Women: the dispossessed majority

May 28, 1993

Women may have come a long way, but the journey has only begun. In its fourth annual Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Programme notes that while many minority groups are excluded from the rewards of prosperity, women comprise by far the largest excluded group. Across the board, in rich countries and poor, women earn less than men, have less political influence and lower rates of literacy, and are given less recognition for their contributions to the economy.

Statistics detail the lag: Two-thirds of the world's illiterates are women. They earn less than men for their work and they work longer hours. Much of this labor is not even recognized as productive. The report estimates that if women's unpaid work in feeding, clothing and sheltering their family were counted in traditional economic statistics, global output would jump by 20 to 30 percent.

Does it matter? More than we realize. Specialists on Third World development argue that the most effective way to protect the world's environment is to educate girls and women, especially in the world's poorest countries. In many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, women are in charge of food production and other activities that directly affect natural resources like soil or forests. Educating girls raises their economic and social status, giving them better access to land rights and credit -- which, in turn, make it easier for them to be wise stewards of natural resources.

Educated women also have smaller families, helping to stem population growth -- a major threat to the environment. In many countries, researchers have found that smaller families enjoy more comfortable lives and that children in these families have brighter prospects for the future.

Disparities between men and women are found in developed countries as well. The Human Development Index, a feature of the U.N. report, ranks countries according to such factors as life expectancy, educational levels and purchasing power. Japan, first overall on the 1993 index, fell to 17 when the index took into account the disparities between men and women. Among other things, the average earnings of working women in Japan are only 51 percent those of men, and women hold only 7 percent of the country's managerial or administrative jobs. But Japan is far from alone. When the participation of women was factored in, the United States dropped from sixth to ninth place.

But credit Japan, the United States and 31 other countries for at least keeping the statistics that illustrate this gap. Of the 173 countries ranked on the index, only 33 kept track of statistics. Ignoring the disparities won't make them go away.

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