Investing in Women's Work

February 20, 1992

It is not uncommon for women to put in more hours of labor than men, especially in rural areas of the Third World. By the time they take care of household chores, tend to crops or livestock and see to children and other family needs, many women have spent 16 to 18 hours just getting through the daily routine. Meanwhile, the average day's work for Third World men hovers closer to eight to 10 hours. But the importance of women's work has not been taken into account in traditional economic analyses. Consequently, women in developing countries have largely been left out of grand schemes for economic development.

The United Nation's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been working to correct that glaring error, and the results are encouraging. By investing in programs that make small grants to poor rural women for such items as looms or beehives, IFAD is providing thousands of women with a means to supplement a meager income or even to provide sole support for their families. In many cases, they have been left behind by men moving to cities in search of work, widowed by disease or civil unrest, or abandoned as Third World communities encounter new stresses on traditional family structures. Each time an IFAD project gives a woman access to credit or to the marketplace, it also gives her and her children a chance for decent food and shelter and maybe even hope for climbing out of grinding poverty.

On Tuesday, more than 60 wives of heads of state will gather in Geneva for a summit on the economic advancement of rural women. The meeting is designed to bring visibility to IFAD's contention that small investments in poor women can reap big rewards. It is ironic that IFAD is counting on wives of leaders, rather than the officials themselves, to provide momentum. Yet these women, many of whom have played pivotal but unpaid roles in their husband's careers, are well-situated to understand the plight of those whose work too often goes unrecognized and unrewarded. They are also well-qualified to lobby for IFAD's common-sense approach to Third World development.

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