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Let us move from aspiration to action

September 5, 1995

Statement by the head

of the Holy See's Delegation to the World Conference on Women


The following is the English text of the Statement made on 5 September by Mrs. Mary Ann Glendon, head of the Holy See's Delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.


Madame Chairperson,

The Delegation of the Holy See wishes first of all to express its special thanks and appreciation to the Government of the People's Republic of China, to whom it gladly renews the cordial and respectful good wishes of Pope John Paul II. The warm reception we have received from the authorities and from the people here in Beijing and the efficient manner in which the arrangements for the Conference have been managed have further helped to make this World Conference such a memorable experience.

1. We are celebrating the Fourth World Conference on Women. Our Conference follows on a series of other International Conferences which will surely mark the international social climate, as we move to the end of this millennium and to the beginning of the new one. From Rio de Janeiro to Vienna, from Cairo to Copenhagen and now here in Beijing, the community of nations and each single State have been focusing their attention on the significance and the practical consequences of what was affirmed in the first principle of the Rio Declaration, namely, that "Human beings are at the centre of the concern for sustainable development".

Today, more than ever our task is to move from aspiration to action. We must see that what has been affirmed at the universal level becomes a reality in the everyday lives of women in all parts of the world. The historical oppression of women has deprived the human race of untold resources. Recognition of the equality in dignity and fundamental rights of women and men, and guaranteeing access by all women to the full exercise of those rights will have far-reaching consequences and will liberate enormous reserves of intelligence and energy sorely needed in a world that is groaning for peace and justice.

During the preparations for this Conference, the Holy See has listened carefully to the hopes, fears and daily concerns of women in various parts of the world and from different walks of life, as well as to their criticisms. Pope John Paul II has directly addressed the concerns of the Conference in numerous talks and encounters, especially in his recent personal Letter to Women. He has acknowledged the deficiencies of past positions, including those of the Catholic Church, and has welcomed this initiative of the United Nations as an important contribution to a global improvement in the situation of women in today's world.

Holy See's views represent aspirations of many

The Delegation of the Holy See, headed by a woman and composed mainly of women with varied backgrounds and experiences, applauds the purpose of the draft Platform of Action to free women at last from the unfair burdens of cultural conditioning that have so often prevented them even from becoming conscious of their own dignity.

The views of the Holy See represent the aspirations of many people, believers of all faiths and non-believers alike, who share the same fundamental vision and wish it to be known. It is only when different viewpoints are sensitively listened to and appreciated that one can arrive at a true discernment of situations and a consensus on how to remedy them.

2. I will draw attention, therefore, to some of the many points where my Delegation concurs with the Platform of Action, while at the same time I will also indicate some areas which my Delegation feels ought to have been developed in a different manner.

At times in the preparatory process, the Holy See has had strenuously to emphasize that marriage, motherhood and the family, or the adherence to religious values, should not be presented only in a negative manner. To affirm the dignity and rights of all women requires respect for the roles of women whose quest for personal fulfillment and the construction of a stable society is inseparably linked to their commitments to God, family, neighbour and especially to their children.

The position of women is linked with the fate of the entire human family. There can be no real progress for women, or men, at the expense of children or of their underprivileged brothers and sisters. Genuine advances for women cannot overlook the inequalities that exist among women themselves. Enduring progress for women must be rooted in solidarity between young and old, between male and female, as well as between those who enjoy a comfortable standard of living with ample access to basic needs and those who are suffering deprivation.

At the same time, it should be clear that promoting women's exercise of all their talents and rights without undermining their roles within the family will require calling not only husbands and fathers to their family responsibilities, but governments to their social duties.

Because so many women face exceptional difficulties as they seek to balance greater participation in economic and social life with family responsibilities, this Conference rightly places a high priority on the right of women to effectively enjoy equal opportunities and conditions with men in the workplace as well as in the decision-making structures of society, especially as they affect women themselves.

Justice for women in the workplace requires in the first place the removal of all forms of the exploitation of women and young girls as cheap labour, all too often at the service of the lifestyle of the affluent. It requires equal compensation and equal opportunities for advancement, while addressing also the added responsibilities they may bear as working mothers, and according special attention to the problems of women who are the sole providers for their family.

