Opening Address of Mary Ann Glendon

Author: STATE


Mary Ann Glendon

Advance Text Of Mary Ann Glendon's Opening Address On Behalf Of The Vatican Delegation At The UN Conference On Women In Beijing, China, September 5, 1995

[This advance copy was provided to Catholic World News prior to the Conference. The address as actually delivered may have differed in some minor points from this text.]

Madam President,

1.[General themes—the need to consider all women, rich and poor, and the special situation of mothers.]

The Delegation of the Holy See wishes first of all to express its particular appreciation to the President, the Government and People of China for the welcome we have received in Beijing and for the excellent arrangements that have been made for the Conference.

This meeting represents the culmination of a period of intense activity on the part of the international community aimed at advancing the rights and dignity of women in a rapidly changing world. Since the first world conference on women in 1975, it has become apparent that an international response to the concerns of women must move ever more decisively from aspiration to action. As the official theme of the Conference makes plain, "equality, development and peace" are the indispensable conditions for making what has been affirmed at the universal level a reality in the everyday lives of women in all parts of the world.

On the threshold of the Third Millennium, women's opportunities for full participation in social, economic and political life are increasing on many fronts. Along with that progress, unprecedented challenges have naturally arisen, especially as millions of women strive to integrate new roles and obligations with motherhood and family life. Today's women are confronted, moreover, with a variety of novel threats to their fundamental human rights and dignity.

Pope John Paul II has rightly stressed that our individual and collective responses to these opportunities, challenges, and dangers will have far-reaching consequences. Just as the

historical oppression of women has deprived the human race of untold resources, true progress for women cannot fail to liberate enormous reserves of intelligence and energy, sorely needed in a world that is groaning for peace and justice. But because the position of women is inextricably linked with the fate of the entire human family, there can be no real progress for women, or men, at the expense of children, or of their underprivileged brothers and sisters. Genuine advances for women must be grounded in solidarity between young and old, between male and female, as well as between those who enjoy a comfortable standard of living and those who are suffering deprivation.

In presenting its own point of view on these matters, the Holy See is aware that, even though some of its positions are not accepted by all, there are many people, both believers and non-believers, who share its vision and wish their voice to be heard. During preparations for this Conference, the Holy See has listened carefully to the hopes, fears, and daily concerns of women in all parts of the world, and all walks of life. Its delegation, composed mainly of women with varied backgrounds and experiences, applauds the purpose of the draft platform to free women at last from the unfair burdens that in so many times and places have prevented women even from becoming conscious of their own dignity. At the same time, we are concerned that this Conference should avoid creating new obstacles for women, by promoting a specific model of progress that ignores the real-life needs and values of the majority of women in developed as well as developing countries.

In particular, every effort must be made to avoid presenting marriage, motherhood, the family, and religion in a negative way that would subject women to new forms of social injustice and new affronts to human dignity. To affirm the dignity and rights of all women requires respect for the roles of women whose quest for personal fulfillment is inseparably linked to their commitments to God, family, neighbor, and especially to their children. As John Paul II pointed out in his recent message to President Mongella, promoting women's exercise of all their talents and rights without undermining their roles within the family will require calling not only husbands and fathers to their family responsibilities, but governments to their social duties.

2. [Equality/equity in the workplace]

Because many women face exceptional difficulties as they seek to balance greater participation in economic and social life with family responsibilities, this Conference rightly places a high priority on the right of women to enjoy equal opportunities and conditions with men in the workplace, as well as in structures of power and decision-making. Justice for women in the workplace requires attention not only to compensation and advancement, but also to the situation of working mothers, including the problems of women who head families along. Effective action on behalf of working mothers in turn requires a people-centered economics. For so long as society is organized solely according to the criteria of efficiency, motherhood will often be penalized, and real equality for women will prove elusive. By the same token, the choices of women who have elected to work in the family must be fully respected, and their contributions should receive recognition in economic terms. The Holy See thus supports efforts to establish social conditions favorable to a wholesome balance between occupational and family life on the part of both mothers and fathers.

3. [Education]

Improved educational opportunities for women are vital both to women's progress and overall social development. The Catholic Church has been a pioneer and leader in providing education to girls and women in both developed and developing countries, currently providing education to about 20 million young women. Consistently with that longstanding commitment, the Holy See already introduced the subject of women's education in the U.N. Least Developed Countries Conference in 1981. It has been pleased to see the great importance of this subject recognized many times since then at the international level, including the present Conference Platform for Action. It is cause for concern, however, that the Conference document has not taken into account the right of women and girls to religious freedom in educational institutions, nor the rights of parents, affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to choose the kind of education their children receive.

4. [Health]

Another essential condition for women's advancement is access to high quality health services. As a leading provider of health care throughout the world, the Catholic Church has accorded special attention to the health needs of women and children, especially to the poor. The Church maintains tens of thousands of hospitals, clinics, dispensaries, as well as other facilities for mothers and children's health and the care of the elderly, currently serving some 28 million women. In keeping with these commitments, the Holy See fully supports the special emphasis of the Conference document on expanding and improving women's health care. It notes with concern, however, a certain narrowness in the range of problems encompassed under the heading of health. The document mainly stresses reproductive health, whereas a comprehensive approach to the health of all women would have to address the poor nutrition, unsafe water, and tropical diseases that afflict hundreds of millions of women each year, taking a vast toll on mothers and children.

