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Untold Stories: The United Nations Decade for Women, 1975-1985

By Judith Zinsser

Miami (Ohio) University


The Events

   Given its impact, disputes over who first suggested the idea of a "Decade for Women" should not be surprising. Was it the result of the petition initiated by Hertta Kuusinen, president of the Women's International Democratic Federation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW, founded in 1946), Finnish or Rumanian delegates to the CSW? a carefully orchestrated request initiated by a Secretariat liaison officer like Elizabeth Stamatopolou-Robbins (with particular responsibility for women's rights), or a long-time goal of Letitia Shahani (later Secretary General of the closing conference in Nairobi) that the Secretary-General, U Thant, brought to fruition?[1] Future research will probably show that all of their efforts were significant. The formal process of declaration and implementation began in the General Assembly in December of 1972. UN "Decades" are initiated by a "Year" and the resolutions in this instance were presented before the General Assembly by an alliance between the Eastern bloc nations and the newly admitted states, the latter formally recognized as the Group of 77.

By 1974 and the call to convene the first United Nations Women's Conference this alliance had already won passage of the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States and the Declaration for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). "Development" was their focus, and they conceived of the "discriminatory customs and traditions" governing women's lives, as it was phrased in their resolution, as impediments to economic change. The designation of a year, and the opportunity for a well-publicized conference, would give yet another opportunity to highlight global economic inequities and their consequences.[2]

   Women within the Secretariat, particularly those associated with the CSW, as well as members of influential Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), had utilized such alliances in the past for their own agendas. In 1963 they won General Assembly authorization for a declaration to condemn discrimination against women. The CSW completed this Declaration in 1967, and then proceeded to draft the Convention that would give it legal force in international law.[3] Winning the designation of a "Year" for women was another such victory, and fit within the new UN practice of choosing one issue to promote and then convening an international meeting that was expected to spearhead new initiatives. "Population" had been the focus of 1974. However, there was, as yet, no suggestion of a "decade" for women and the CSW and its NGO supporters had only six months and less than $350,000 to do the preparatory work of meetings, to consider reports and draft documents, and to write the "Plan of Action" that would be the subject of debate at the official conference. Only with the success of the first meeting in Mexico City did the General Assembly declare a Decade for Women and give its approval to future conferences.[4]

   That the Decade had its political dimension and served male-defined goals highlights one of the United Nations's most important characteristics. Like its member states, the United Nations, did not then and does not now place women's issues before those of traditional diplomacy. Readers from the United States need only remember that their own government has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In an effort to make its actions more consequential, the United Nations recently created a new UN body to speed efforts to implement the recommendations of the 1995 UN Women's Conference in Beijing. Still delegates haggled for months over the name and the shortened form of its final title, "U.N. Women," brings giggles. As the French ambassador to the UN argued the French equivalent is much better, ONU Femmes. Neither name, however, masks the fact that the UN is essentially a male organization that concerns itself with global issues traditionally defined as men's concerns even though their impact, such as unequal economic development, ethnic wars, and health challenges like malaria, affect women even more than men.

   The maleness and political orientation of the UN are important to remember for two reasons. First, female delegates and country-specific NGOs did not necessarily disagree with this traditional focus. As the documents here from the Palestinian and Iraqi women's organizations indicate, it may be that to speak of women's rights in the Euro-American sense without the resolution of broader political issues, such as an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, seems ridiculous. (See The Working Program of the Iraqi Republic to Improve Women’s Status by the General Federation of Iraqi Women.) So important was this particular issue that at each of the three Conferences the majority of delegates allowed it to delay acceptance of the final document. No country was exempt from such machinations and considerations. In 1980 the United States and three of its close allies voted against the Copenhagen Programme of Action because of its condemnation of "Zionism" and only last- minute negotiations over wording of the same litany of condemnations enabled acceptance five years later of the Nairoibi Plan of Action by consensus.[5] Second, despite these geo-political realities, women leaders and feminist activists still allied, importuned and maneuvered to produce a truly international network of women, a Declaration and a Covenant protecting women, and three plans/programmes of action that, if implemented even in part, would revolutionize everyone's world.[6]

