The Cost of Keeping Women Poor


September 20, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

If you think sex discrimination is a problem only affluent countries can afford to worry about, a new report from the Worldwatch Institute brings some sobering news: Discrimination against women actually increases poverty and increases environmental damage in the developing world.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, an independent, non-profit research organization based in Washington, D.C., living hand-to-mouth is a way of life for 3 billion of the world's 5.5 billion people. And for women in these subsistence economies, hard work is the only life there is.

They work more hours than men, usually for less money per hour. While men often reserve some of their earnings to spend on themselves, women spend a larger share of their money -- and many more hours of their time -- feeding, clothing and sheltering their families.

In short, women are the primary providers for their families in many impoverished areas of the world. They fulfill that crucial role with resilience, creativity and almost always with superhuman labor.

Jodi L. Jacobson, author of the Worldwatch report, cites studies detailing the typical day for women in an Indian village in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Rising at 4 a.m., they light fires, milk buffaloes, sweep floors, draw water and feed their families. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. they weed crops for less than half the amount paid to men for the same work. Since they don't earn enough to buy fuel, they then must spend time foraging for twigs, leaves and branches to build a cooking fire. Only after this chore is accomplished can they return home to cook the evening meal and complete the household chores.

All that activity amounts to three shifts of work each day -- twice the number of hours the men in their village devote to supporting their families. The work might be more bearable if it led to a better life. But the women do not own the land they till, and each year they find themselves poorer and less able to provide for their families.

Truly, the world is full of "wonder women" who perform Herculean labors. But in a better world, that work would produce a better pay-off.

As it is, legal and cultural obstacles trap women in a vicious cycle, increasing the amount of time it takes to accomplish routine chores while also reducing the already-meager resources available for their families.

The resulting misery doesn't stop with women who bear the brunt of it. There is a direct correlation between the mother's income and food production -- and her ability to control them -- and the nutrition and health of the family's children.

Ms. Jacobson cites a World Bank report which found that in Africa, "it is not uncommon for children's nutrition to deteriorate while wrist watches, radios and bicycles are acquired by the adult male household members."

Throughout the developing world the pattern is clear: When women's contributions to the non-wage economy remain invisible, they remain poor. And when they are poor, their children suffer too.

One result is that population pressures increase because women need more children to help with the work -- and because children are often their best hope for economic security and social status.

In turn, a bigger population puts more pressure on fragile environments and on equally fragile political systems. Forests disappear as women become desperate for cooking fuel; agricultural land is overworked and less fertile. As each factor feeds into the others, whole countries are trapped in a vicious downward cycle toward increasingly severe economic and environmental crises.

A number of factors contribute to the plight of Third World women and their families. But none is more striking than the unintended effects of well-intentioned Western aid programs that overlook the central role of women in these subsistence economies.

In many areas of the world, strategies for agricultural development have shifted land that was traditionally held in common -- and available to women for growing food -- into privatized plots to encourage the cultivation of cash crops. But since women are responsible for producing food and men traditionally control cash crops, when large amounts of land are used for cash crops, women have a harder time producing food. Traditional patterns of rotating fields are abandoned, and women end up trying to coax poorer crops from depleted land.

Probe the issue of discrimination and the victims of gender-based prejudice increase. As Ms. Jacobson demonstrates, they include not just poor women and their children but, eventually, the planet itself.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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