``WOMEN hold up half the sky,'' says a Chinese proverb. But judging from the staggering workload imposed on rural women throughout the developing world -- work upon which the daily survival of their entire families depends -- this is an understatement. In Africa and Asia, the United Nations estimates that women are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of food production. In Latin America, the figure is 40 percent.
Amin N'Diaye is a social worker in the village of Fand`ene, 50 miles from Dakar in western Senegal. She doesn't hesitate when asked to cite the main problem facing local women.
``The women here are very, very tired by all the work they do. All day long they're exhausted,'' Ms. N'Diaye explains. ``They don't have time to attend to anything beyond their family's basic need for food.
``In the dry season, there are some families whose storehouse is always empty. The women must walk to [the nearby town of] Thi`es -- two hours each way -- to sell the wood they gather and buy a little rice, a little fish. Then their families can eat. But the next day it starts again. The storehouse is still empty.''
The sun beats down mercilessly as we talk, and the air is alive with the rhythmic hum of insects. The pale gray earth, dotted with palms and baobab trees, looks parched. In the rainy season, a small river irrigates Fand`ene, but now the river is almost completely dried up.
In a nearby field, women -- most with babies on their backs -- swing long wooden hoes high above their heads. Another group stands laboring for what seems like an eternity, bent so low their heads almost touch the ground. Their babies look as if they might slide forward over their shoulders. The women are weeding: a painstaking, laborious, and tedious job performed by hand and universally considered to be women's work.
``Some women are much more tired than others,'' says N'Diaye, ``because their family has almost nothing to eat, but all the women here work from morning to night without a break.
``Sometimes husbands and wives work together in the fields, but there are many chores that are a woman's duty alone. The men really don't work as hard as the women. And they rest more. When a husband and wife come home from the fields, he rests. But his wife must continue her work.'' Slaves to the land
According to a United Nations Development Program report, a typical African woman's day goes something like this: 4:45 a.m.: She wakes up, washes, prepares food for her family, and eats some leftovers herself. 5 to 5:30: She walks to the fields, invariably with a baby on her back, whom she will have to nurse throughout the day. 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (91/2 hours): She plows, hoes, weeds, and plants. The sun is usually very hot, and there is seldom any shade. She probably rests very little during these hours, and eats even less. 3 to 4: She collects firewood and carries it home on her head. The sun is still blazing down, and the load may weigh as much as 50 pounds. 4 to 5:30: She pounds and grinds grain. 5:30 to 6:30: She fetches water, typically from more than a mile away. 6:30 to 7:30: She lights a fire and cooks for her family. 7:30 to 8:30: She serves them food. Usually she does not eat herself until everyone else has eaten. The food left for her will probably be the least appetizing (and least nutritious) p ortions. 8:30 to 9:30: She washes her children, the dishes, and herself. At 9:30 she goes to bed, though her wifely duties may not be over yet.
This scenario, with variations in detail, takes place relentlessly day in and day out, regardless of pregnancy. A pregnant woman (and statistics show that most women, especially in Africa, are pregnant most of the time) will carry her usual workload up to the day of delivery, resuming it two or three days afterward.
Traditional development efforts, for the most part, have not lightened the African woman's load, or that of millions of rural women in other parts of the developing world. And environmental deterioration is continually lengthening the time they must spend searching for water and fuel. In many ways they are worse off in 1985 than in the past.
For one thing, a woman's husband is less likely than he once was to share her labors. Being less restricted by tradition and family responsibilities than his wife, he is more free to move about. The growing need for cash and the resulting search for work often remove him from the scene. Or agricultural technologists will have taught him improved farming methods which he is now applying to cash crops, rather than to growing food for his family.
In such cases, the woman's workload is likely to be increased by taking on the chores her husband used to do, including heavy farming tasks, or the tending and watering of livestock. Often she works alone, dependent on whatever help her children can give her.
And many women are expected to work on their husband's cash crops in addition to their subsistence family plots -- although they may never see the cash these crops generate. According to development specialist Marilee Karl, the Bambara women of Mali have to squeeze in the growing of food for their families either ``early in the morning -- when they are not cooking and before beginning to work on the collective [cash crop] field, or when the sun is high and they have ceased working on the co llective field in order to rest.''
As development has advanced, women have also been losing the right to control and benefit from the land they work.
In the past, in many parts of Africa, when land belonged to the local clan, women enjoyed rights to land use which they often retained even if their husbands died or abandoned them. With the coming of European systems of land reform and the increase in cash-crop farming, actual ownership of land has been awarded to legal heads of households, who are almost always men. Thus an effort to right one injustice has inadvertently created another. Men: the targets of development
Since women are ``invisible'' food producers, rural development projects were originally aimed at men.
Agricultural extension agents are usually men, and in many Islamic societies women are not permitted to learn from them. In the past, Western developers tended to focus on training women in ``home economics'' instead of in the improved farming techniques they so badly need. Better agricultural equipment also invariably found its way to the men's cash crops, leaving the most antiquated and crude implements for the women to use on the family plots.
Great strides in agricultural production over the last few decades, such as the vaunted ``green revolutions'' in India's Punjab state and the rice paddies of Indonesia, have also left women behind. The greatest beneficiaries of these agricultural miracles have been city dwellers who enjoy stable food prices, and governments that earn foreign exchange.
Rural women who had previously been employed in a wide range of agricultural jobs have found their incomes taken over by men trained in the mysteries of chemical fertilizers and the operation of farm machinery. In many instances women must now take the lowest-paying, most drudgery-intensive work to help pay for the expensive equipment their husbands have purchased. A shift in strategies
But awareness is dawning. The United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85) has caused much light to be shed on women's crucial role in agriculture. The woman as food producer has finally emerged as the key figure in a number of agencies' plans to improve small-scale farming and stem the tide of famine. It is now estimated that technical assistance given to women involved in domestic farming could double or even triple the amount of food they produce.
Virtually every development body -- from UN agencies to the national and private organizations specifically geared to helping women which have sprung up in the last 10 years -- has designed projects that target the needs of rural women, with a view to increasing their productivity and lightening their burdens.
In the Senegalese province of Sine Saloum, south of the village of Fand`ene, some 400 women were recently taught new farming and food preservation techniques and supplied with new varieties of seeds, in a program designed by the Washington-based Overseas Education Fund. The women doubled their crop production in two years, in spite of severe drought.
Development workers realize that supporting the work of women farmers can do much to alleviate hunger, and helping these women is becoming a development priority. And planners are recognizing the need to free women as much as possible from the increasingly time-consuming drudgery of finding water and fuel.
Experts are examining ways to teach improved agricultural technology, and to supply better equipment, to the actual food producers of the developing world: women.