The Neglected Majority

IN conventional measures of the quality of life around the world - income, education, and life expectancy - Japan ranks first. But when its treatment of women is factored in, Japan plummets to 17th place among 33 nations.

Similarly, the United States, which normally ranks sixth on such lists, drops to ninth when gender bias is included. Switzerland falls from fourth place to 14th. Nations as diverse as Canada, South Korea, Germany, and Sri Lanka also receive lower rankings on the basis of gender-based statistics. Sweden now occupies first place.

These findings come from an unusual study, the United Nations Human Development Report, released Tuesday. Despite many encouraging changes in national laws and policies, researchers solemnly point out that "no country treats its women as well as its men." Women, they say, constitute "the neglected majority."

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Among women in industrial countries, discrimination occurs primarily in jobs and wages, with women's salaries often just half those of men. In developing nations, disparities extend to education, health care, and nutrition.

The index takes on added significance in the context of the UN World Conference on Human Rights opening June 10 in Vienna. There, representatives of more than 800 women's human-rights groups worldwide will seek to have women's rights recognized as human rights. They will present testimony showing that existing treaties and declarations have not protected human rights for women.

During the past three decades, women have achieved many victories in their struggle for equality, opening doors in business and politics. Yet any celebration of progress must be tempered with the dual realization that the task is far from complete, and that equality is not simply the province of those in industrialized nations.

A Chinese saying poetically states that women hold up half the sky. The UN human development index and the forthcoming conference in Vienna serve as timely reminders that those equal efforts deserve to be rewarded with equal opportunities in all areas of life. Only then can the adjective be removed from the phrase "the neglected majority." And only then will there be no need for those 800 women's human-rights groups.

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