WASHINGTON -- While international health statistics present a steadily growing gap between industrialized nations and the Third World, an unexpected bright spot is emerging: otherwise impoverished areas where women have found ways to better themselves economically and improve their environment.
Ayela Hammad, an Egyptian public health specialist who has worked extensively in developing nations, says economic progress for women appears to translate quickly into community health gains.
Ms. Hammad, an organizer of a recent international forum in Ghana on health as a condition for development, cites the case of Indonesian village women who borrowed money to build a small dam. They increased their income twentyfold and hired the first doctor to serve the area.
Later, she said, she witnessed the efforts of women in Zambia who organized to improve the health of their families and were able to conquer a cholera epidemic. She also cited women in Ghana who, through cooperative movements, have succeeded in gaining economic independence and improving health and education for their children.
"Health and literacy are essential to economic development," she said. "If the predominating social values are eating and drinking, you don't improve your life when your income improves. We've got to change values."
Ms. Hammad believes that women instinctively have more concern for health and the environment.
Without empowerment of women, for example, the population problem cannot be solved, she said.
"I don't believe in birth control programs in themselves because they don't work," she asserted. "If women are totally dependent, their only function is to produce children."
The same principle applies in the campaign to combat the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in developing nations, she said. "If a man doesn't want to use a condom, an independent woman can refuse sex, but a dependent woman can't."
The daughter of an Egyptian diplomat, Ms. Hammad has worked for the World Health Organization since 1968, much of that time in developing countries.
WHO studies show that the developing nations are getting the worst of two worlds. They suffer from malnutrition, intestinal and respiratory diseases, AIDS and other endemic illnesses, and now experience heart and circulatory problems, cancer, drug and alcohol abuse and occupational hazards associated with industrialization.
One of the aims of world health officials is to find new ways to combat the rising cost of health care.
"People are going to have to help themselves more," Ms. Hammad asserted. "As they have come to expect professional care, people don't put cold compresses on a child's forehead DTC when it has a fever. They run for the doctor, and when he comes it may be too late, just because nothing was done to bring down the fever."