From the village...

IT'S 7 o'clock in the morning -- one of the last cool moments of the searing Indian day. A cluster of tiny, square, windowless houses made of cow dung snakes along the eastern bank of the Sabarmati River in the northwestern state of Gujarat. A small crowd of women and children has gathered at the village well, armed with shiny brass and aluminum water pots. Their voices float lightly on the still, sunny air. The only other sound is a rooster's insistent crowing.

The women, in saris of pink, purple, and red, reweave their gleaming black hair into single braids to hang down their backs. A small, barefoot girl gingerly makes her way down a rutted dirt path to her house, carrying a large brass ewer of water on her head. Not a drop is spilled.

The river has shrunk to a sliver of its normal size. Its bed, green and flat and wide, is the village latrine. A lone woman, graceful in a white sari, wanders away from her house toward the river, seemingly to no purpose. She glances around her and crouches down, making herself small. It is so early, she trusts that no men will see her. These will be her last moments of privacy until nightfall.

Every day, in villages around the world, women wake to mornings like this one. Water and fuel -- the search for essentials

Those with a well near their homes are the most fortunate, but even for them the water is often tainted by human or animal waste. Others must walk miles -- sometimes for many hours each day -- to a source of water, which, again, is not always pure. If the water source is very far away, the women walk to it in the evening, spend the night, and return to their villages at dawn, carrying heavy pots of water on their heads.

Roosters are crowing, too, in Hacienda de Oculixtlahuac'an, high in the mountains of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico. A bumpy dirt road runs along the spine of the mountain, past sagging, whitewashed houses with thick, palm-thatched roofs. This village boasts electricity and a primary school.

It is therefore surprising, in midafternoon, to meet three little girls about eight years old laboriously climbing out of a deep ravine and onto the village road.

The girls are barefoot, and their thin, ragged dresses hang loosely about them. Each is carrying a huge bundle of sticks and branches on her shoulder -- a bundle so round and high that her upstretched hand cannot reach the top to hold it in place. The wood is packed so tightly, though, and the girls are so protective of their loads, that not a twig is lost.

The jagged mountains of Guerrero are lush and green, but in most of the developing world, firewood for cooking has become chronically scarce. Although various types of fuel-efficient stoves are being promoted in many countries, especially in Africa, most women still forage for sticks and twigs on land where the last tree was felled long ago.

Where the scarcity of firewood may be forcing families to eat more uncooked meals, nutrition suffers. Shorn of trees, the soil becomes dust, and the tasks of producing food for their families and finding fodder for their animals -- nearly always women's work -- become more difficult. Misuse of the land

The crowing of roosters in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania, blends with the crackling of a transistor radio and the crying of a baby from inside a cinder-block house.

In front of the house, on the dusty, hard-packed earth, sit 14-year-old Angelina Joseph and her seven-year-old brother. They are splitting palm leaves into even lengths, ready to be woven into baskets -- a task that leaves their fingers cracked and swollen. A three-year-old brother plays in the dirt nearby. It is 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Angelina's mother left the house at 8 this morning and has spent the intervening hours bent over her husband's quarter-acre plot of land in the broiling sun, her head at knee level and her week-old daughter strapped to her back. The land allotted to feed her family is insufficient, because the remaining three acres have been given over to sugar cane. She must buy extra food at the market each day, but the income from the sugar cane is not enough.

Although most African women are responsible for raising the food to feed their families, it is the men who usually make the decisions regarding land use, and they often prefer to turn their plots to cash crops. Few women can produce sufficient food on the land that remains. They must buy what they can on the local market, and family nutrition suffers.

``I need money,'' has become the universal lament of women around the world. This growing need for cash has prompted many rural men to look for work outside their villages. It has been observed that roads constructed in remote areas in recent years have served mainly to take the men away, leaving the women behind with many children to care for and few resources. And often, the money men earn away from their homes does not find its way back to their families. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, in p articular, support of the children is viewed mainly as the wife's responsibility. Time and again, observers have said that a man who earns cash in the cities is often just as likely to spend it on beer, a transistor radio, a new shirt, or another woman, as he is to bring or send it home to his wife.

Almost the only source of income Angelina's mother has is to sell baskets in the local market. Many rural women walk several hours a day to market with their produce on their heads. Women interviewed, from Bolivia to Senegal to Nepal, said they eke out only the barest means of survival in this way. All complained of inflation: What they need to buy invariably costs more than they can earn. The lure of the city

Because of the increasing hardships of village life around the world, migration to the cities is steadily swelling.

Most families imagine that the city offers better opportunities for work, an improved standard of living, and greater prospects for their children than the village -- stagnant and isolated -- can provide.

Though some may have an attachment to the old ways, most do not realize that in their village there is a spirit of community, of security and stability, which could hardly withstand the brutalities of life in an urban slum.

``Where would you like to live when you grow up?'' I asked Angelina. She turned her head away shyly, her finger tracing a circle in the dust.

``I want to stay here,'' she said.

But whether her village will be able to support her in the future is by no means certain.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.