What was the message from the women's nongovernmental conference that just ended here?
On July 10, about 12,000 women came to this capital city for the conference, called Forum '85. It opened at the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Center amid national dress pageantry and drum-beating rhythm, and then, for the next 10 days, women talked about their issues and concerns, in workshops and caucuses that stretched into the night.
With the official government tribunal inevitably guided by politics and national interest, these freewheeling, independent forums contained much of the heart and soul of the conference.
Yet the message from the unofficial delegates may be so simple that many women overlooked it as they headed home. It is this: When people gather and attempt honest communication across hurdles of color, class, religion and even language, these barriers slowly begin to break down. And if that sounds a little corny there was ample evidence here that it is true.
The basis for much of the communication that took place was the recognition that many common factors link the world's women. According to a Carnegie Foundation report, women's status since World War II has been uneven and modest.
"Whether in the economy, education, health, or government," says Ruth Leger Sivard, "there is no major field of activity and no country in which women have attained equality with men. Yet they are disproportionately represented among the poor, illiterate, jobless and underemployed."
Some of the most significant exchanges took place each day on the central quadrant of the University of Nairobi when thousands of women talked while sitting on grass or standing in the sunshine. Feminist Betty Friedan set up shop under a fig tree there. "Now that we agree that women's development must take place within the context of the family," black women's leader Dorothy Height joked with Friedan, "I don't have to come under your tree." A black American woman with her hair in cornrows plopped down in the middle of group of Masai women and communicated her concern and caring through touching, gesturing and body language. An Australian feminist told an American counterpart that she was leaving the meeting "regenerated" because of different ideas she had received.
But points of deep friction also were revealed. The peace tent sometimes turned into a battle zone for women whose countries are at war. Women from Iran and Iraq threw things and even chased each other. A New York-based group called the New Jewish Agenda tried hard for dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian women. Black American women were surprised to find that African women found some of them overly aggressive. "They accused us of arrogance and of trying to dominate meetings," said Donna Brazille of Washington, D.C.
While great gaps of ignorance remain and women still lack a lot of information about each other, I leave this east African city convinced that the communication process set in motion is important. Women today are more educated, more active economically and more successful politically than they were a few decades ago. Nairobi is a natural step in their progression toward equality. But if significant progress is to be made, governments must seriously institute women's programs. Since power never yields anything without demand, women will have to find ways to pressure their governments for change. Many are now inspired to fight. If their efforts are successful, the slow and silent revolution of progress for women will become a mighty roar for change.