The situation struck me as ironic. I was at a meeting on women’s rights, attended mostly by older women, women wealthy enough that they had been able to stay at home to raise their children (and to have nice homes to raise them in). Yet they were sitting around me discussing how today’s young mothers could get out of their homes, leave their children, and centre their lives on getting ahead in business, politics and academics.


I was attending a meeting entitled “Prelude to Nairobi,” held on June 2, 1985, in Toronto. It was billed as a way to support an upcoming United Nations conference and to learn more about it. The UN conference (in Nairobi, Kenya, this July) is to celebrate the end of the Decade for Women. Its purpose is to hear governmental reports on their steps to implement a UN Convention on equality for women (the UN Convention on the elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).


Before I went to the meeting, I had already read The Interim’s analysis of the UN Convention (in the May 1985 issue), and I knew some of the implications were controversial. As I looked around, I wondered whether these well-heeled attendees had any notion of these implications.


Opening the door to abortion?


Take the issue of abortion. There were many Catholic and Orthodox Jewish women at the meeting. (It was sponsored by a coalition of religious groups, mostly Catholic and Jewish.) Their churches stand against abortion. Did they know that the UN Convention they were here to support has been interpreted by Planned Parenthood as favouring abortion?


The International Planned Parenthood Federation  (IPPF), in its 1984 report, The Human Rights to Family Planning, refers specifically to the UN Convention. It called for the rights to abortion and sterilization for any individual (not just for families as the phrase “family planning” would imply). It also calls for the right of children to contraception and abortion down to the age of ten without parental knowledge or consent.


The IPPF report admits that these are ”novel” rights but urges that they be “legally enforceable” by attaching them to other basic human rights. Here it refers to the UN Convention, suggesting that the abortion rights IPPF promotes could be included in the Convention’s Article 16(e), which speaks of the right to choose the number and spacing of one’s children. It would appear that Planned Parenthood intends to use this section of the Convention to pressure governments into liberalizing their abortion laws. Although the Convention document does not itself mention abortion explicitly. Its vagueness may be used to open the door to expanded abortion rights.


Undermining parents’ rights


The UN Convention has also aroused opposition from pro-family groups because of its recommendation for family structure. The document calls for the sharing of responsibility for child rearing of by “men, women and society as a whole.” It also speaks of “social significance of maternity,” and insists that school children be taught an “understanding of maternity as a social function”(Art. 5(b))- as though having a child was of more importance to society as a whole than to the family.


Not that these ideas are completely novel for Canada. In 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada issued a Report that proposed that “the case of children is a responsibility to be shared by the mother, the father and society,” (Cited in Canada’s 1983 Report on the U.N. Convention.)


The idea that society (or its representative, the state) has a responsibility equal with the parents’ in caring for their children is extremely dangerous. It could mean that even when there is no overt failing on the part of the parent, such as abuse or neglect, an agent of the state (such as a social worker) could be empowered to over-ride their own children. This would be a massive invasion of family privacy and undermining of parents’ rights.


Which women’s rights?


This is not to deny that society has a responsibility for children (or, more accurately, a responsibility to support parents in raising their children). Rather, it is to show the one-sided emphasis of the UN Convention and the distortions it would lead to. This lopsidedness is evident also in its treatment of women’s rights.


In many ways, the Convention calls for protecting women’s right to work outside the home-but not their right to stay home with young children.


For example, it elevates the right to work to the status of an “inalienable right.” That’s paid work, the context makes clear, not housework or childcare. To enable mothers to exercise this “inalienable right,” the Convention calls upon governments “to encourage the provision of the necessary supporting social services”- by that it means “the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities.”(Art. 12:2 (c)).


There is no caution here, no hint that day-care may not be best for all children. The Toronto Star recently ran a story on Burton L. White, one of the leading experts on early childhood. He has begun to speak out publicly against day-care for children three and under. When does the ”inalienable right” of at least one parent give way to the right of an infant to receive the kind of care best for it? And since breast milk is far better than substitute products, the parent will usually be the mother.


