IN New Delhi, the Ministry of Human Resources Development is housed in a rather smelly, modern building on a wide, elegant, tree-lined street. Upstairs, the visitor passes room after room piled high with sheaves of yellowing, dogeared documents. The offices are poorly lighted, messy, and low on modern equipment. Cups of milky tea, however, are served on command.Skip to next paragraph
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A short, plump woman in a sari sits in one of these offices behind a large desk. She is C. P. Sujaya, joint secretary in the branch of the Ministry focusing on women, and one of the highest-ranking female officials in the government of India.
She has a kindly face and an easy, open manner that clearly telegraphs her enthusiasm for her work. And she quickly puts her finger on one of the most crucial problems that planners confront when attempting to integrate women into the development process: the subconscious attitude that women -- half the population of the world -- are just another special-interest group, such as, for example, the handicapped.
``The most common criticism I hear,'' Mrs. Sujaya says, ``is from people who say, `We have so many problems in this country. Why do you want to add one more problem?'
``I say to them, `Why don't you look at the link between women's problems and all those other problems? It's not an extra problem we're thrusting on you: If we solve this one, think of all the others we will solve.' ''
Mrs. Sujaya chuckles good-naturedly and shakes her head, adding, ``There's a lot of educating to be done.''
Yet the very fact that Mrs. Sujaya is in that cluttered office at all, patiently explaining the crucial role of women in development to her male colleagues and to foreign journalists, is highly significant. It is evidence of the increasing awareness at government levels that women have a major -- rather than a marginal -- role to play in solving some of the urgent problems that beset mankind.
Development experts around the globe agree: So far, progress for the hundreds of millions of women in the developing world is reflected primarily in increased awareness -- on the part of governments, international development bodies, and independent agencies -- not only of the plight of these women, but of their tremendous potential as well.
Even more important, awareness on the part of the women themselves is generating a network of new energy, positive action, and hope.
Women in developing countries are no longer invisible to planners and policymakers. The United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85) has acted as a catalyst, spawning many new agencies whose chief purpose is to support women's participation in development; inspiring countless projects all around the globe which directly focus on women's needs; spreading new information about women's true roles; gathering gender-based statistics; and funneling funds to feed small and large projects alike.
There is hardly a development or aid agency in the world today which does not have its women's department, its women's projects, or which does not take women into account in some phase of its work. What does it all mean?
What difference will it make in the life of Julia Garc'ia in her Colombian slum, of Rosemary in Kenya with her nine children, of the tens of millions of women throughout the world who are still toiling alone, barely surviving, with no relief in sight?
An awareness of the need for women to play an equal role with men in the development process must be translated into action -- in the corridors of power as well as in the villages, the slums, and the minds of men and women themselves.
Even more significant than awareness in high places, observers say, is the newfound, sharply focused sense of self-worth, purpose, and commitment that is growing among women at the grass-roots level, resulting in a network of activity and communication between a myriad of women's groups from all over the globe.
Last July, 16,000 women from all over the world met in Nairobi, Kenya, for the final conference of the UN Decade for Women. More than 4,000 of these women were Africans. Many had traveled by plane from other African capitals. Many had traveled by bus from small villages. The fact that these women came together to share ideas with others from around the globe is unprecedented and highly significant. Again and again, observers have described the size and spirit of this meeting as a dramatic indication of the emerging self-awareness and improved self-image of women in the developing world.
Most experts agree that the UN Decade prompted many governments to pay lip service, at least, to women's issues -- an important accomplishment in itself. But the UN Decade did more than that. ``Governments have been shamed into taking action -- at least on paper,'' one observer at the Nairobi conference said. Governments step up action
More than 65 countries now include programs for women on their national development agendas. Most nations have enacted or introduced legislation to protect women's rights. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is now officially recognized as a crime.