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"Equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all" is the theme for the celebration of International Women's Day at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday.
Fifteen years ago in Beijing, at the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, I witnessed and reported on the pledges made by the governments of 189 countries to promote equality between women and men.
A lot of high-flown promises came out of that gathering, which brought together women politicians and activists from around the world, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, then first lady of the United States.
For me, the conference served as a wake-up call. Although many Chinese women had received higher education and become mid-level managers, I was reminded of the challenges we still faced.
My friends and I began to call attention to the visible and invisible obstacles that prevented women in China from enjoying the same opportunities for education, employment, and career advancement as men. We told the stories of a lot of women, celebrating one's decision to keep her daughter in school and lamenting another's suffering at the hands of a brutal husband.
We attempted to make the public aware that women were key players in society, but often did not receive credit for their achievements. As an editor, I was particularly attentive to any story that distorted women or propagated a stereotypical bias against them.
Five years ago I was in New York, attending the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women as it reviewed the progress women had made in their political and social empowerment.
Although there were some success stories, I heard mostly from women sharing the frustrations they encountered in the pursuit of their dreams, whether they were putting an end to violence and war, overcoming poverty and getting a decent job, or simply living with dignity.
This week, thousands of women gather again in New York to assess the progress that has been made since the Beijing Platform of Action was adopted 15 years ago.
Most media in China have neglected the two-week meeting. The most enthusiastic observers seem to be department stores, which are as anxious as ever to entice women to spend more.
I myself have lost a bit of steam, not because I've been accused of making unrealistic demands, but because I've become more realistic about what strides China can achieve to help with women's development.
China's robust economic growth and rapid social changes have only intensified the disparities between urban and rural areas, between the haves and have-nots.
For whatever reason, women have borne the brunt of these disparities. Because of the 5,000-year tradition that a woman's place is in the home, their needs for healthcare, education, and training are more likely to be neglected than those of their male counterparts.
Many educated women who have risen to mid-level managerial positions have encountered the glass ceiling, because women in China are made to retire five years earlier than their male colleagues. Fewer women have the chance to advance in their careers once they reach the age of 50, because they are seen as close to retirement age.
China is not alone. UN data shows that girls are still under-represented in secondary schools around the world. Only 18.6 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, far below the target of 30 percent set by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
At the current rate, it will take another 40 years to reach gender parity in politics.
And of course, the media are still part of the problem. A sample of media reports from 42 countries in Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, Pacific Islands and Europe shows that by and large, news media still serve male interests, with 48 percent of all stories reinforcing the idea that women are inferior to men.
As thousands of activists, women leaders, and government officials of the world gather again this week in New York, "equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all" remains a slogan, not a reality.
Our job is not yet done.
(China Daily 03/04/2010 page8)