Family ties: Wives . . .

`A woman is very precious,' said the handsome Sudanese attending the American University in Cairo. `I wouldn't want just any man looking at my mother or my sister or my wife.' `That sounds as if you think of a woman as a precious possession.'

`Well, in a way I suppose I do.'

MOST of the women in the developing world are wives. Marriage and motherhood are universally accepted as women's essential roles -- roles they often assume while still in their teens.

For many, however, the fabric of marriage has frayed to a shred, and thousands of women are raising their children alone. Wherever there is urban migration -- and on every continent thousands of men leave their families in search of work -- marriage suffers. Domestic violence, often the result of alcoholism, also takes its toll, as does a growing sense of frustration and impotence in the face of mounting poverty, unemployment, and alienation.

There are, of course, millions of strong marriages as well: couples whose reserve and apparent lack of communication may not conform to the Western ideal of a ``love match,'' but whose fidelity, self-sacrifice, and shared aspirations give cohesion and stability to the family and to society. Too little marriage

Marriage is at its most precarious in Latin America.

The numbers of female-headed households (officially reported at 20.5 percent, but estimated to be much higher) and of children born out of wedlock are greater there than anywhere else in the developing world. It is estimated that 53 percent of children born in Venezuela are illegitimate; in El Salvador the figure is 70 percent. In most of Central America, at least 50 percent of women are in consensual, rather than legal, unions.

Elo'isa Moreno, a Nicaraguan, works as a cook and housekeeper in Mexico City. She has three children -- all by different fathers, none of whom married her. Miri'an Isabel Chitiva lives in a slum in Bogot'a, Colombia. Though she has three daughters by the same father, she was never married to him, either. When he left about a year ago, Miri'an was glad: She and her daughters lived in fear while he was with them, because on Friday nights he used to come home drunk and beat them.

Elo'isa and Miri'an are typical of women living in what is known as the culture of machismo, the Latin concept of self-assured virility and male superiority.

``Machismo culture comes to us from the Spaniards,'' says Sylvia Schmelkes de Sotelo, a researcher in sociology and education in Mexico City. ``The Spaniards who came were all men. They traveled all around the country and had women wherever they stopped. The typical image of the Mexican family -- with an Indian woman and a Spanish man -- is the image of an abandoned family, of a woman alone.

``Part of the macho culture is never to express your feelings. You can't be kind -- that's not being macho. And it's not badly seen for a man to hit a woman.''

The ``flip side'' of machismo is marianismo, according to Manuel Urbina Fuentes, director of the Mexican government's family planning program.

Marianismo, Dr. Urbina explains, is ``women's support of machismo, their submission to it. They accept their role. If they rejected it, machismo wouldn't exist. Mexican women would be equal if they stood up to men. And this is now being taught.''

``The cultural problem can be attacked educationally,'' Ms. Schmelkes agrees. ``What you see in women of this new generation in the cities is more freedom. You see more equal relationships with men, and the same happens to men because they are also being impacted by universal values. Working with men and women changes attitudes.''

But economic pressures on families are more difficult to control, Schmelkes believes. When men must travel long distances to their workplace or to look for work, ties to the family are weakened, and opportunities for extramarital relationships increase. Too much marriage?

In other parts of the world, marriage takes a radically different form. In Africa, the system of bride-price, whereby a man essentially buys a wife from her parents by paying for her with goods or money, fosters the exploitation of women and is a major factor in their status as little more than their husbands' possessions or slaves.

In the Islamic countries of the Middle East and in much of Africa, polygamy is widespread. In Kenya, 30 percent of marriages are estimated to be polygamous. Although Muslims see this practice as providing security for women and legitimacy for children, many Western development experts feel that polygamy weakens a woman's position and undermines her sense of security and self-worth. A woman's actions and decisions, it is argued, will be influenced by her fear -- frequently justified -- that if her husban d is displeased with her, he will take another wife.

But often, women in those countries do not hold an entirely negative view of polygamy.

Aisha Rateb, professor of law at Cairo University, feels that the Islamic system of polygamy is preferable to the promiscuity of many societies and the alarming numbers of illegitimate children that result.

``In Muslim countries,'' Ms. Rateb explains, ``if a married man likes another woman, he has to marry her. You call it bigamy; I say it's a decent way of facing the fact of children born out of wedlock and of the lady, because then she is a second wife and the children are legitimate.

``But that does not mean I am for bigamy. Now, luckily, it does not happen [in Egypt] as it used to. For one thing, a girl has more freedom now in the choice of a husband.''

