On the last day of the Beijing Plus Five meeting in New York, I saw a ghostly figure handing out leaflets. Dressed in a gray jacket and long skirt, this young woman looked oddly old-fashioned. My curiosity was aroused.
“Hi,” I said. “What organization do you represent?”
To my surprise, she answered. “I belong to the youth caucus and I am here to make sure that none of the previous agreements made at other UN meetings are changed,” she said as she handed me a leaflet that was blank except for a large black comma drawn on it. “Our group does not believe that this comma belongs where the delegate from Grenada put it, and we are here to set the record straight. In the document agreed upon in 1995, that comma was definitely before, and not after, the word ‘equal.”
Suddenly I was paying attention. Here was a lobbyist so faithful to the text that she had even memorized the punctuation. She believed that a UN document was like a bible that must never change, so she was relentless in her mission.
Then a cloud of pessimism passed over me. “What difference would that make?” I asked myself. Did the future of women’s equal rights hang on this grammatical change? The young woman saw my puzzled expression and began a tiresome lecture on the importance of being faithful to previous agreements. I cut her short by saying that I would catch her later.
On reflection, I confess that her point of view was consistent with the mantra, “Don’t Slide Back.” Nevertheless, I cringed at the possibility that future meetings would get bogged down by commas. Moreover, I regretted that youth groups were so blindly drawn into lobbying about words rather than actions that they couldn’t see past the grammar. When I saw her the next day, I argued with her, “You are right to defend the original agreements, but we also have to enlarge our vision and update our approach. We can use the agreements made in the past as a foundation, but we have to understand them in the bright colors of the present. We must see their possibility to light the way to the future.”
“The Platform for Action is only a wonderful floor, not the ceiling of possibilities,” I continued. “Many years later, we can restack our priorities in action coalitions. Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have been placed squarely at the center of sustainable development. Other issues like climate change, health, globalization, science and technology need more attention.” She just stared at me, handed me another leaflet and walked away like a gloomy shadow.
No one else caught a glimpse of her. She could become invisible. To avoid this, we must revive the spirit of the Beijing conference. The energy and vision of the international women’s movement has been nurtured by energized, creative new thinkers who are testing its strength on the ground. We need to point our youth in a more productive, forward direction that could breathe life into the feminist and women’s movement at the UN once again.