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“Human Rights are Women’s Rights and Workers’ Rights are Women’s Rights:” May Chen on the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China during September 1995. The conference, which called for gender equality, development, and peace, grew out of the international women’s movement and marked the end of the official United Nations decade of Women. For women like May Chen, Vice President of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), the conference was an opportunity to share their activist experiences and learn about issues confronting women around the world, including political and domestic violence against women and families, economic and cultural marginalization, and unfair labor practices. Chen, a long-time activist in the Asian-American community, relished the opportunity to meet and learn from well-prepared women who insisted that women’s rights – and worker’s rights – were human rights.

Listen to Audio:

JACKSON: What was your particular interest in going to Beijing?

CHEN: Well I really went partly as a personal exploration and partly because since I graduated from college, many years ago, I’ve seen steady changes and have fought and worked, you could say, for the causes of women and women workers. And I went with a group of friends who were garment workers and who are fairly long-time immigrants to the United States. So it was partly out of going with this group of friends who were all women and were active in CLUW and other women’s issues. And also as a Chinese American I had never been to China. And so I looked at this as an opportunity to explore my roots a little bit. My father grew up somewhere around Beijing but came here in the 30s so he spent most of his life now in the United States, so this was an exploration of that type.

It was really fascinating. The themes of the conference were equality, development, and peace. And I think that in each of our own ways we have brought our experiences and how we are dealing with these themes in our own countries into this conference. And I think for the women that I went with who are immigrants to the United States, we met and spoke with a lot of migrant women who’ve migrated all over the world and their working experiences in their various countries. In the garment workshop I think we also were able to share the fact that many of the companies are global companies and many of the women in different countries are essentially working for the same employers. But I think what was really amazing was that there was an atmosphere that allowed for this kind of exchange. Even when we had differences of opinion, it was not really hostile you know or whatever, it was just an incredible atmosphere where very different cultures and opinions were being shared. One thing that came out quite amazingly is that there seems to be a big gap between laws and labor laws in certain countries and the actual practice and that really came out across the board, whether it was in the United States, you know, in our garment worker members or the countries of Asia and very undeveloped countries. And so we shared a lot of that information. And the importance of unions was very underscored. There was a lot of discussion on the current trend of economic tightening and also political and religious conservatism, both in the plenaries and I think throughout the meetings. Because they have a really extreme impact on women, whether they’re in the so-called First World countries or in the less developed countries. A lot of women in the, say in the Middle East who, you know, had shed their veils and all this before now are being told they have to put them back on. And then in the economic sector, women are being marginalized. They’re being shoved into part-time jobs that have no benefits and just economically very pressed. And then, of course, related to that is the cuts of family benefits, whether they be schools or things that women workers typically have to concern ourselves with.

What was really impressive to me and also the women I went with was the seriousness of these women from other countries and how much they knew about the inter-mone—, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and all those. We went, you know, really as I said originally, as a kind of a personal exploration as a learning experience and we learned so much from these other women because they went, especially the delegations went very well prepared. They did a lot of homework. They made very substantive presentations about their countries. And it was just so impressive. I mean it made you very proud to be a woman, that you know, women could rule the world.

One of the rallying cries of this conference that I found very interesting is that they made a big point the women’s rights are human rights, human rights are women’s rights because also the human rights movement has been very male dominated and is perceived as just a political movement. So the women’s questions ranging from battery in the home to violence and wars and so on was really brought up to that level in this cry that women’s rights are human rights. So I would draw the parallel to workers‘ rights too, because all women are workers, even the ones who stay home, you have to work in the home. And I think the meeting of the women’s rights movement and the workers’ rights movement has to be much closer, because they’re very inter-related and integrated. And I think I learned that from Beijing and we have to push forward and make sure the workers' right movement really incorporates the demands and needs of women and families.

Source: Interviewed by Janine Jackson, 1995
Courtesy Labor at the Crossroads