Anne S. Walker: Thoughts on Vienna

Why Vienna was a milestone in the history of the international women’s movement

The ten year gap between the UN World Conference on Women, Nairobi 1985, and the planned Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995, proved to be very difficult for women’s networks and groups that had become increasingly active since the International Women’s Year conferences in Mexico City in 1975. Women in every world region had become more strategic in their fight for women’s rights.

But the absence of a women’s world conference in 1990 was hurting badly. The United Nations had turned its attention to other issues. Member States no longer felt any pressure to do annual reports on implementation of commitments made at the 1985 Nairobi meetings. There was a very real need for feminist activists worldwide to find a way to put women’s human rights issues back into the centre of the world’s thinking.  Violence against women in all its forms was extremely serious in every world region and especially critical in areas of conflict.

Through the 1990s, a series of UN world conferences were planned. At the International Women’s Tribune Center (IWTC), we had begun to strategize around ways to make women’s rights issues central to each of them. These included the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, 1992; the World Conference on Human Rights (WCHR) in Vienna, 1993; the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 1994 and the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, 1995.

The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna was of particular importance however, with its human rights focus, so when the Centee for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) contacted us about a meeting to plan for this conference specifically, we were immediately interested. At IWTC, we had begun using new information and communication technologies more extensively and believed they held enormous promise in terms of planning and strategizing for the conferences with regional women’s networks.

And so we began a series of meetings with CWGL and other women’s rights networks. At an early meeting, the idea for a Global Tribunal on Women’s Human Rights was put forward and enthusiastically accepted by all. CWGL had been bringing together women leaders from every world region each summer to work on strategies for action around women’s rights issues, and this had produced a core of women’s human rights activists in every region. It was thought they could be called upon to organize regional tribunals.

A Global Tribunal actually in the same building as the World Conference would place women’s human rights at the core of the world conference in a way never seen before. Added to this was a plan to have a Rights Place for Women, where women’s groups from every regional could display posters, publications and information on their women’s rights activities. The Rights Place also had a room where women could meet in groups to discuss women’s rights issues, run workshops and make future plans once the conference was finished. It would also be situated in the World Conference building and accessible to all delegates. IWTC agreed to organize the Rights Place, in conjunction with the three Isis groups from Manila, Santiago and Kampala.

For the three years leading up to WCHR in Vienna, IWTC utilized newly established fax networks intensively, sharing information and making plans with women activists everywhere. During this time, CWGL was involved with its regional contacts in the running of the regional tribunals. Each region chose representatives who were to come to Vienna to give their testimony at the Global Tribunal in Vienna.

A petition calling for women’s human rights to be placed on the main United Nations agenda was faxed worldwide to both IWTC and CWGL regional contacts. The petition finally garnered 1,000,000 signatures! Each morning at IWTC, we would arrive to be faced with the floor around the fax machine deep in faxes containing signatures. The first 500,000 signatures were wheeled across to the UN from IWTC in a wheelbarrow and presented to the President of the UN General Assembly. The succeeding 500,000 were dramatically wheeled onstage at the World Conference in Vienna, and officially presented to the chair on stage during a plenary session. That day was proclaimed Women’s Human Rights Day.  Women’s human rights were finally given a central place in the UN lexicon.

One particular memory that stands out

The Global Tribunal was about to begin. Representing one of the groups organizing the Tribunal, I had been asked to brief the women testifiers beforehand to put them at ease as much as possible, and to let them know that if they wanted the TV cameras and microphones turned off at any point, we would see that they were.

One after the other, the women spoke, many with translators by their side. Some broke down and the cameras and lights were turned off. When and if they regained their composure, the testimony proceeded. Searing stories of extreme violations of human rights, humiliation, emotional, physical and mental violence were being revealed.

Then onto the platform came a small, elderly, dignified woman from Korea, dressed in a magnificent traditional costume of iridescent green with a wide sash around her waist. She wore a traditional headpiece in her intricately waved hair and on her feet wore silk socks and traditional platform sandals. Her name was Kim Bok-Dong. By her side was a young woman student to translate.

She began her story very quietly and with enormous dignity. She told of being a young woman of 16 years of age, living in her village of Yang San, in the Nam Bu Dong area of Korea with her mother and one younger sister. Her older sisters were already married as it made them safe from being taken by the Japanese to work in factories. It was 1941 and World War II was underway. Her mother thought Kim Bok-Dong was too young to be taken and so let her roam freely around the village.