In many countries, however, polygamy is still the norm. In Grand Yoff, Senegal, a poor suburb of Dakar, a local development worker paints a fairly cheerful picture of a polygamous household:

``Eighty-five percent of the people here are Muslims, and the vast majority are polygamists. Two, three, four wives -- they all live together. The women talk together, they laugh, they're friends. Why not? They even call each other `sister.' ''

Awa Gueye is a typically elegant Senegalese, regal and graceful in her voluminous, floor-length robes and turban of sky blue. As a member of the urban ``intellectual'' community, it is unlikely that she herself has a polygamous marriage.

``If a man has three wives, each wife has two days,'' she explains. ``He gives the day's earnings to one on Monday and Tuesday and he lives in her room those days, and the other wives are on vacation. And Wednesday and Thursday it's another one, Friday and Saturday it's another.

``It's unthinkable that a man would say, `This week I'm not coming to stay with you.' That's forbidden by our religion. Our religion demands equality among the wives. Even if you don't want to sleep with one wife, you sleep on the floor, but you can't go to another wife. Two days each -- it's sacrosanct.'' Traditional practices

In many countries, traditional practices related to marriage have been causing increasing concern and protest. The dangerous, painful, and often crippling operation of female circumcision, practiced on young girls in at least 26 African and Muslim countries, has long been a prerequisite for marriage.

Making it impossible for a woman physically to enjoy sex is seen as the only way to ensure her premarital chastity and fidelity as a wife. Depending on the region, the operation is performed on girls from infancy to puberty. It is done without an anesthetic, often under unsanitary conditions. It can result in infection and severe scarring and can later lead to complications in childbirth.

In recent years, however, movements to abolish female circumcision (also known as clitorectomy) have sprung up -- notably in Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia -- countries where the practice is most ingrained. Sudan outlawed female circumcision in 1945 and Kenya in 1982, but it still persists in both countries.

Even less-traditional women in these areas continue to support the procedure. Margaret, a schoolteacher from western Kenya who had her daughters circumcised, explained her views on the subject:

``You have to do it,'' she said. `` If you don't, you will be rejected by everyone, separated from your friends and family, set apart. If I had lived in the city when my daughters were small, maybe I wouldn't have done it. But in the rural areas you have to, otherwise everyone would know.''

Margaret lowered her voice. ``Nowadays, sometimes in the city, they don't actually perform the operation. The girl is taken to a hospital and all the relatives and friends prepare for the celebration that follows. But the nurse only makes a tiny cut, just to draw blood. They pretend they have done it in the traditional way, but this is just to satisfy the family.''

Another centuries-old tradition that has grown up ``to satisfy the family,'' and which is particularly prejudicial to women, is the dowry system -- especially as practiced in India.

In recent years, this practice has been severely criticized, not only by women's groups, but also by Indian leaders and legislators, because of its connection with so-called ``bride burnings'' -- more than 350 of which are reported in the Indian press every year.

Subhadra Butalia is president of Karmika, an organization that plays a major role in trying to end the practice of dowry. Subhadra, a New Delhi college professor and journalist who prefers to use her first name, became committed to fighting the bride burnings when her next-door neighbor was burned to death by her husband in 1979.

``In the past, the daughter did not have any right to inherit parental property,'' Subhadra explained. ``So it was the custom for the girl to get gold and money and utensils when she went to her husband's house. As consumerism grew, people became more conscious of status. To achieve a higher status, they began to exploit the dowry system. It became the easy way to get rich.''

After marriage, the husband's family often harasses -- and sometimes physically abuses -- the bride for additional dowry payments from her family. In some cases, if these demands are not met, they burn the wife in the kitchen, making it look like suicide or an accident, so that her husband can find another bride and another dowry. If the husband divorced his wife, he would have to return her dowry to her parents. And, in the case of Subhadra's neighbor, there was an added motive for the crime.

``She was killed because he wanted to marry another girl. When they were married a year and a half before, the family status was not so high. Now they felt they had become richer, so he should have a girl from a better family. His wife was an embarassment to them. She was from a poor family, and she showed up where they came from.''

Although the girl's parents took their in-laws to court, the husband's family was acquitted. In a similar case last September, a previous acquittal was reversed, and the husband received a life sentence.

``In India, once a girl is married, her parents have no right to intervene on her behalf,'' Subhadra explained. ``With the giving away of the bride, you confer all the rights on the husband. He becomes her owner. This is what we have objected to.

``How can you reduce a human being to an object? The very fact that you are giving her away in marriage means that she has no rights over her own self. She is like a piece of property. This is the basis of dowry.''

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