   At the UN Population Conference in 1974, NGOs had organized their first separate, coordinate meeting to such a UN-sponsored event. This had been a new initiative of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status to the United Nations (CONGO). Groups representing interested organizations had met before the official delegations arrived to highlight particular issues and to plan lobbying efforts for the wording of the final document, the "plan of action" that would be the formal outcome of the UN Population Conference. Now they rose to a new challenge and scrambled to organize a similar gathering for the International Year for Women and the meeting in Mexico City. In 1975 the list of NGOs read like a Who's Who of North American and European international philanthropy, for example: the World Council of Churches, the Red Cross, the World Young Women's Christian Association. In addition, those NGOs with more feminist agendas also had official consultative status, such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women's International Democratic Federation. "Consultative status" was a precious commodity in the 1970s. It meant that these organizations could attend UN meetings with properly accredited representatives and could submit information on topics being discussed, usually to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), their accrediting organ at the UN. NGO representatives also might be invited to contribute a paper for a subject on which they were considered to be experts, for example, if they had been involved with refugees or providing health care.

   The NGO Tribune in Mexico City registered 114 of such organizations, 134 had representatives in Copenhagen, and 163 in Nairobi, but these numbers do not capture the excitement or spirit of those non-governmental forums and the subsequent government conferences. Each NGO had multiple representatives, and in addition, there were hundreds of unofficial workshops that sprang up so fast that only hand-lettered signs publicized the meeting times and places. Then there was UN staff, and the delegates and their assistants for the official governmental conference. Estimates of the numbers attending the full two-three weeks vary widely, but indicate a dramatic change when the venue moved to Africa: Mexico City: 6,000, Copenhagen 7,200 and Nairobi, 13,500. So overwhelming was the response to the Women's Decade that the United Nations gave up all efforts at controlling the access of groups to the Beijing follow-up meeting in 1995 when well over 1,700 groups and organizations were allowed to register. Instead the UN created a special category of NGO and left the real screening to the Chinese government.

   Because of the costs of international travel and accommodation, the site remained significant. Europeans and North Americans dominated in Mexico City and Copenhagen and only in Nairobi was there a truly representative gathering from East and West Africa, many sponsored by their local women's group (each with its own T-shirt) or by NGOs which had made support for broader attendance a financial priority. The Japanese had organized tours and on many afternoons, twenty to thirty women would be arrayed in a neat semi-circle for a photo outside the dormitory of the University of Nairobi where rooms were the cheapest. Now, having been to the Forum, they were preparing to return home. Similarly, the number of countries with women delegates grew dramatically. Though women often posed as heads of delegations, in Nairobi they were the principal speakers and negotiators for eighty-five of the 160 countries. Many others had women staff members sitting beside the male titular head passing him papers and offering suggestions and information.

   These changes came about because of the Decade—both the Forums, and the government Conferences. As Letitia Shahani said in 1985: the first two meetings in Mexico and Copenhagen had created international women's networks.[**need citation] At the third conference in Nairobi the coalitions that had resulted from these new networks would "enable the women's movement to go forward on a more solid foundation." [**another cite?]Much that has happened since 1985, many of the advances made by women, owe much to the NGOs that kept the momentum going from meeting to meeting, both the traditional ones and the newer locally inspired groups, as well as those who joined together over particular issues, such as "appropriate technology for women," "trafficking in women and children" (See Jean Fernand-Laurent, Report of ...Special Rapporteur on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others), recognition of the special needs of the "girl child," and elderly women. Often, as in the case of these four issues, NGOs facilitated the transition from discussion at a Forum workshop to mention in Conference debates, and incorporation into the final document. A new NGO established as a result of the meetings in Mexico, the International Women’s Tribune Centre, played a key role in all of these endeavors, establishing and maintaining women's networks, publishing a monthly newsletter on specific topics such as those included in this archive) Charlotte Bunch and Shirley Castley's Developing Strategies for the Future; Decade for Women Information Resources for 1985; Joanne Sandler and Marilyn W. Richards, A Report of the “Dialogue Between Women from Developing Countries and Donor Agency Representatives”... are examples), and acting as the organizing agent for the Mid-Decade Forum in Copenhagen. Similarly, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) grew out of dialogues between women of the South in connection with the Nairobi Conference and continued to be active long after.

