The first battle of the conference to mark the end of the United Nations Decade for Women has been joined and it is not over apartheid or Palestinian women, or even about men. It is about hotel rooms. And it is a mess.
The Kenyan government, scrambling to find accommodations for the onslaught of delegates to the U.N. conference that begins next week, has ordered the city's major hotels to make room by evicting several hundred women already ensconced here for the unofficial forum that precedes the official conference by a few days.
The delegates to the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum, many of them Americans and all possessors of apparently worthless room guarantees for reservations made and paid for months ago, are livid as well as alarmed at the prospect of wandering the streets of Nairobi in search of a place to stay.
At a hastily convened press conference today in an airless ballroom of the luxury Intercontinental Hotel, 140 women, most of them Americans, unveiled a petition of protest and vowed that it would take Kenyan government troops to drag them from their rightly appointed resting places.
"The government has informed us that we must leave, and we say that we are going to stay," said Betty Shapiro of Washington.
Said another woman, "It is a violation of the spirit of this conference when women who come thousands of miles are evicted, forced out on the street."
There were, of course, allegations of sexual discrimination. "This is a microcosm of things that we as women are confronted with every day. If this was a men's conference you can bet that this would not happen," said Mariflor Parpan, a Philippine delegate to the unofficial forum. "What is being done seems to be a calculated undermining of the solidarity of women."
The confusion seemed to be less a matter of sexual sabotage than a combination of poor planning ("Welcome to Africa," one veteran news magazine correspondent said glumly) and the unexpectedly large delegations many nations are sending to the official conference.
As late as last week, U.N. officials were estimating the total attendance at both meetings at no more than 8,000. Now the estimate has been revised to 15,000 and there are rumors that the figure is closer to 20,000.
The Kenyan government, forced to choose between offending official delegations or displacing unofficial delegates representing a crazy quilt of private organizations that make up the NGO Forum, apparently has chosen the latter, according to the women at today's press conference.
Not the least of the worries of the soon-to-be-ousted is that they have no acceptable place to go. The U.S. Embassy here, taken aback by the prospect of American women sent out in the street,, has written the Kenyan government expressing concern and has begun canvassing American residents for empty beds.
For its part, the Kenyan government has promised that every delegate with a prepaid reservation will find a bed at the dormitories of the University of Nairobi or the Kenyatta University College, 20 miles outside of the city.
"All Delegates Will Be Accommodated," promised Monday's headline in the Kenya Times, the government newspaper.
But the women who signed the protest petition say there are no more beds at Nairobi University. Having paid thousands of dollars in advance for rooms, they are not willing to shell out an additional $17 a night for a cold-water dormitory accommodation at Kenyatta University, particularly because there is no transportation provided. That would leave the delegates at the mercy of the city's infamous matatus, overcrowded jitney buses whose spectacular crashes enliven the local papers and constitute what appears to be one of Nairobi's top public safety problems.
Because the unofficial forum prides itself on addressing the cause of women from developing countries, there was some debate at the press conference today about whether it wasn't unsporting of these women to turn up their noses at dormitory bunks when so many of the world's women are homeless and without a bed at all. The disgruntled women dismissed that argument as irrelevant and volunteered to share their rooms with the official delegates.
In downtown Nairobi, on dusty Koinange Street, a bleary-eyed Australian woman said she was dumbfounded to learn that her reservation for a two-week stay had been downgraded to two days. Bedraggled after 48 hours of travel, holding suitcases and backpacks, the only comment she could muster was "S'awful."
At the Hilton, three women from the Singapore Women's Council trailed their Kenyan tour guide out the door after hearing bad news at the reception desk. Their organization had saved for months to send them to Nairobi, they said. They had a written confirmation, they said. Now, they said, they had no room, no towels, no soap and no comment.