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Not leaving women behind

Published by Newsweek on 1999-01-01

For those who scrambled for some optimism with which to start the New Year in social development issues, the news last week was disheartening. Human Rights Watch accused Mexico of failing to protect pregnant women workers against job discrimination, one of dozens of developing countries in which foreign companies allegedly denied women the same professional rights--and pay--as male employees. A consortium of U.S. foundations said that aid agencies weren't adequately meeting a growing demand in poor countries for family planning services, especially from women wishing to bear fewer children. The global cohort of poverty increased in 1998 to a staggering 2.5 billion--which is to say, 2.5 billion people earned less than the equivalent of a $1 a day. Women constituted a majority of these poor. And a Unicef report declared that a billion people remained illiterate in 1998--a sixth of the global population. Two-thirds of these illiterates, or nearly 700 million, were women, a record high.

So whatever happened to sustainable development, that benign concept of promoting economic growth, environmental security and social justice in the 127 countries of the developing world? Is it doomed to remain largely an abstraction, especially for poor women? The gloomy news last week more or less coincided with the third anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference, formally known as the Fourth International Conference on Women; some of the participants (more than 30,000 women from all over the world attended the 1995 event) urged accelerated spending on education for women, one of the priorities set at the Beijing Conference. They disclosed some startling figures: The 185 members of the United Nations spend $781 billion annually on defence; they allocate barely $80 billion to education. Europeans spend the equivalent of $11 billion annually on ice cream; Americans spend more than $25 billion each year on cosmetics. In order to achieve universal primary enrollment, said Unicef, nations needed to channel just another $7 billion each year.

Are additional funds for education, and for women's projects in particular, likely to be forthcoming in 1999? Don't hold your breath. More bad news from last week: The overall ODA (official development assistance from donor countries) in 1998 dipped to a record low--barely $45 billion; projection for 1999: $40 billion. Aid specifically for women's projects in health and education globally: Not even $500 million. At the same time, the world's poor countries now owe $2.2 trillion in external debt--which means that much of their foreign-exchange earnings continue to go toward debt service.

The sad irony is that aid cutbacks come at a time when activist groups at the grassroots have become more energetic than ever before in pushing for women's empowerment, the very cause that parsimonious donors have so zestfully championed at myriad global talkfests. The Beijing Conference- and before that, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo--mobilized women to lobby (male) policy makers in scores of countries on behalf of programs aimed at improving the status of underprivileged women. Many activists have also industriously highlighted such matters as the need for higher female representation in local legislatures. In Tunisia, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Argentina, Costa Rica and Jordan--to cite some outstanding examples--there are now more female parliamentarians. A few days ago, India's venerable Congress Party decreed that women would occupy 30 percent of seats of its powerful executive council.

Energized by the Beijing Conference, women activists have also persuaded local legislatures in several countries to approve punitive bills against domestic violence. They have made significant gains in the international campaign against female genital mutilation: Just last week, Senegal- following Egypt's lead--outlawed the gruesome practice.

Unfortunately, many of the world's bureaucracy-clogged multilateral organizations are of questionable value to women, the constituents in whose name they unceasingly plead for donor funds. At the United Nations, the highest-ranking woman assigned to women's issues is only at the assistant secretary-general level. Assorted "women's" agencies within the UN family are often at odds with one another, jockeying for turf and institutional perks. After administrative costs are met and handsome paychecks are cut, not much is generally left over for grassroots projects. Moreover, these agencies are often saddled with personnel placed through political quotas. No wonder there's so much sluggishness in implementing recommendations of seminal meetings such as the Beijing Conference, which offered worthwhile benchmarks for women's advancement.

In this last year before the new millennium, can the international community be galvanized on behalf of women's issues? Here are four suggestions:

_ Create an international "peace corps" for women. This could be funded by multinational corporations, which could also supply short-term skilled consultants. These consultants could help train developing-country women to become teachers in fields certain to become even more important in the next century, such as information technology.

_ Provide better reproductive health services. When women enjoy better access to family planning, they have smaller families--which are less of a drain on local resources. Donor countries should elicit commitment from more developing nations concerning women's health issues. Pharmaceutical companies in donor countries can also invest in better primary-health-care facilities in developing nations.

_ Encourage indigenous activist groups. In the wake of the Cairo and Beijing Conferences, thousands of such groups have sprouted in developing countries. It's remarkable how effectively they use scarce resources to create jobs for women in cottage industries and even to provide small scale credit for women farmers. Surely the world's big corporations can find worthwhile investment opportunities here. Wouldn't such investment, however modest, enhance corporate social responsibility?

_ Establish affordable schools. In India, a woman named Manju Bharat Ram--scion of an upper-class privileged family--has launched a series of schools open to all castes and classes. Admission is on measurable merit, with special encouragement given to the girl child. The developing world certainly needs more such schools. At present, only 56 percent of boys and 44 percent of girls enroll in primary schools in poor countries--hardly an auspicious omen for good citizenry in the 21st century.

When women in poor countries are offered better education and employment opportunities, the beneficiaries invariably tend to be their husbands, children and society as a whole. In this age of globalization, where does it say that women should be left behind?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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