   The unsung heroines and heroes of the UN Decade were the members of the Secretariat, the United Nations civil service, who drafted the three Conference documents that became the Plans/Programmes of Action. They often worked not only with NGOs but also with government representatives and delegation staffs to delete paragraphs favored by some governments but with a negative impact on women's lives, such as those restricting women's right to control their own reproduction. They also negotiated to include issues and measures not envisioned by governments but essential for women's advancement. For example, one short amendment to the Copenhagen Programme of Action asked for the Secretariat to gather statistics on women. This had never been done in a comprehensive way, but now constitutes a regular UN practice that results in periodic publication of key statistics and their analysis. See, for example, the French statistical study included on this site [A. Fouquet, Improvements in Statistics for Learning about the Situation of Women in France...]. Such practices were the simple result of a brief lunchtime conversation between a UN economist and a delegate from South Asia; as the government representative, it was the delegate who presented the actual amendment that became paragraph 200.[7]

The Secondary Literature

   The secondary and academic bibliography on the Decade in the first ten years after the last meeting in Nairobi in 1985 offers both negative and positive views of its significance. There are the optimists, those, who like Shahani, see "the solidarity of the women the world over who, despite socio-economic, political and cultural differences, shared a common vision and determination to shape and provide direction for a more humane, a more just and a brighter future."[8] There are the pessimists, those who see little but national posturing. They can point to the final documents as just words, and focus on the argument that gained so much press coverage in Copenhagen: the inclusion of the word "Zionism" among those movements condemned as forms of racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism. This is particularly true of those who participated in the Forum as members or affiliates of U.S.- or European-based NGOs, or wrote about the meetings for Western newspapers and academic journals. U.S. Women's Studies journals like Signs and Feminist Studies tended to favor personal accounts that pointed out all that had not happened, rather than what had been accomplished. Australian and British women's periodicals, in contrast, favored those with more positive views and emphasized what could be done to further a women's agenda.[9] Beginning in 1975, a British women's organization, CHANGE, published country profiles of women produced by an academic or journalist from that country. In some instances this was the first ever such description.[10]

   Political scientists were the first to write analytically about the Decade. However, it was only after 1985 and the Nairobi Conference, and even more so, after the follow-up meetings convened in Beijing, that articles have appeared with a more balanced perspective. See for example, on the role and significance of NGOs: Karen Garner's "World YWCA Leaders and the UN Decade for Women,"[11] and on the accomplishments of the Decade and the lessons learned by women activists, Elisabeth Jay Friedman's "Gendering the Agenda: the Importance of the Transnational Women's Rights Movement at the UN Conferences of the 1990s."[12] These more recent articles lead to archives and interviews rich in stories and details about the Decade. Most books are collections of articles, often by scholars or organizers who attended the meetings or those with a particular interest in Human Rights or Development. Among the most useful are: Robin Morgan, The Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology[13] with the voices of many Copenhagen participants; and Women, Politics, and the United Nations edited by Anne Winslow. At this site, see for example, Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000 by Arvonne S. Fraser and Kim Moutoux.

Primary Resources and Research Opportunities

   Basically, the Decade is out there waiting for its historians. For example, there are no proper biographies even on the web of the key leaders of the three meetings: Helvi Sipilä, Mildred Persinger, Lucille Mair, Elizabeth Palmer, Lise Øestergaard, Dame Nita Barrow, Letitia Shahani, and Margaret Kenyatta. Scholars have only begun to tap the riches of NGO archives. The wealth of information to be explored is daunting and exciting. NGOs met independently and in planning meetings organized by CONGO (six for Nairobi, and other preparatory meetings by four special committees). This website offers many reports by US NGOs and those by and for US government officers, making research on North American involvement relatively easy (see for example: U.N. World Conference of the U.N. Decade for Women...:Report of Congressional Staff Advisers to the U.S. Delegation publications of the U.S. Women’s Bureau; items by the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. Also, on this site is Forum '85: Final Report: Nairobi, Kenya, the summation of Forum participation and activities at the meetings in Nairobi. There were similar reports of the Forums held in Mexico City and Copenhagen.

   For the more challenging and less explored policies and actions of other governments and NGOs originating in other parts of the world, although a few are included here [the Women's Council of Zambia; the Pan-African Conference on the Role of Trade Union Women; from the Australian Office of Women], the UN web site (http://www.un.org/en/) and library archives (http://archives.un.org/unarm) remain the best places to begin for speakers of the six UN languages. Footnotes in the UN resources found there cite papers submitted at every stage of the Convention and Forum process. See also, the archival collections from Europe and the United Kingdom, which will also reflect more diverse views and lead to organizations with yet more international connections and involvement in more multi-national networks.

