Cairo — Bright skeins of wool scattered beside them, two village women work intently at a Japanese knitting machine in a small room in the village of Kafr-Tesfa, 30 miles north of Cairo.
Taking shape on the machine is a green dress with red and white trim. Aziza Gamelat and Samia Mustapha hardly glance up as visitors enter.
They are too busy making dresses, sweaters, cardigans, and caps to sell to the rest of the village.
The clanking machine represents far more than clothes, however: It is the first step for both young women out of their traditional, rural roles as wives and mothers toward modest earning power, and self-respect.
In a shed outside, the first of 2,000 chickens fuss and feed in new wire cages imported from Italy.
Both dresses and chickens are part of a bigger effort throughout the third world to widen women's horizons beyond child-bearing and the collecting and preparing of food.
''As women get out of the home and find jobs,'' says Nafis Sadiq, assistant executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities in New York, ''both infant mortality and fertility (number of children a mother has during her lifetime) fall.''
After questioning almost 350,000 women in 42 developing countries between 1972 and 1984, the London-based, US-supported World Fertility Survey concluded that in general, married women who worked outside the home had smaller families than those who did not.
Isolating 20 countries, one study by World Fertility Survey showed a drop in family size from 6.9 children to 4.2 among women with jobs.
The modest knitting and chicken projects in Kafr-Tesfa in the Nile Valley are supported by Egyptian government population planners eager to achieve two goals:
The first is to give rural mothers like Aziza and Samia interests outside the home. The average Egyptian family still has five children.
The second is to make Egypt's Azizas and Samias happier in the village, so they won't join the flood of rural migrants to Cairo, where 8.5 million people already fight for space in an ancient city designed for 2.5 million.
Jobs are not all that is needed, of course. Education is essential - and government planners mix finance for village industries with efforts to provide contraceptive advice and maternal and child health programs. They want more and more women to be able to choose family planning if they want it.
As women such as Aziza and Samia try to earn enough to buy knitting machines of their own, village doctor Ragab el-Kholi explains that village births dropped from 763 in 1978 to 711 in 1983. Now the village needs a bigger pre-school center to care for the small children of women who want to work, Dr. Ragab says.
Across Egypt, the rural jobs program now includes 2,915 separate villages with a population of about 15 million, says its chief, Muhammad Abdel Salam Salem.
Critics, however, say that Egypt lacks the funds to provide enough jobs in enough villages to reduce population growth (now soaring at 100,000 extra people a month). Much more emphasis on family-planning services is needed as well.
''Many women are still scared to speak up,'' says the UNFPA's Nafis Sadiq. Herself a Muslim, she adds, ''Muslim women are even more scared than the others. But they shouldn't be: Islam actually gives women many rights. We must find ways now to encourage all women not only to seek better health care for themselves and their children, but to go out and win new jobs.''
Literacy and education are also vital in freeing women from the drudgery of village and slum life.
In Pakistan, as in Egypt, the illiteracy rate among Muslim village women is above 95 percent. Women's status is low, and birthrates are high.
Pakistan's population of 98.9 million will reach 142.5 million by 2000 and 212.8 million 40 years from now, according to UN estimates.
The average family still has six children, and more than half the country is under 14 years of age. Yet the government of President Zia is only beginning to talk about a serious effort to spread the ideas of family planning. At the same time, some scattered signs of progress are visible, especially in Pakistan's cities.
In a former supermarket building in Karachi, some 400 girls who have graduated from high schools cluster in neat uniforms around long tables learning how to repair television sets, build small electric motors, solder circuit boards, draft architectural plans, and use sophisticated surveying equipment.
Aflak uz-Zia, from North Karachi, machines a door bolt. ''What I really like is electronic equipment,'' she says softly, ''and that's the field I want to work in.''
To enter this government-supported girls' vocational school, she passed an examination in her final year of high school. The training will take three years. Her sister is married, but she herself wants to get a good job first.
