Mary Ann Glendon at Beijing+10

For Women Worldwide, “the Picture Is Mixed”

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NEW YORK, MARCH 7, 2005 ( Delegates meeting in the second week of the U.N. Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, “Beijing+10,” heard the Vatican’s views on the issues surrounding femininity.

Heading the Holy See’s delegation is Mary Ann Glendon, who also represented the Vatican at the 1995 Beijing conference on women. Glendon, a Harvard law professor, spoke with ZENIT before her presentation today.

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Q: What will you be presenting to this 49th Session today?

Glendon: What I’m going to be presenting is in response to the question posed by the women’s committee at the U.N. to the participants. Our purpose is to take stock of the developments since Beijing in 1995.

So the Holy See will take the occasion of its intervention to call attention to the new challenges that have arisen in the past 10 years, new forms of poverty and new threats to human dignity. …

I will reiterate the concerns that we expressed in that area 10 years ago when the Holy Father told us one thing to do in Beijing. He said: Try to be a voice for those whose voices are seldom heard in the corridors of power.

And I might add that the Holy See is in a unique position to make these points because of over 300,000 Catholic educational health-care and relief agencies that serve mainly the poorest people in the world. The Church is a daily witness to the plight of migrants, refugees, victims of conflict and those who lack basic nutrition or sanitation.

We’re going to be calling for a cultural transformation. Care giving, receiving respect, is one of the most important forms of human work [as well as] the restructuring of the world of work in such a way that women’s security and advancement does not have to come at the expense of the family life.

Q: Ten years following the Beijing conference, how much has the condition of women in the world changed; that is, have there been steps forward or backward?

Glendon: The picture is mixed. In many parts of the world, women have made steady advances in education and employment, although the employment picture is less encouraging in the case of women with children.

In some respects, the condition of women has deteriorated. Most troubling is the fact that three-quarters of the world’s “poverty population” is composed of women and children. This is so even in affluent societies where the costs of divorce and single parenthood have fallen heavily on women.

Poverty and family breakdown, moreover, are associated with increases in other ills, such as domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Q: In the historic Beijing conference there were some points of friction between the Holy See and the United Nations, especially over the issues of reproductive health and “rights,” gender equality and the sexual education of children. Since then, some of these aspects have been brought up in a variety of U.N. discussions. So now, at what stage of the debate are we over these themes?

Glendon: As at Beijing, the Holy See made clear last week that these conference documents do not create new international human rights, and that any attempt to do so would go beyond the scope of the authority of the conference.

These moves are necessary to forestall attempts to “spin” the meaning of rather vague language in the documents themselves.

It should be kept in mind that the most important debates on these issues are taking place at the national level. Population and sexual-liberation lobbies always try to secure references to reproductive and sexual rights in U.N. documents — hoping to influence national opinion and laws.

Such groups were at the height of their influence in the 1990s. That is why parts of the Beijing documents are less expressive of the actual concerns of women than of the agendas of various special-interest groups.

Q: What do you say to those who accuse the Church of being old-fashioned and obscure when confronting issues on women?

Glendon: What is clearly “old-fashioned” today is the old feminism of the 1970s — with its negative attitudes toward men, marriage and motherhood, and its rigid party line on abortion and gay rights.

Where the Church is concerned, there is always room for improvement, but it is hard to think of another institution that has done more, concretely, to advance the well-being of more women.

The Church’s longstanding dedication to women’s education is well known. With the largest private health care and educational systems in the world, the Church keeps in close touch with women’s everyday concerns; it “walks the walk” with them, while others often only “talk the talk.”

Q: In light of the third millennium having just begun, how is the “feminine genius” valued in the Christian sense?

Glendon: Interestingly, the new feminisms that are emerging these days have much in common with the Catholic vision of men and women working together in complementarity to bring about a culture that is pro-woman and pro-family.

A central concern for increasing numbers of women is that advancement in the economic, social and political spheres should not come at the expense of family life.

That is a problem to which no society has yet found a solution, and it is a problem to which the “old” feminism of the 1970s was largely indifferent.

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