Providing assistance to the 278 million women of Africa

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RELIEF of the suffering of millions of people in countries severely affected by drought and famine has captured international attention, as the peoples of Africa struggle for their most fundamental needs -- water, food, domestic fuel, health, and shelter. And while the international community has responded to this crisis, what has emerged most clearly is the homage owed to the life-sustaining actions day after day, month after month, year after year of the 278 million women of Africa. Opportunity presents itself in crisis, and the world now has the opportunity to distinguish, revalue, and reinforce the matchless resource which women represent, a resource which will play a major role in carrying these countries from crisis to recovery and on to sustained economic and social progress through self-reliant, self-generating development.

It will, however, take more than good intentions to take advantage of the opportunity: It will take decisive efforts to overcome ignorance of the actual limits constraining women's potential in specific social and cultural contexts.

The world must learn that women are the porters who, across debilitating distances, bear 90 percent of Africa's water while, at the same time, carrying as mothers the precious weight of its posterity; they are the farmers who, in depleted soils and with the most basic implements, grow some 80 percent of Africa's food. It is they who stretch the fruits of their labors to nourish Africa's households; it is they who forage far afield for domestic fuel wood. They are the village traders, whose skills offer vital hope for the regeneration of local commerce and entrepreneurship -- if male-orientated credit and marketing support can at last be extended to them.

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To the women of Africa in all their miraculous roles, we owe unbounded admiration, yes -- but we owe much more. We owe responsive and targeted development support. We owe informed assistance which reckons with the practical needs and overwhelming burdens of women who, from livestock management to market gardening; from child care to general nursing, and from home maintenance to small-scale industry, have historically been and continue to be the principal custodians of Africa's agricultural and economic capacity.

In essence, the great majority of women who are rural and urban slum dwellers in most developing countries in all regions have similar responsibilities. For development is -- and must be -- an intensely practical and self-determined undertaking. Whether out of stoic patience, unshakable purpose, or infinite care -- or whether simply through their enforced affinity with the most fundamental and daily demands of existence, women everywhere offer development a quality of sharp attention to commanding needs , which is urgently required.

One of the most enlightened and far-sighted responses to the present adversities of all developing countries is more conscientious, integrated action to advance the economic and social situations of women.

Two of the 1984 initiatives of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), which has autonomous association with the United Nations Development Programmes which I am privileged to head, are in direct response to the needs I have described. One is its Africa Investment Plan, which carefully emphasizes women's critical requirements in food policy, energy development, credit scheme facilities, and general management with explicit links to other major development projects. Similar ca re has gone into the fund's Food Cycle Technologies Project, which supports the wide delivery of tested food technologies adapted to take account of women's identified requirements in cultivation, processing, storage, and marketing. Both of these initiatives flow from UNIFEM's seven years of experience with financial and technical support to some 400 projects in the developing countries.

The expanded mandate for UNIFEM places the highest priority on the fund's influencing mainstream resources as often as possible at preinvestment stages, with the goal of ensuring the appropriate involvement of women. Because of the fund's experience with direct assistance to women at the grass roots, national, and regional levels through local organizations, we place special value on the new partnership between UNIFEM and the UN Development Program.

We owe women -- particularly the rural women who are central to the economic life of millions -- responsive and targeted development support. It is crystal clear that development administered largely by men on assumptions centered principally on men, is not only morally indefensible, but economically unsound.

Bradford Morse is the administrator of the United Nations Development Program.

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