   The CSW had ultimate responsibility for drafting the document to be considered at the meetings (see CSW, Report on the 30th Session, 15-25 February 1984). All UN specialized agencies, such as ILO, WHO, and UNESCO submitted working papers, as did the UN regional economic commissions, and agencies such as UNICEF and UNHCR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). For examples of such documents on this site, see one from the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and another for Africa. Once development became an even more central theme, UN programs, research and training institutes, and a myriad of related organizations vied for a role in the outcomes of the meetings at every stage of the process. For example, one of the many accomplishments of the Decade was to force the rethinking and rewriting of international aid initiatives. Now the IMF and the World Bank routinely question the ways in which women, as well as men, will be included in programs and how they will be differentially affected. This dramatic change and its implementation, however inadequate, awaits its chronicler. Recent information is relatively easy to access on the web, through the many UN offices, NGO sites, and the UN library catalogue. See, for example on the Commission on the Status of Women: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/. As mentioned before, a simple report will have annotation leading to more documents and more specific insights.

   The richest single resource for the whole of each Conference remains the complete "Report of the World Conference..." compiled after each of the three meetings had concluded. These were submitted to the Secretary General, who in turn formulated the resolution for presentation at the General Assembly recommending acceptance of the particular Plan/ Programme of Action. These "Reports" include preparatory documents and references to information from all stages of the Conference process. This archive has the official United Nations reports for the three conferences in Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi.

   To help and encourage those interested in the Decade and these valuable United Nations resources, an APPENDIX with information and research tips on how to use the UN's websites and Library follows.


   There are so many possible research topics that it seems useful to include a quick guide to the UN catalogue, online resources and archives. Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Humanities Librarian at Miami University, contributed the expertise that follows.

United Nations Catalogue and Online Resources

   Though there are several places to search for the full text of United Nations documents, you will want to start with the United Nations' Official Document System (ODS) [http://documents.un.org/welcome.asp?language=E]. The ODS includes all types of official United Nations documentation, beginning in 1993. Older UN documents are being added to the system on a daily basis. ODS also provides access to full text of all the resolutions of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council from 1946 to the present. When searching for documents in this system, you have the option to do either a simple search or an advanced search.

   In a "simple search" you can do either a full-text search or a symbol search. Full-text search can be done in several different languages and allows you to search the texts of the documents to see where a relevant term appears. For instance, you can do a search for "women's rights in Africa" and retrieve 23 documents. United Nations documents are identified by symbols, which consist of a combination of letters and numbers with each element separated from the next by a stroke (/). Searching by document symbol is the most precise search option, as it allows location of one specific document, but it requires users to know what they want before they begin searching. The United Nations does include a Research Guide that explains the different symbols [http://www.un.org/Depts/dhl/resguide/symbol.htm]. You can also use symbol truncation to search if you only know part of the symbol. If you were to use right truncation and put in A/52/01, you would retrieve A/52/101 and A/52/101/Rev.1, A/52/101/Rev.1/Add.1 as well as A/52/1010-1019.

   An "advanced search" gives you more options in terms of locating documents. For example, you can select to do a search that includes all of the UN Documents, or to just search through Resolutions 1946-1993. You can search for a specific session for a particular United Nations body. Sessions are identified on the documents by either a sequential number, by the year and a sequential number, or by a designation of different parts of the session. Advanced search also allows you to search by subject. Documents and resolutions are indexed using the UNBIS Thesaurus [http://lib-thesaurus.un.org/LIB/DHLUNBISThesaurus.nsf]. You can use this thesaurus to find exact subject terms. You may enter multiple subject terms, but you must place an ampersand (&) between each of them. If a document has the subject term you enter in the advanced search, it will be retrieved.

   Once you find relevant documents, the individual records will include important information like the exact title, the publication date, the number of items on the agenda, the subjects, etc. In most cases you will also be able to download a pdf file of the document itself. Most documents can be downloaded in the different UN languages.


   To search for documents that are not online, use the UNBISNET (http.//unbisnet.un.org/) which is the UN library catalogue. It includes documents, but also books and journals. The entry usually indicates where the item is held: archives, UN library, or UN depository library (major research libraries around the world that regularly receive selected UN documents and publications).

