the
front cover title: “Gendercide – What
happened to 100 million baby girls?” that included six pages dealing with
China’s one child policy and male child preference in most of Asia that have
resulted in the abortion, by force or free choice, of the baby girls in

Secretary Clinton
made a reference to the magazine issue, saying that she had never heard the
word “gendercide,” adding “…which so tragically describes what has gone on,
what we have let go on, in our world.” What has gone on in the world – as
careful readers observed – is abortion.

Perhaps UN
agencies should note: there will be fewer women to empower in the future.

Vincenzina Santoro
is Chief United Nations Representative for the American Family Association of
New York

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.