School director Shaheena an-Sari says her first class of graduating students should find jobs in April next year, and can expect to earn above-average salaries of 1,500 to 2,000 rupees ($105 to $140) a month.
Other vocational schools are in Lahore, Peshawar, and Faisalabad.
The islands of Indonesia are also Muslim, but present a very different picture. Literacy among women is much higher (about 64 percent) than in Pakistan (under 10 percent in the villages) and in India (25 percent).
One result: 58 percent of couples between the ages of 15 and 49 use contraception in Indonesia (the rate is nearly 70 percent in parts of Java) compared to Pakistan's overall acceptance rate of less than 10 percent.
Indonesian women have also enjoyed higher status than women in Arab nations and the subcontinent. They have long had a large role in selling rice as well as planting and harvesting it. They wield strong influence in homes. One area of west Sumatra is matriarchal, with inheritance descending through the female line.
The family-planning coordination body known as BKKBN after its Indonesian initials has trained women health workers in the villages. In turn, they have gained the confidence of the other village women.
Siti Nurbaya is married to a chauffeur and lives in a slum area of Jakarta. She practices birth control, and her youngest daughter is 14, which now gives her time for outside interests. ''I've joined PKK (a national women's group),'' she says, ''and I work as leader of a group visiting other families to tell them about family planning as well.''
''More educated women tend to marry later, to be employed outside the home, and to practice contraception effectively,'' according to the findings of the World Fertility Survey.
This is illustrated in Sri Lanka where the literacy rate for women is up around 90 percent.
Young women now marry as late as 24, and men at 28. One result: More than half of all couples aged between 15 and 49 use some form of contraception. And almost half of those who do, prefer traditional, natural methods rather than artificial devices.
The average family in Sri Lanka (population 16.1 million, due to rise to 20.8 million by the year 2000) now contains only three children.
For Nalani Sendanayake, sharp and quick in a spotless white sari, full primary and secondary schooling has meant all kinds of benefits in her Sri Lankan village of Bopette, 40 miles east of Colombo.
The village is at the end of a red-earth road in countryside green with rice fields, brilliant with flowers, and shaded by regimented rows of rubber trees. Mrs. Sendanayake's education allows her to work part-time in a local branch post office, and to work as a volunteer with the private Family Planning Association.
Assigned to talk to 14 families in the village, she says 10 of them have adopted family planning.
Meanwhile she has helped the village organize to dig a much-needed well, and to construct 10 new latrines.
Mrs. Sedanayake says she has a three-year-old daughter and intends to have only one more child.
''We can't afford more,'' she says.
Several miles away in another village tucked into a mountainside, Nalini Hettiarachi says she wished she had known about family planning when she was younger. Instead, she began using pills only after her youngest was born. He is now 18: The other children are 28, 27, 25, 24, and 21.
She is delighted that three of her daughters have limited their own families: Two have two children each and one has one.
UNICEF executive and writer Tarzie Vittachi (himself a Sri Lankan) sums up in New York: ''After 15 years of free education, countries are transformed. Girls decide whether, when, and whom to marry.''
In tribal Africa, women are held back by a lack of education which allows tribal lore, polygamy, superstition, and inertia to rule.
The birth rate in Kenya is the highest in the world - more than 4 percent a year. (The US growth rate by comparison is 0.9 percent.)
The government says the literacy rate is almost 50 percent, but Westerners in Nairobi see that figure as more hopeful than accurate.
One woman interviewed in Nyeri had a son at age 13. Another, Teresa Wangeci, was 34 years old and had seven children. She had decided to take contraception injections which last for three months at a time.
At a roadside fruit and vegetable stall on Karanja Road on the edge of Nairobi, Catherine Wanjiru had a sad tale to tell. She had seven children. Her husband, a poor farmer, had taken a second wife, who had one son of 11. Her husband was often drunk, she said. Although her youngest son (aged 13) had won a place in a good secondary school, the husband said he could not pay the fees.