But her mother was wrong. An official came one day with a Japanese man. He demanded that her mother stamp some document. In those days, women could not read so her mother conceded to the demand, believing what she was told – that her 16 year-old daughter would have to work in a factory and would be free after three years.

Kim Bok-Dong was taken to Pusan where there were 20 other young girls her age. They all thought they were going to work in a factory. But she and the other girls were moved from place to place for body medical inspections before finishing up in an empty 15-storey building in Guangdong. On the first floor were soldiers and on the second floor was the ‘Comfort House’.

Kim Bok-Dong then began to describe in the most straightforward way what happened next. Each girl was placed in a cell just wide enough to lie down in on her back, her body touching the wooden wall on both sides. None of the girls had ever had sex before. In fact, she said, they did not even know what it was all about. In Korea, young women found out about such things on their wedding night.

Then the horror began. Long lines of Japanese soldiers lined up outside each cell and systematically, one by one, raped the girls. At first Kim Bok-Dung resisted forcefully. For this she was beaten brutally and given no food. She could not continue to refuse. So she gave in and decided to do what she was told. She could not initially endure the pain. Her internal sexual organs were torn and swollen. She told us she could not describe the suffering and even speaking about it was humiliating. Her only thought was to escape but she could not. She continued to sustain many injuries and when that happened, she was allowed to rest until she recovered and then was sent back to receive soldiers again.

It was impossible for her to remember how many soldiers came and went each day. It was tens of soldiers, she said, maybe fifty.

After two years in Guangdong, the women were sent to Hong Kong and then on to Singapore. The Singapore ‘Comfort House’ was a long building partitioned off into small rooms. It was extremely hot. Many of the women fainted after servicing long lines of Japanese soldiers hour after hour.

They were kept in one place for about two months, and then transferred to another, following the battle. Usually the front line fighting was only about eight kilometers from them and they could hear the gunfire. Sometimes they had to go up into the mountains in groups of ten to service the soldiers for one week at a time. Each time they were moved by ship, they were crammed into the decks below the soldiers. Wherever the soldiers went, they followed behind.

By now, there was not a sound in the Global Tribunal hall. Hundreds of people had come in from all over the conference centre as word spread about this woman’s story. People were standing, kneeling, wherever they could find a space. I was in tears, how could one not be? Yet this incredible woman was speaking on in a low voice, almost monotonous, emotionless, stoic, steady, without tears.

And then, she said, Liberation was announced. Japan had lost the war and they could now go home. They were taken to a military hospital by the Japanese commander.  The Japanese needed nurses and cleaners and the women were taught these skills.

While at the hospital, a miracle happened for Kim Bok-Dong. Her cousin’s husband came and found her, carrying a photograph of her given to him by her mother. When he was drafted to the South Pacific in the supplies division, her mother had told him to check every place he came across where there were Korean women, to search for her and bring her home. Her cousin’s husband took her to the receiving centre, where the women were processed before going home. At the centre there were more than 200 women. She spent one year at that receiving centre before boarding a boat for the journey home.

On finally arriving home at her village, Kim Bok-Dong was 23 years old. She had been gone for almost eight years. Only her mother was left in the family home in Yang San. After she had been taken, many others were taken away.

Fearful of what her mother and family would think of her, she decided not to tell anyone what had really happened. She tried to settle back into her old life. But her mother, overjoyed to have her daughter back after so many years of believing her dead, was anxious for her to get married and to start a family. Arrangements were made for her to be married to a man in the village.

All this time, this woman telling her terrible story had been calm and dignified. There didn’t seem to be anything more that could possibly hurt her as badly as she had been hurt already. But she suddenly began to tremble uncontrollably.

Trying to keep her composure, she began to speak of how she decided to tell her mother what had happened to her during those years. But she couldn’t contain herself any longer and suddenly broke down. One of the Global Tribunal team stepped forward and offered to have the cameras and lights turned off as had been promised. She shot up her head and straightened her back immediately and shouted ‘No! Keep the cameras and the lights on. I have waited 50 years to tell my story and I’m not going to be stopped now!’

