This report was first published in Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 8, no. 17, Autumn 1993.
'Women's Rights are Human Rights!’ we shouted in chorus with the woman with the megaphone in the van, ‘Stop Violence Against Women!’ One of the placards condemned the rape of women in Bosnia. Others called on the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women.
Not the usual fare of an academic conference. But this was not a usual academic conference. It was the Fifth International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women. Most of the placards were in Spanish, because it was held at the University of Costa Rica. The main banner read ‘La No Agresion Contra La Mujer es Tambien un Derecho Humano’. And the march from the university to the Plaza de la Democrazia in downtown San José (the capital of Costa Rica), which filled the streets with the 2000 participants from 43 different countries, was part of the program.
Other aspects of this congress gave it a flavour more like that of a United Nations gathering than the dusty scholasticism that can be associated with universities. Charlotte Bunch, of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Douglass College, Rutgers University, for instance, spoke of a current campaign to persuade participants at the UN Conference on Human Rights to take place in June this year that rape is torture (the UN has already outlawed torture, but not rape). Kazuko Watanabe, of the Kyoto Sangyo University, presented a chilling analysis of the continuum between the ‘sex tours’ that Japanese businessmen take in Asia today, and the ‘comfort women’ recruited in Southeast Asian countries to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War, information brought to international attention by a lawsuit that three Korean women brought against the Japanese government in 1992. Peggy Antrobus, of the Women and Development Unit in Barbados, speaking on Ecology to a packed lecture theatre, said that women in the developing world are sceptical of ways in which the feminist agenda had been ‘mainstreamed’ and thereby neutralised. She argued, too, that women are highly suspicious of the language and actions of government agencies: ‘We are not talking about “sustainable profits”’, she noted, ‘but that is what governments mean when they talk about “sustainable development”', an announcement which brought thunderous applause.