The boy was sitting on the ground in front of the stall, covered in dust kicked up by passing trucks, eating an orange. Friends of the family said later he would either try to find a place in a no-fee school or drop out.
Tribal pressures are strong. In a Nairobi slum, Grace Wachira says that after her sixth child was born in 1971, she began taking contraceptives by injection. Now she has stopped and hopes for another son.
Why? ''One of my children died,'' she says. ''It had my brother's name.''
Jennifer Mukolwe of the Kenyan Progress for Women Organization, explains: ''In such cases the brother keeps nagging his sister to have another child to carry on his name. There are so many forces at work in Africa.''
Mrs. Mukolwe's group works to encourage women to create jobs for themselves by forming cooperatives to raise pigs, goats, and poultry, and to obtain bank credit for brickmaking, water, and other projects.
From a small office in New Delhi works a poised, confident symbol of what education, opportunity, and hard work can do for Indian women.
Rami Chabbra is still very much the exception rather than the rule in her country of 747 million, where a mere 1 percent of women complete university.
However, she is combining two fields - journalism and family planning - in an effort to open new horizons for women, particularly in India's 550,000 villages.
''The heartbreak is that India began it all, with the first government family-planning program in the third world, but that we haven't come nearly far enough.
''China has done very well in lowering growth, but I am opposed to using coercion. In India we must use democratic methods,'' she says.
Twenty-eight percent of Indian couples between the ages of 15 and 49 practice birth control. The government goal is 60 percent by the year 2000.
In densely populated northern areas, Hindu village girls are promised in marriage at 11 or 12, and go to live with their husbands' families at age 14 or 15. They may have had two children by the age of 20.
They have no status until they have had at least one son and preferably more. Baby girls are given less to eat in a number of areas, and many die, Mrs. Chabbra says.
''We must move rapidly to spread knowledge of family planning,'' she says. ''Speed is essential. Forty percent of India is under 14 years old. The number of people entering the 15-49 age bracket is three times the number leaving it,'' she explains.
''Family-planning services must be linked to felt needs: health, education, education for women.
''You know, we glamorize the village, the graceful water-pot on the heads of swaying women.... But I can't go into the villages now without seeing the misery behind that pot.''
Meanwhile, one of the biggest obstacles blocking the progress of third-world women is ... men.
A senior Kenyan government official was heard to remark recently that he would personally refuse to adopt any method of male contraception. ''African men fear that if they use birth control, their wives might be promiscuous,'' says Dr. Revocatus Nyanyi, a Kenyan doctor trained in Uganda and Israel.
''African men also want children to look after them when they're old,'' says a young woman in Nairobi.
Meanwhile, machismo lives on in Mexico, according to Dr. Manuel Urbina Fuentes, the head of the family-planning program in Mexico's Ministry of Health.
''Compare sterilization rates for men and women since 1976,'' Dr. Urbina says , ''and you'll see the male rate staying very low but the female rate more than tripled.''
Dr. Urbina is looking for ways to draw more men into the Mexican program. ''We've made great strides overall,'' he says. ''Our growth rate is down from 3. 2 to 2.4 percent a year since 1976. Now we want to go down to 1.9 percent a year by 1988 - which means boosting the number of Mexican family-planning acceptors as a whole from 4.2 million in 1982 to 7.6 million ... quite a task.''
Next: Can the tide be stemmed? How education for women reduces family size:
(number of children per woman aged between 15-49): KENYA COLUMBIA PHILIPPINES SOUTH KOREAm 1978 1976 1978 1974m Women with no 7.5 5.5 6.5 5.5 education Women with 1-3 years 8.1 7.0 5.5 5.4 4-6 years 7.0 6.0 3.5 4.5 7 or more years 6.5 4.0 2.5 3.5 Source: World Bank development report 1984