United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library and Archives

   The Dag Hammarskjöld Library is a special library at United Nations Headquarters in New York City designated to facilitate the work of the United Nations. It focuses on the needs of the United Nations Secretariat and diplomatic missions. Anyone with a valid United Nations Headquarters grounds pass, including specialized agencies, accredited media and NGO staff, is able to visit the library. However, the library is not open to the general public. Instead, it is assumed that members of the public will visit depository libraries located worldwide if they are in need of documentation not already on line.

   The institutional archives of the United Nations are held at United Nations Headquarters in New York City and at other UN sites, such as Geneva. The public with proper accreditation has access to records that fall under the following categories: archives and records that were accessible at the time of their creation; those which are more than 20 years old and are not subject to restrictions imposed by the Secretary-General; those which are less than 20 years old and are not subject to restrictions imposed by the Secretary-General, on condition that the originating office has given written consent for access.

   Researchers must register in advance by completing a registration form, which can be found on the UN website (http://archives.un.org/unarms/en/unarchivesmgmt/publicreferenceservices.html). The form asks for your address, employer, duration of visit, degrees, etc. It also requests information about the purpose of the visit, the topic of research, and where the research might appear.

   Inquiries can be sent to the e-mail account of the UN Library at arms@un.org

   Photocopies or digital copies can be made of some archival documents. If ordered in person, they cost fifty cents a page. The research room is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday to Friday. This information is for 2011, check the UN Library site for current prices and hours.



[1] U Thant's term ended in December 1971 but he was known to be friendly to women's issues. Kurt Waldheim, his Austrian successor, was not, and during his tenure the CSW was reduced in numbers and influence, and moved away from UN Headquarters to Vienna.

[2] Much of this information and analysis comes from Judith P. Zinsser, "From Mexico to Copenhagen to Nairobi: The United Nations Decade for Women, 1975-1985," Journal of World History 13 (1) (2002): 139-68; Judith Zinsser Lippmann, "The Third Week in July," Women's Studies Int. Forum 6 (5) (1983):547-57; Judith P. Zinsser "Nairobi Confab Ends on High Note," New Directions for Women 14 (5) (September/October 1985): 1,12,14.

[3] At the 1980 Copenhagen mid-decade conference and in the months immediately after, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) gained the necessary signatories to become operational. Note that signatories make "Periodic Reports" on women's rights in their country which are a valuable representation of different cultures's perceptions of women's lives. This archive includes a number of CEDAW reports; see also Rights of Women: A Guide to the Most Important United Nations Treaties on Women's Human Rights. The United Nations maintains "Women's UN Report Network" with links to women's human rights documents on line, women's rights organizations and weekly updates on events related to women's human rights. I am grateful to Ida Blom for this last reference: http://www.wunrn.com

[4] See United Nations document A/RES/30/3520.

[5] "Zionism" was not mentioned specifically. Instead, "all other forms of racism and racial discrimination" were condemned.

[6] States, now reluctant publicly to condemn clauses of the final conference documents, attach "restrictions" to those paragraphs and sentences with which they disagree.

[7] See, for example, the first sampling for the general public after the end of the Decade, The World's Women: Trends and Statistics 1970-1990 (New York: United Nations, 1991) [Sales No. E. 90.XVII.3]. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/Worldswomen/WW_full%20report_color.pdf. See also, INSTRAW, Women and the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (Santo Domingo: UN, INSTRAW, 1985).

[8] Letitia Shahani, "Statement on Agenda Item 92 before the Third Committee, General Assembly, 28 Oct. 1985," unpublished, see pp. 3 and 13.

[9] For a sample of articles by women from different regions of the world, see Zinsser, "From Mexico to Copenhagen to Nairobi," p. 140n3 and the three articles on each of the Decade meetings (and their endnotes) in Anne Winslow, ed., Women, Politics, and the United Nations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995). see also Jane S. Jaquette, Copenhagen, 1980: "Women in Development," Feminism and the New International Economic Order (1981).

[10] The database does not include these country reports, but does include a number of pamphlets published by CHANGE and written by its leading organizer, Georgina Ashworth.

[11] Journal of International Women's Studies 9 (1) (November 2007): 212-33.

[12] Women's Studies International Forum 26 (4) (2003): 313-31.

[13] Robin Morgan, The Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology (New York: The Feminist Press, 1984).