‘I was so ashamed of what had happened and did not want my mother to know. But my body was destroyed and there was no way I would ever sleep with another man. I had to tell her,’ she sobbed. Only then did her mother stop trying to get her married.

I can’t begin to describe the stillness in that room that day. This incredibly courageous woman had told us a most horrific story that none of us could really imagine, and had related it all with a calmness and dignity that was inspiring. Yet at the memory of having to tell her mother the whole story she broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.

The greatest lesson from the process and achievements of Vienna.

The experience gained in the three years leading up to Vienna were invaluable in the years following as we at IWTC planned for the next UN world conferences, determined to place women’s human rights issues and concerns at the center of each of these.  The next conference was the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 1994, where we faced tenacious and well-funded opposition from right-wing fundamentalists led by the Holy See (a Nation State that holds Special Observer Status at the UN).  Using many of the communication skills used in the years leading up Vienna, women worldwide organised and lobbied hard to keep women’s reproductive and maternal rights an essential part of the Cairo Plan of Action.

Then there was the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, March 1995. This was the largest gathering ever of world leaders at that time. It pledged to make the conquest of poverty, the goal of full employment and the fostering of social integration overriding objectives of development. Perhaps for the first time, and after intense lobbying from feminist activists, each of these human rights issues had a gender element at its core. Women formed a strong and articulate gender caucus to lobby for  women’s economic and employment rights as essential in the fight against poverty.

At IWTC, our expertise with new information communication technologies was growing, and the year before Beijing saw another revolution take place in the global women’s movement. The IWTC Global FaxNet was a fax network of 28 women’s media groups set up in 1993 at a DAWN/IWTC meeting of women’s media networks in Barbados. This faxnet had been crucial in the planning for Vienna and had been a major vehicle in garnering the 1,000,000 signatures for the petition.

I was able to visit Beijing in 1994, following two global women’s meetings:  Women Empowering Communications, a women and media conference in Bangkok organised by IWTC, Isis International (Manila) and the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC/London); and a UN Asia and Pacific women and development conference in Manila. Both of these conferences were regional meetings being held in preparation for the 1995 Beijing NGO Forum.

The IWTC/Isis International/WACC meeting in Bangkok had brought together more than 400 media women activists to strategize for collective action on women’s rights and media issues at Beijing. Women worldwide had already successfully lobbied to have women and media included as one of the 12 Critical Areas of Concern in the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA).

I was taken on a tour of the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing following the other two conferences in Asia/Pacific in 1994. On my return, IWTC widely circulated plans of the area by faxnet, mail and the beginnings of an email network. Women were excited and happy to be able to take part in discussing possibilities for activities. Much of this was lost of course when the Chinese Government moved the NGO Forum 40 miles out of town to Huairou, mainly fearful of the thought of so many feminist activists coming to Beijing! Our worldwide media outreach was having an effect!!

As a women’s human rights issues connector, especially in terms of organising and sharing information immediately with women worldwide, the IWTC global faxnet had proven invaluable. However, the IWTC fax machine was breaking down and we needed to find a new way to reach women quickly and effectively. So we turned to the newly emerging world of e-mail. An e-mail network was set up to add to the numbers receiving information through the fax network, and we called the e-mail edition of the bulletin IWTC Women’s GlobalNet. Within a month, the IWTC Women’s Global FaxNet and IWTC Women’s GlobalNet lists had grown to 1,500 groups and individuals. It was obvious that a whole new way of communicating women’s human rights issues and concerns had arrived.

This ability to reach women worldwide was an enormous leap forward in the global women’s rights movement, and many of these learnings were made in our planning and preparations for the world conference on human rights in Vienna.


Anne S Walker grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where she worked as an early childhood teacher. Following a period as a community activist in England, she moved to Fiji, where she worked on community development, women’s rights and communications, including the fight against nuclear testing in the Pacific. While doing her graduate work in development communications in the USA, she was asked to help establish the International Women’s Tribune Centre in New York. This thrust her into the center of the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights. From her IWTC offices across the United Nations, the Tribune Centre became a home-away-from-home for activists and organizers the world over. The communications materials produced by IWTC were instrumental in keeping the growing global feminist movement informed and networked, particularly in the period f the UN convened conferences of the nineties. She is the author of A World of Change: My Life in the Global Women’s Movement.