To be fair, the UN Convention does acknowledge that mothers need not just equal rights but special protection. For example, it does call for measures to protect pregnant mothers in the workplace, and to protect their right to return to work after childbirth. But it does not call for any protection or assistance for mothers who stay home after childbirth.


In short, the Convention acknowledges the biological fact of pregnancy but not the biological fact of lactation-because that takes women away from the workplace. It does not call for work patterns that enable women to work without compromising their parenting, such as better-part time work; work that can be performed at home, cottage industries, job sharing, flexible hours, work only during school hours, and son on.


Clearly, the Convention supports only a limited range of “women’s rights”- those that assume that women are primarily defined and fulfilled by work outside the home.


Childrearing: an obstacle to be overcome


Surprisingly, the UN Convention does not call for “equal opportunity” for women in work and public life-that is, the opportunity for women to participate as they wish. Instead, it calls for their “maximum participation.”


What does that mean? I got a clue when I looked at another UN publication, United Nations Work for Women. The reason woman are paid less than men, that pamphlets tells us, is that “women’s working lives are perceived to be subject to interruption.” Translated, that means women leave the work force to have children, and re-enter later when their children, are older.


The UN assumes that women’s wages will not be upgraded unless women stop “interrupting” their working lives when they have children. Its call for “maximum participation.” This means women should no longer take time away from work to care for young children-they should be “equal” with men in their commitment to the workforce.


How does the UN plan to persuade women to accept this definition of equality? The Convention document calls for equal education for both men and women at all levels. Well, nothing wrong with that – who would object to enhancing women’s literacy and skills? But in UN Work for Women we discover the underlying reason for the UN’s concern for education. Women’s tendency to stop work to raise their families means they become qualified for only low-skilled jobs.” It is for this reason, “the pamphlet reveals, that the UN encourages higher education for women.           


In other words, once again the goal of women’s rights is one-sidedly to get women out of the home. Once again, children’s needs are an obstacle to be overcome-not a fact of life to be accommodated.


Feminist censorship is “okay”


Another means to change people’s attitudes on equality, according to the UN Convention, is to eliminate stereotypes. Governments are called upon “to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women” to eliminate practices based on “stereotyped roles”(Art. 5(a)). Schoolbooks, too are to be altered to remove” any stereotyped concepts of the roles of men and women”(Art. 10 (c)).


You may well wonder what business the government has interfering into the private “social conduct” of men and women. You may also wonder where all the liberals went who scream ”censorship” whenever a conservative group wants to remove a book from the classroom because they contain obscenity. Apparently when it’s done in the interest of a cause liberals support, like feminism, censorship is okay.


But “stereotypes” are a bad thing, aren’t they? Who wants school children to absorb stereotypes? Let’s look at the UN Work for Women again to see what it means:


Textbook and curricula in most countries portray women in their housekeeping and motherhood roles; although several countries have embarked on programs to correct this image, it remains a pervasive feature of most educational texts.


So textbooks portray women as homemakers and mothers-how degrading. No wonder feminists are up in arms and the UN is issuing solemn pronouncements to “correct this image.” Those textbooks portray other things unfit for children too like fathers going to work.


If the UN objected to women being portrayed only as mothers, I would agree that this is limiting. But this publication doesn’t say that. To give you an idea how wide-ranging this kind of censorship can be, in Tasmania, Australia, the local education authority sent a team of anti-sexist librarians into a high school to cull book promoting sexual stereotypes from the library. Over 500 titles were destroyed from the library. Over 500 titles were destroyed, including Born Free, Snow White, and the Bible.


Prelude to disaster


Needless to say a wide range of conservatives, pro-life, pro-family activists, activists, Christians, and others ought to be carefully examining this UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I went to the meeting, “Prelude to Nairobi,” in the hope of finding out more about the Convention. Canada ratified the Convention in 1981. That means the government is legally bound to bring our laws into line with the principles of the Convention as long as we stay in the UN. Are Canadians aware of the path their government has embarked upon?


