At Large

Women meeting in Baku

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Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea and is a gleaming showcase of the country’s robust oil-based economy. One recent evening, leaving the Yacht Club after our culminating dinner, we glanced up and found a trio of skyscrapers with flames projected on their glass frontages. It was an impressive sight, as with the central area with dun-colored European-style buildings with shops of the best-known designer names, names like Gucci, Armani, Hermes, Prada and others on their ground floors.

On the streets, one finds luxury cars and even limousines cruising the busy, traffic-choked lanes.

On the first and last days of our conference, we were brought to historic tourist sites outside the capital and in Baku. On the first day, we visited two sites—an ancient Zoroastrian “temple of fire” and a village dating back to before Christ was born—whose restoration was funded by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, named after the late president who took over the reins of government shortly after Azerbaijan left the USSR in the early 1990s. The present head of state is his son, Ilham, and father-and-son portraits of the two men grace the walls of government offices and even small private shops.

Two days later, we were brought on a walking tour of the “old city,” with a palace, mosques, a tower and ancient buildings, surrounded by mustard-colored walls that set the general “look” of Baku. Nearby are parks and promenades that follow the contours of the Caspian Sea, whose cold winds send the temperature plunging despite the blinding sun.

The conference I attended, the first meeting of the “women’s wing” of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (Icapp), was hosted by the Yeni or “new” Azerbaijan Party, the ruling political group in the country. This, I understand, is all part and parcel of the general drive of the Aliyev government to gain world recognition and respect, to take its place among the world’s leading nations.

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At the women’s wing meeting, the Philippines actually had a strong presence, in the person of former Speaker Jose de Venecia who is the founding chair of Icapp.

Delivering the opening remarks, De Venecia paid tribute to the leadership of women throughout Asia, who led struggles for the rights of women and for women’s recognition as not just citizens with equal rights and opportunities, but also as national leaders and parliamentarians.

Still, poverty continues to be a cause of concern for Asians—men but especially women and children, who are truly the “poorest of the poor.” To this end, the former Speaker proposed the creation of an “Asian All-Women Anti-Poverty Bank” which would function much like the famous “Grameen Bank movement” of Bangladesh to provide microloans to poor women in the cities and rural areas for their economic survival and growth as microentrepreneurs.

The women’s wing members and leadership endorsed this proposal in the meeting’s final statement, citing women’s “historically very high repayment records.”

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Also a concern of the women participants were the many ongoing peace negotiations to end various conflicts in the region, especially one which was on almost everybody’s mind—the simmering conflict between North and South Korea—that, hopefully, can be solved by diplomatic means rather than by saber-rattling and war-like rhetoric.

The “Baku Statement” hailed the appointment of women to lead in peace initiatives, including acting as negotiators in peace and reconciliation efforts. Included among them are the Philippines’ own presidential adviser on the peace process, Ging Deles, as well as Miriam Coronel Ferrer, who chairs the government panel in the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

As for Korea, De Venecia told me in private that he would recommend the holding of “party-to-party” talks between the North and South, with leaders of the Korean Workers’ Party in the North and the Saenuri, the dominant party in the South, sitting down or at least communicating with one another, with no need for grandstanding or for heated rhetoric, working out ways to settle disputes arising from the latest wrinkles between the leadership of both countries.

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More than 40 women participants and observers from 23 countries in Asia and elsewhere, representing 29 political parties, took part in the meeting. Much of the meeting consisted of addresses and remarks from the participants, including reports on the progress being made to integrate gender in parliament and other official bodies, and the need for more gender-fair laws and improve the ratio between men and women in political affairs.

But it was in the “unofficial” events that much of the networking was done, as women discovered each other’s “back stories” and views on everything—from child-rearing to dealing with in-laws, on political scandals and corruption charges, from party squabbles to cultural oddities.

Women in politics—and women who observe and study politics—in the region will have another chance to interact and act on the proposals made at this first meeting during the Icapp Special Conference on Women in Seoul in September. The conference was proposed by the Saenuri Party of President Park Gaeun Hye, and the opposition Democratic United Party, to be coordinated by Icapp secretary general Chung Eui-yong.

All these in preparation for the forthcoming Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015, a decade after the Beijing Women’s Conference which proved to be a landmark gathering of the women around the world.

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