Furthermore, effective action on behalf of working mothers requires recognition of the priority of human over economic values. If efficiency and productivity are considered the primary goals of society, then the values of motherhood will be penalized. The fear of reinforcing certain stereotypes concerning the roles of women, should not prevent this Conference from clearly addressing the special challenges and the real-life needs and values of those millions of women who dedicate themselves to motherhood and family responsibilities, either on a fulltime basis or who reconcile them with other activities of a social and economic nature. Our societies offer far too little tangible recognition or concrete assistance to those women who are struggling to do a decent job of raising children in economically trying circumstances. For our Conference not to face these issues would be to render true equality for the majority of the world's women even more elusive.

The Holy See, at this Conference, as it did also on the occasion of the World Summit on Social Development, stresses the importance of finding new ways of recognizing the economic and social value of women's unremunerated work, in the family, in the production and conservation of food and in a wide range of socially productive work within the community. Women must be guaranteed measures of economic and social security which reflect their equal dignity, their equal rights to ownership of property and access to credit and resources. The effective contribution of women's work to economic security and social well-being is often greater than that of men.

Everyone has the right to education

3. I wish to return, now, to the fact that so many women today do not have access to those basic rights which belong to them as human beings, to the extent, in fact, as I have said, that they are often even unaware of their own dignity. I return to this theme to indicate some areas of special concern and commitment of the Holy See for the coming years.

It is well-known that the Catholic Church, in its manifold structures, has been a pioneer and leader in providing education to girls in both developed and developing countries, and often in areas and cultures where few groups were willing to provide equal educational opportunities to both girls and boys.

Every human person has the right to be helped to make the fullest use of the talents and abilities they possess and thus, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts, "everyone has the right to education". Universal access to basic education is, indeed, an established goal of all nations. Yet in today's world, of the scandalously high number of persons who are illiterate, over two-thirds are women. Of the millions of children who are not enrolled in basic education, about 70 per cent are girls. What is to be said of the situation in which the simple fact of being a girl reduces the likelihood of even being born, of survival or of then receiving adequate education, nutrition and health care?

On 29 August last, His Holiness Pope John Paul II committed all of the over 300,000 social, caring and educational institutions of the Catholic Church to a concerted and priority strategy directed to girls and young women, and especially to the poorest, to ensure for them equality of status, welfare and opportunity, especially with regard to literacy and education, health and nutrition and to ensure that they can, in all circumstances, continue and complete their education. The Holy See has made a special appeal to the Church's educational institutions and religious congregations, on their own or as part of wider national strategies, to make this commitment in favour of the girl child a reality. This is, in fact, a commitment already assumed at the Copenhagen Summit for Social Development and the Holy See, as on that occasion, places itself side by side with all the governments of the world to work in collaboration with them on such programmes of education. More and more it is recognized that investment in the education of girls is the fundamental key to the later full advancement of women.

The question of education is closely linked with the question of poverty and the fact that the majority of those who today live in abject poverty are women and children. Efforts must be strengthened to eliminate all those cultural and legal obstacles which impair the economic security of women. The reasons specific to each region or economic system which render women more likely to bear the heavier burden of poverty must be addressed. No part of the world is without its scandal of poverty which strikes women most. Every society has its specific pockets of poverty, of groups of persons especially exposed to poverty, at times within sight of others whose patterns of consumption and lifestyle are all too often insensitive and unsustainable. The "feminization of poverty" must be of concern to all women. Its social, political and economic roots must be addressed. Women themselves must be in the forefront in the fight against the inequalities among women in today's world, through the concrete caring and direct solidarity with the poorest among women.

May I draw attention here to the extraordinary work that has been done, and is being done today, by a category of women whose service is so often taken for granted: that of religious sisters. In their communities they have developed innovative forms of female spirituality. From their communities, they have developed forms of solidarity, caring and leadership for and among women. They are examples of how religious principles are for so many women today a source of inspiration in fostering a new identity for women and a source of perseverance in the service and advancement of women.

Holy See condemns coercion in population policies

4. The Holy See also recognizes the need to address the urgent specific health care needs of women. It supports the special emphasis of the Conference documents on expanding and improving women's health care, especially since so many women in today's world do not even have access to a basic health-care centre. In such a situation, the Holy See has expressed its concern regarding a tendency to focus privileged attention and resources on the consideration of health problems related to sexuality, whereas a comprehensive approach to the health of all women would have to place greater emphasis on such questions as poor nutrition, unsafe water and those diseases that afflict millions of women each year, taking a vast toll on mothers and children.