I looked around at the other women attending “Prelude to Nairobi” and one of  my first thoughts was, they have no idea what they are supporting by coming here. They haven’t a clue about the anti-family implications of the UN Convention. These weren’t radical women. I had half expected a meeting on women’s issues to attract a lot of leftover 1960’s radicals. To my surprise, the more than 200 women attending were expensively dressed, well coifed, and looked for all the world like highly conventional matrons.


At one point during the meeting, we sat at small tables of eight to ten women for small group discussions. Through our discussion it came out that most of the women at my table had stayed home while their children were young. Yet more than once they called for subsidized day-care so young mothers could participate fully in education and the workforce.


How could these women urge the government to take away from young mothers of today what they themselves had an opportunity to enjoy? What they are overlooking is that “rights” to subsidized day-care. In Sweden, for example, a mother who wants to stay at home with her children is sometimes questioned by social workers as to her motives. In the rush for new rights, we are in danger of losing old ones.


We see the same thing happening with the “right” to abortion. Women are often pressured by husbands, boyfriends, family, or clinic personnel into abortions they do not want. Is this pro-choice?


The women at my table hinted at the social pressure they themselves felt at times. They felt “guilty” for not working, they said. What they didn’t seem to realize was that by supporting the UN Convention, and by calling for day-care, they were perpetuating the same pressure on others which has made them feel uneasy in their roles as mothers.


Something to hide?


The reason I attended “Prelude to Nairobi” was to gather specific information on the upcoming Nairobi conference. To my disappointment, almost none was given. We were addressed by various speakers on the needs of worldwide-their need for basic literacy in many places, their needs for better health care, their need for greater economic opportunities. But no one said anything specific about Nairobi.


During the question period I asked point-blank: Who would be going as part of the official government delegation, and what position would Canada be presenting? I addressed Maureen O’Neil, Co-ordinator for the Status of Women Canada (SWC). This is the federal agency which has substantive responsibility for co-ordinating preparation for Canadians participation at Nairobi.          


O’Neil’s answer was evasive. The members of the delegation would be announced by the Secretary of State in a few weeks (in two weeks, she said, when the moderator pressed her). Other than that, she said no more than I had already learned from the brochures we were given: that the Nairobi conference was to report on the progress governments had made toward implementing the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and to set strategies for the future.


What’s this? I wondered. Here I am at the meeting billed as a prelude to the Nairobi conference, and I can’t get a straight answer on what our own government is going to say there. Why is that? Does someone have something to hide? Is someone deliberately avoiding publicity on the controversial sections of the Convention?


Unable to compete


The UN Convention is not all bad. Many of its proposals are laudable and we support its call for equal opportunities and rights for women-when they are so conceived that they do not override family responsibilities. The fact that men at times abandon their family responsibilities (or are forced to by the demands of their jobs) does not mean that women, to be “equal,” should follow suit. Instead we should be pressing for work patterns for both men and women that accommodate to the need to care for children and other dependents.


The UN Convention is objectionable not so much in what it says as in what it does not say. It does not call for the right of women to stay home, it does not call for work patterns which accommodate family needs, it does not define “family planning” to exclude abortion. Although other rights are not denied, they are not protected either.


The result in practice is that when two rights conflict with one another, the unprotected rights will be overruled by those that are explicitly protected-the right to work over the right to care for one’s own children, the right to “family planning” over the right to life. The rights not included within the Convention will not be able to compete on an equal footing with those that are included.


Is this all speculative and alarmist? Are we reading too much into the threat posed by the Convention to the family? Consider two instances where the Convention has actually had an effect already. International Planned Parenthood Federation, as mentioned earlier, has used the Convention to buttress abortion rights. Then again, a request for funding for REAL Women was turned down by Status of Women Canada, an agency that funds over 600 other women’s groups, on the grounds that its view of ”equality” did not accord with that of the Charter or Rights and the UN Convention on equality for women.


With a track record like that, we have little reason to be optimistic about the UN Convention. It seems almost certain that it will be used primarily to promote a radical feminist position, with all the good-and all the band-that that entails.