ROME. — Rome -- "At least 60 million female adults and children in Asia are missing and feared dead,'' reported the New York Times at the end of last year.
Recently released census data in China and India show that in both countries the sex ratio of the population became more skewed toward males over the course of the last decade.
The reason? Many girls are killed at birth, and others die because they are given less food than male babies. Families spend scarce resources summoning a doctor when a boy is sick, but decide they cannot afford to do the same for girls.
These are among those startling pieces of information that occasionally surface in life, that reveal an immense crisis of which the rest of the world is only vaguely aware. Women in the rural backwaters of the Third World -- some 550 million of them -- are the forgotten oppressed of our planet. Their parents may or may not have wanted them -- in Africa and Latin America the sex ratio is normal -- but once born they are often given a disproportionate share of the duties of the household and farm.
It is this that prompted six prominent first ladies -- the wives of the presidents and prime ministers of Turkey, Colombia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt -- to summon to Geneva this week women from all over the world, to meet at a ''Women's Summit'' to discuss the ''Economic Advancement of Rural Women.'' The conference was organized by the Rome-based Interna- tional Fund for Agricultural Development, a U.N. agency tTC that specializes in aiding the rural poor.
According to Idriss Jazairy, the fund's president, a sharp-tongued former Algerian diplomat, ''the number of rural women living in poverty in the developing countries has increased by almost 50 per cent over the last 20 years.'' This, he is at pains to underline, ''is not just the consequence of over-rapid population growth. While poverty among rural men has increased by only three per cent, among women it has increased by nearly 50 per cent.''
The magnitude of the problem, it appears, varies from continent to continent, depending partly on the influence of culture and partly on the state of social instability as a consequence of war, civil disturbance or over-rapid urbanization.
In most of the Middle East and North Africa, and in much of Asia and the western Sahel of Africa, the proportion of households headed by women is well under 20 per cent. (Indeed, in Asia, where it is only 9 per cent, most single women are widows without dependents.) In sharp contrast, in Central America, the Caribbean, southern Africa and Vietnam, it is over 30 per cent, and here the number of young mothers on their own with !B children is worryingly high.
We are now observing the increasing feminization of the Third World countryside, a society in which large numbers of men are absent, driven by poverty or war to the towns, or even abroad, to look for work, and where those that remain often do not pull their weight.
Fifty-five per cent of the food grown in the Third World is produced by women; in Africa it is as much as 70 per cent. In short, women, by their labor outside the house, are vital elements in sustaining life in the poorest areas. Indeed, the poorer the family and the country, the more hours women work and the more important their contribution.
But whether a woman is alone or with a man, and despite the fact that she is a critical element of production in the rural economy, she is, to all intents and purposes, given second or third rank by social custom. What is more, she is often ig- nored by those institutions, government and private, that are supposedly working to improve the output of the rural economy.
One exception is the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a remarkable self-help credit institution that now has half a million members, mainly women. On my visit there, I met a young woman, Shaheeda Rahman, a fairly typical member. Married at 16, she was pregnant at once, then was almost immediately abandoned by her husband. She was filled with shame and embarrassed at sharing her hardship with her impoverished father, but fortunate that a friend put her in touch with the Gra- meen Bank. Her first loan from Grameen was for the equivalent of $60. She used this to buy unhusked rice, a rooster and a hen. Milling and selling the rice, she made $8 a week. Her flock of hens grew to 32. The eggs and the sale of occasional birds brought her another $2 a week. With the profits, she bought a goat for $6 and started to sell milk. She now has a small herd and has sold off six goats and sells the milk for $2 a week.
She's invested the income in buying seeds and growing vegetables. The surplus brings in enough income from the market place to pay for her daughter's education. Her most recent investment was the purchase of a dairy cow. This gives her sales of $4 a week. All in all, she's earning $20 a week -- worth to her ten times as much in an economy where everything is so cheap.
The job now is to translate this woman's experience into a worldwide effort. Unless these Third World countries realize what hidden resources they have in their women folk, they will never truly progress, and will always live a distance below their true potential.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.