Women in Search of Better Lives

September 10, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

Forget the spats about ''feminism,'' debates about the meaning of ''gender,'' or the criticisms that the concept of ''family'' gets short shrift in the official U.N. document.

What matters about the conference in Beijing is that by addressing ''women's'' issues, the governments of the world are also addressing problems that directly affect the welfare of all their people.

Educating girls, providing reproductive health care, finding ways make credit available to poor women -- these problems don't require sophisticated solutions. Yet it is these ordinary, unglamorous challenges, not the high-profile projects like roads or dams, that ultimately make the difference between poverty and prosperity.

Why the emphasis on reproductive health care, rather than basic needs? Because in poor countries child-bearing is risky business. When pregnancy and birthing go wrong -- as they often do -- women and infants die or suffer crippling injuries. And when mothers die, families lose their centers. In many cultures, it is women who gather and provide food and, compared to men,

women tend to channel more of their earnings or resources back into the welfare of their family.

As living standards improve, so should health care in general. One of the most encouraging signs that there are effective ways to fight poverty is the rise of small-scale lending programs for poor people around the world. For people who live with scarcity every day, the lack of affordable credit is the most debilitating hardship. Generally, poor people only have access to loans at sky-high interest rates.

Yet the vast majority of poor people, through their resourcefulness and desire to escape poverty, make the most of credit when they can get it on fair terms. Recently, the World Bank entered the ''micro-finance'' market as the coordinator of a newly formed Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest. That move adds a lot of muscle and prestige to the micro-lending movement.

''Micro-loans'' are aimed at the poorest of the poor, generally estimated at about 1 billion of the world's 5.6 billion people. Many of these households are headed by women -- who have proved to be among the world's most industrious entrepreneurs, especially when their loans include some training in basic financial principles and the encouragement of their peers.

The Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, a pioneer of micro-lending and one of several models of this system of finance, offers loans averaging about $100 at prevailing interest rates. The vast majority of the its loan recipients are women, and their projects range from livestock and poultry-raising operations to small trading businesses. Sometimes the loan is used to buy a loom that will enable them to weave and sell their work.

To get a loan, a woman must join a village group, which parcels out loans one or two at a time. When repayments begin, other group members can borrow. They must agree to other requirements, including a promise to save money on a regular basis and to observe simple sanitary rules in their households, boiling water and the like. The Grameen Bank also requires participants to refuse to participate in financially ruinous dowry systems.

The Grameen Bank's loan-repayment rate is 97 percent, a better record than the rate for poor men who borrow from the bank -- and far better than the repayment rate for wealthy Bangladeshis, which averages less than 60 percent.

The Grameen Bank is not unique. Neither is the idea that, given a chance to make something of their lives, women will work as hard as necessary in order to succeed.

Reports of radical feminist agendas in Beijing make sensational headlines. But the meat of this conference is found in the stories of women in search of better lives for their families and themselves. Most of the women who made the trek to China are less worried about the definition of ''gender'' than about the basics: health, education, legal protections and economic security.

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

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