The Holy See concurs with the Platform of Action in dealing with questions of sexuality and reproduction, where it affirms that changes in the attitudes of both men and women are necessary conditions for achieving equality and that responsibility in sexual matters belongs to both men and women. Women are, moreover, most often the victims of irresponsible sexual behaviour, in terms of personal suffering, of disease, poverty and the deterioration of family life. The Conference documents, in the view of my Delegation, are not bold enough in acknowledging the threat to women's health arising from widespread attitudes of sexual permissiveness. The document likewise refrains from challenging societies which have abdicated their responsibility to attempt to change, at their very roots, irresponsible attitudes and behaviour.

The international community has consistently stressed that the decision of parents concerning the number of their children and the spacing of births must be made freely and responsibly. In this context, the Catholic Church's teaching on procreation is often misunderstood. To say that it supports procreation at all costs is indeed a travesty of its teaching on responsible parenthood. Its teaching on the means of family planning is often regarded as too demanding on persons. But no way of ensuring deep respect for human life and its transmission can dispense with self-discipline and self-restraint, particularly in cultures which foster self-indulgence and immediate gratification. Responsible procreation also requires especially the equal participation and sharing of responsibility by husbands, something which will only be achieved through a process of changing of attitudes and behaviour.

The Holy See joins with all participants in the Conference in the condemnation of coercion in population policies. It is to be hoped that the recommendations of this Conference to this effect will be adhered to by all nations. It is also to be hoped that, in order to arrive at informed consent, couples will be provided with clear information about all possible health risks associated with family planning methods, especially where these are at an experimental stage or in cases where their use in certain nations has been restricted.

There is clear consensus within the international community that abortion should not be promoted as a means of family planning and that all efforts must be made to eliminate those factors which lead women to seek abortions. Pope John Paul II has emphasized, in speaking of the responsibility for a woman's tragic and painful decision to have an abortion, "before being something to blame on the woman", there are occasions when "guilt needs to be attributed to men and to the complicity of the general social environment". All who are genuinely committed to the advancement of women can and must offer a woman or a girl who is pregnant, frightened and alone a better alternative than the destruction of her own unborn child. Once again, concerned women must take the lead in the fight against societal practices which facilitate the irresponsibility of men while stigmatizing women, and against a vast industry that extracts its profits from the very bodies of women, while at the same time purporting to be their liberators.


All violence against women must be stopped

The Conference has, however, rendered a great service by casting a spotlight on violence towards women and girls, violence which may be physical, sexual, psychological or moral. Much more needs to be done in all our societies to identify the range and the causes of violence against women. The extent of sexual violence in the industrialized nations, as it becomes more evident, comes often as a shock to their populations. The fact of the use, in this 20th century, of sexual violence as an instrument of armed conflict has stunned the conscience of humanity.

All such forms of violence against women should be condemned and social policies to eliminate the causes of such violence should be given priority consideration. More must be done to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation and other deplorable practices such as child prostitution, trafficking in children and their organs and child marriages. Society must also reach out to all those who have been the victims of such violence, ensuring that justice be applied to the perpetrators of such violence, as well as offering the victims holistic healing and rehabilitation into society.

The question of violence experienced by women is also linked to those factors which underlie the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality and especially reduces women to the role of sex objects. Should the Conference not condemn such attitudes, it could well be accused of condoning the very root causes of much violence against women and girls.

Finally, I feel that greater attention could have been drawn to the needs of specific categories of women, especially within changing social and economic environments. I will simply mention here elderly women, who are among those who experience special problems in all our societies.

Madame Chairperson,

The title of our Conference is "equality, development and peace". We must move from a vision of human persons looked on as mere instruments or objects to one in which every person can fully realize her or his dignity and full potential. Our century has been a century of unprecedented scientific progress, but one also which has seen horrific conflicts and wars. In the midst of a culture of death, it has been very often women who have safeguarded and promoted a civilization of love, preserving the vestiges of human dignity throughout the darkest days and years. Ignored, underestimated and taken for granted, the beneficent influence of women has radiated throughout history, enriching the lives of successive generations.

It is to the future that we must now look. The freer women are to share their gifts with society, and to assume leadership in society, the better are the prospects for the entire human community to progress in wisdom, justice and dignified living.

The Delegation of the Holy See hopes that this Conference and the name of the great city of Beijing will be remembered by history as an important moment in which, by advancing women's freedom and dignity, we will have contributed to building a civilization of love, where every woman, man and child can live in peace, liberty and mutual esteem, with full respect for their rights and responsibilities; a civilization where life and love can flourish; a civilization where the culture of death shall have no dominion. May Almighty God accompany us and sustain us in our task.

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

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