5. [Sexuality/Reproduction]

Where sexuality and reproduction are concerned, the Holy See concurs with the Conference document that changes in the attitudes and behavior of both men and women are necessary conditions for achieving full equality, and that responsibility in sexual matters belongs to both men and women. At the same time, it is women and children who are most often the principal victims of irresponsible sexual behavior, in terms of disease, poverty, and the deterioration of family life. One of the great concerns of the Holy See is that the Conference document shrinks from acknowledging the threat to women's health arising from widespread attitudes of sexual permissiveness, and that the document likewise refrains from challenging societies that have abdicated responsibility to attempt to change irresponsible attitudes and behaviors.

The Holy See also concurs in the Conference's call for shared responsibility between men and women concerning decisions about the number and spacing of children. The Catholic Church's position on family planning is often misunderstood. The Church does not support a notion of procreation at all costs, but insists on principle of responsible parenthood. This means that the parents' decisions whether or not to have a child at a given time must be exercised, not only in view of their own personal fulfillment, but in the light of their duties to God, to the new life that they may bring into the world, to their existing children and family, as well as to society. The Church's position on the means of family planning may be considered too demanding by some, especially in cultures that foster self-indulgence and immediate gratification. But no way of ensuring deep respect for human life and responsibility in its transmission can dispense with self-discipline and self-restraint.

In making responsible decisions concerning family planning, parents must be free of all coercion from public authorities. It is to be hoped, therefore, that this Conference's condemnation of coercion in population policy will be scrupulously adhered to by all nations, and that the international community will be vigilant in eliminating abuses which strike at the very hear of marital and family life.

6. [Abortion]

The position of the Holy See that abortion is the purposeful destruction of human life, and that it can never be a means of family planning is well known. At the same time, as John Paul II has emphasized, primary responsibility for a woman's tragic and painful decision to have an abortion often lies with men and with the general social environment. All who are genuinely committed to the advancement of women know that society can and must offer a woman or girl who is pregnant, frightened, and alone, a better alternative than the destruction of her own unborn child. Many proponents of abortion as a woman's "right", however, are far from having women's interests at heart. In fact, hiding in the shadows of the abortion rights movement are: irresponsible men; the prostitution traffic; the vast abortion industry that extracts it profits from the very bodies of women; and persons so enmeshed in scandalous patterns of consumption that they have come to see the world's poor as threats to their own life-styles, rather than as fellow human beings. Surely, it should be obvious to all that the rights of women, like all human rights, cannot be secured by a right to destroy human life.

7. [Poverty]

Another subject of concern on which the Holy See has expressed itself many times is poverty, which remains a formidable obstacle to women's full participation in social, economic, and political life. The Holy See is in substantial agreement with the proposals of the draft Platform on this issue, but notes that realistic and enduring solutions must begin with "the primacy of being over having, of the person over things." That principle has been affirmed often at the international level, most recently in the Cairo and Copenhagen Declarations which provide that the human being is at the center of sustainable development.

Alleviating poverty not only requires attention to equity between women and men, but between social and economic classes, and between developing and richer countries. Improving the economic position of women thus requires increasing participation by poor countries in the production and exchange of wealth. It also requires a much stronger call to solidarity than is expressed in the Conference document, including better management and more equitable distribution of the goods of the earth which are the common heritage of all women and men. Without a more capacious understanding of equality and equity, the Conference document's emphasis on family planning could be perceived as an attempt by more affluent countries to avoid their obligations to take realistic measures against the feminization of poverty.

8. [Violence]

The Conference has rendered a great service by casting a spotlight on violence toward women and girls, violence which may be physical, sexual, psychological, or moral. The Holy See, which has consistently denounced the use of immense resources for weapons rather than essential human needs, shares the Conference document's concern for the especially burdensome effects on women of armed conflict, including violence against women as a means of war. The Document also appropriately emphasizes the exploitation of women forced into prostitution. Some forms of violence against women, however, have not been adequately recognized in the document: mandatory programs of birth control, forced sterilization, pressure to have abortions, sex selection and the consequent destruction of female fetuses, as well as withholding information about the harmful health effects associated with several family planning methods. These practices constitute a grave violation of the human rights of women, who are especially vulnerable when they are poor and have little formal education. Moreover, by failing to condemn the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality, the document may appear to condone the root causes of much violence against women and girls.

9. [Concluding observations; women and peace.]

Madam President, as the Third Millennium nears, we are witnessing a fateful conflict between a view of human beings as mere instruments or objects and a vision of humanity approaching its full potential in ever more freedom and dignity—a conflict between a culture of death and the "civilization of love." Over the ages, it is very often women who have safeguarded and promoted the civilization of love, preserving the vestiges of human dignity through the darkest days and years. Ignored, underestimated, and taken for granted, the beneficent influence of women had radiated throughout history, enriching the lives of successive generations. Looking back over the century which is now drawing to a close, however, no one can fail to see that, even as women have made great strides forward, human dignity has suffered and continues to suffer horrifying assaults.

The Holy See therefore joins wholeheartedly in the Conference's insistence on the close relationship between peace and women's advancement, as well as on women's historic contributions to peace. The freer women are to share their gifts with society as a whole, the better are the prospects for the entire human community to progress in wisdom, justice, and dignified living. The Holy See delegation thus earnestly hopes that this Conference, by advancing women's freedom and dignity, will help to build a civilization where every woman, man and child can live in peace, liberty, and mutual respect; a civilization where life and love can flourish; a civilization where the culture of death shall have no dominion.