The vast majority of the 31/2 billion people who live in the world's poorest countries lead lives of grinding poverty, unrelenting toil, and ignorance. And those who are the poorest, who toil the hardest, and are the most uneducated, are women.
It was once assumed that development efforts aimed at people in general would automatically benefit everyone, male and female. Not so. For a variety of reasons -- women's inferior status, their relative invisibility in national economic reckonings, their traditionally small voice in decisionmaking -- women were virtually left out of the development process in many countries.
In fact, as three months' travel on three continents by this correspondent makes plain, the lot of most women in the developing world has worsened as populations have grown; as technology and training have been awarded to men; as farmland has been increasingly taken over for cash crops; and as natural resources have been depleted.
Women account for two-thirds of the world's work hours. They produce 60 to 80 percent of the food in Africa and Asia, 40 percent in Latin America. Yet they officially constitute only one-third of the world's labor force, receive only 10 percent of its income, and own less than one percent of its property. The work women do in the home and on the farm is never calculated into the gross national product of any country. Women's unpaid contributions to their nations' economies are largely overlooked.
The gap between women's work and their rewards is greatest in the developing world.
As populations have exploded (mainly because of a decline in infant mortality), women's burdens have increased and their health has deteriorated.
Most of the women in the developing world spend all their childbearing years either pregnant or nursing children. Largely because of male urban migration, women end up heading at least 17 percent of households in the developing world -- 30 percent or more in some rural areas.
Still, depletion of the land has meant that millions of women are fleeing to the cities and crowding into often primitive slums. Conditions there are even harder than in the countryside. Teen-age pregnancy and prostitution are rife. Violence against women is on the rise.
Back on the land, deforestation, poor land management, and an emphasis on cash crops (known in East Africa as ``men's crops'') have shrunk the arable acreage available to the developing world's food producers, most of whom are women. At the same time, the decay of the environment has forced women to spend more hours each day, often walking greater and greater distances, to find water and firewood for their families.
By keeping food prices low, government policies in many developing countries have sacrificed the welfare of rural peasants -- most of whom are women -- to appease the growing, more politically focused demands of city dwellers.
These policies have encouraged cash crops in a desperate attempt to generate hard currency and pay off national debts. In many areas, local wars, or drought and famine, have relegated large numbers of women and children to the crowded and dehumanizing conditions of refugee camps.
As if all this were not enough, a breakdown in the pattern of traditional marriage has left many women with children to fend for themselves. Alcoholism, mainly among men, and the domestic violence that results from it have become major problems in many societies.
And while the world economic crunch has meant that few families are able to survive on only one income, women often have neither the training nor the freedom from family responsibilities to enable them to find gainful employment.
All of these pressures, and their often disastrous consequences, finally awakened development experts about a decade ago to the urgent need to lighten the burdens of women in the developing world. Agencies as large as the United Nations Development Program and as small as local groups of volunteers began to design programs that specifically address the needs of women.
Today, spurred on by the UN Decade for Women (1975-85), an increasing awareness has begun to dawn that the living standards of whole populations cannot improve until all their members begin to enjoy an equal share of freedoms, opportunities, and recognition. Women are beginning to be seen as a resource that which no nation can afford to waste.
In many countries, development specialists have even come to feel that the key to progress for all may lie in lightening the burdens and unleashing the potential of women.
Julius Nyerere, the just-retired President of Tanzania, summed up the problem succinctly: ``A person does not walk very far or very fast on one leg. How can we expect half the people to be able to develop a nation? Yet the reality is that women are usually left aside when development needs are discussed.''
The prospects, however, may be brightening.
So says Margaret Snyder, chief of UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women), an agency that was established during the UN Decade for Women and given permanent status last July at the conference in Nairobi, Kenya, which marked the end of the decade.
``Planners have begun to realize,'' Ms. Snyder says, ``that women in low-income societies throughout the world are not just exhausted mothers of malnourished children -- not simply the victims of crisis. They are the providers of food, fuel, water, and often of the whole family income -- the sustainers and developers of their families, communities, and countries.
``Thus the fate of women is a critical determinant of the fate of whole societies.'' STATISTICS AFFECTING WOMEN IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD Charts for the following: Per capita gross national product Birthrate and infant mortality Population doubling time Illiteracy rate Basic necessities Slum population Sources: Compendium of Housing Statistics, The New Book of World Rankings; UN Center for Housing, Building, and Planning. The New Book of World Rankings. Population Reference Bureau, Washington). UNESCO, The New Book of World Rankings