12She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. 16She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings, she plants a vineyard. –Proverbs 31:12-16

The Fourth UN Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, was curtain raised by several major conferences, among them the Cairo ICPD, the Dakar Prep-Com for Africa and the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen. In 1994, the climate was a fierce mix where if you blinked, an entire process would pass by and an entire group of persons would be left or bumped off the bus-ride to the conference. But thank God, there were women of great goodwill, who had the tenacity to include as many diversified women as possible, finding funding from the UN agencies.

But while there were women of goodwill, there were an equal measure of the other types that worked in opposition and put spokes in the wheels of progression. There were times when the Malawi group of women moved forward four steps forward, one or two spanners placed in the wheels and the women were thrown back six steps.

Four days after I broke the two bones on my right hand, an invitation came in the form of a phone call from then PS Esnath Kaliyati to represent media women at a preparatory meeting for various UN conferences that were going to take place in the next 12 months. Even after hearing my situation, the PS insisted that I come and contribute to the preparatory work for the various conferences; she promised that she would avail me of medical services if it became necessary.

The meeting turned out to be a who’s who of women delegates, many of whom would continue with the race to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. There were also leaders of UN agencies based in Malawi. The great turn out of the meeting was three-fold; the first was that I got to meet UNFPA ResRep Carolyn Benbow-Ross and UNICEF ResRep Natalie Hahn. These two powerful women pledged to fund my participation at the ICPD in Cairo in September, and the Dakar PrepCom Conference in November

The third turn out of the conference was a casual announcement by the PS that the media women’s association was pledging to highlight all of the activities of the women’s conferences. She later told me that I had a big task on my shoulders, gave me a few insights on organizing my media colleagues. The seed was sown, and the Malawi Media Women’s Association (MAMWA) was formed with me as Chairperson and Nyokase Madise (formerly of MBC) as my Vice-Chair, Stella Mhura was elected Secretary.

With my arm still in a cast, I mobilized media women to form the association, our first meeting was held in MANA offices; over 15 women from MANA, MBC, and the Daily Times attended and vowed to join, and was soon a registered entity. The association scooped funding for Dakar from UNFPA and UNICEF.

Sandwiched in before Dakar was the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. I almost missed the conference because my name was crossed off the list several times. VP Malewezi however was the last word on the composition of the list. Director of Gender Mary Shawa incorporated me into her team and worked on the Malawi statement that would be delivered by the head of the Malawi delegation was the Vice President, Rt. Honorable Justin Malewezi.

In total there were over 20,00 delegates from around the world that converged on Cairo. Getting to Cairo was a nightmare. For our delegation, (which had three ministers from gender, health and economic planning and development, their PSs and directors, media, and civil society. Due to the high volume of people going to Cairo, some of us were re-routed from South Africa to London where we spent one night.

Because our delegation arrived late, most of the hotel rooms were taken up; so we were accommodated in a tent. When NABW Chairperson Mrs. Joyce Banda heard this, she invited me to share her room. This led to a deepening of our relationship and collaborative work.

The ICPD created the framework for population management mechanisms, but more importantly, it created a space that put a spotlight on women’s health and reproductive rights as a human rights issue. A lot of heated debates took place that almost derailed the prospects of an outcome document. The conference was also about infant mortality, birth control, family planning, the education of women, and the protection of women from unsafe abortion services.

Cairo opened my eyes to the networking and collaborative activities that input outcome documents. But I also saw first-hand how grassroots mobilization can sometimes impact international policy documents. An example is of Arabic women lined up a show that the ICPD must not interfere with their traditional headdress. Former US congress woman-turned activist Bella Abzug had to concede and said her group would not push for the demand to free women from wearing their traditional headgear.

In international conferences, a country gets into coalitions with like-minded nation-states to form blocs that negotiate inclusion or exclusion of elements of the outcome document. This takes negotiation skills, but more importantly, it also means there is no snoozing; attending meetings is crucial. A person must always be present behind a country’s flag.

Watch this space for Part III: To Dakar and onward to Beijing

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