Invest in Women

September 09, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- The secret key to the impasse in Cairo at the world conference on population is women. To be absolutely precise: poor women. Everything else is a tiresome sideshow.

One figure defines the magnitude of the issue. The number of rural women living in poverty in the developing countries has increased by almost 50 percent over the past 20 years, to 565 million -- 374 million of them in Asia, 130 million in Africa, 43 million in Latin America and the Caribbean and 10 million in the Near East and North Africa.

This is not just the consequence of over-rapid population growth. There has clearly been a sharp jump in the number of female-headed households. Changes in traditional values, the emigration of men, increased family break-up, the economic recession of the 1980s, high population growth, low productivity and a deteriorating environment all work to reinforce each other.

The problem may be exacerbated by culture or by social instability resulting from war, civil disturbance or over-rapid urbanization. In most of the Middle East, North Africa, much of Asia and the western Sahel of Africa, the proportion of households headed by women is well under 20 percent. In Central America, the Caribbean, Southern Africa and Vietnam it is over 30 percent.

Though women are a critical element of production in the rural economy -- in Africa women produce three-quarters of their family's food supply -- social custom usually subordinates them. Women's access to land is severely constrained, yet in the rural economy only land of one's own gives access to the means of production.

Islamic law grants land rights to women, but in daily life the threat of divorce or other social sanctions encourage women to cede practical control of their land to men. In Africa, customary land systems often give married women the right to a certain number of fields, but they must give priority to their husband's fields and livestock.

Development has not favored women. Most crop and livestock projects are aimed at men. Project designers, banking and aid officials all too readily assume that women cannot afford to buy improved seeds, fertilizer and irrigation equipment. Nor can they repay loans. These attitudes are based more on prejudice than fact. The repayment records of poor women are often much superior to those of better-off borrowers.

Lack of education postpones the day of reform. A billion earthlings are illiterate; two thirds of them are women. The rapid growth of educational opportunity in the 1960s and '70s slowed HTC toward the end of the 1980s as economic recession pushed many countries -- short-sightedly -- to cut their education budgets. Investment in education is probably the single most cost-effective activity for any government at any level of development.

To underinvest in women compounds the mistake. Education and economic opportunity can produce in triply disadvantaged women -- poor, female and, perhaps, single parents -- a triple multiplier effect -- in the home, in society and, not least, in nurturing the next generation.

Moreover, when women participate in economic life, population growth is controlled. There is growing evidence that a woman's income and her degree of control over household spending is linked to her children's nutrition and health. Thus, improving female opportunity and income will lower child mortality and morbidity. Over the long run women will have fewer children.

Access to land produces a similar benefit. If a woman can work for herself, she will need fewer sons to assure her care if something happens to her husband.

Tragically, in many parts of the Third World, men are either absent or not pulling their weight. The burdens of life and well-being are thrown on women, who are not equipped by education, tools or advice to realize their abundant, unfulfilled potential.

The Cairo conference is so badly polarized because too many delegates are looking at the problem from the wrong end. Message to Cairo: Take care of women's poverty and population will probably look after itself.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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