...And Unlearning

In singing songs or flying kites, In running fast or climbing heights, In school or home, with books or toys, In no way are girls less than boys. From a recent Indian children's book, ``Soap and Bubbles,'' by Kamla Bhasin

A line has formed outside a bank on a busy commercial street in Mexico City. It is five minutes to 9.

The customers -- all women -- are impatient for the door to be opened by an elaborately uniformed, impressively authoritarian guard. They are eager to complete their transactions and hurry off to work.

But the guard delays, engaged in conversation with a fellow employee. The women continue to stand there meekly, waiting. Some anxiously look at their watches, some seem to implore him with their eyes. But no one protests. No one speaks to him. At 14 minutes after 9 he opens the door.

Mariestella Garc'ia is the first to get into the bank, and the first out, heading for her job at a nearby bakery. She is a short, plump, gray-haired woman in a black dress -- typical, in appearance, of traditional Latin womanhood. Mariestella has six children. The younger ones are still in high school, the older ones are married and working.

``Young or old, we all have to work,'' she sighs. ``The money doesn't stretch far enough.''

What about her husband? What does he do?

``He drinks. He sits around the house. Sometimes he beats me or the children. But whenever he comes home, he wants his dinner right away.'' The users and the used

To hear the women in the developing world tell it, Mariestella's home life is far from unusual.

Time and again, women in 11 countries on three continents told similar stories. They implied the following generalizations: women do all the work, while men are selfish, abusive, lazy. Many said that women provide for their families and men squander their money on amusements. They implied that women are loyal, conscientious, long-suffering, self-sacrificing, and brave, while men expect life to be handed to them on a plate.

Even discounting inevitable exaggerations, the sensitive traveler in the developing world cannot fail to recognize that most of its women -- hundreds of millions of them -- are, at best, the servants of men, and at worst, the frequent victims of their abuse. The comparatively liberated women of the industrialized nations can hardly imagine how very far the women in the rest of the world have still to come.

The question is: Why is male domination, with its often appalling consequences for families -- women, children, and men -- so pervasive?

After three month's travel throughout the developing world, and numerous interviews with sociologists and development experts, an astonishingly simple answer emerged: because, in much of the developing world, little boys are raised to use and dominate women, and little girls are raised to accept such treatment as normal. Starting young

``Girls grow up with a work ethic,'' declares Viji Srinivasan, a program director at the Ford Foundation in New Delhi.

``The men I know who have women working for them say they are much better workers than men,'' she says. ``Men sit around gossiping, but women are more disciplined, more efficient, more hardworking.''

Throughout the developing world, to varying degrees -- even in the poorest societies -- boys are brought up to be served, girls to serve. Boys are the princes in the family, girls are the scullery maids.

In developing countries, one often sees little boys scampering in a game, swimming in a river, laughing and leaping in freedom -- playing. And nearby, one often sees little girls staggering under the weight of their younger siblings (often almost as big as they are), fetching heavy loads of water or fuel, or laboring in the fields with their mothers -- working.

Many development workers have observed that when these children grow up, it is often the hardworking, disciplined girls who are better equipped to take on the responsibilities of family survival, since they have already been practicing these arts for so long.

These specialists note that when boys, who had always been catered to and favored, become men, they often find the hard knocks of poverty, alienation, and frustration too much to bear. For many, the bottle offers an irresistible escape. Alcoholism, when combined with the inevitable frustrations of poverty and unemployment, leads many men to acts of violence against their families. The roots of gender-bias in bringing up children go back to a time when a man's role in the family was more clearly de fined -- hence more easily fulfilled. It brought with it a sense of satisfaction, security, and respect.

Before the late 20th century roared into people's lives -- bringing the pressures of overpopulation, depleted resources, environmental deterioration, the desperate need for cash, and the temptations of consumerism -- being the ``head of the family'' was a comparatively straightforward task. The man's position was regarded as crucial, and his comfort and prestige had to be safeguarded.

Since inheritance passes through the male line in most societies, it is understandable that boys' status in the family has been higher than that of their sisters. In most countries, girls move away when they marry and become part of their husbands' clans. Special care, expense, and education for girls are not considered a good investment. The effects of favoritism

Indeed, some families view their daughters as an unwelcome drain on their resources -- especially in countries like India, where marriages often involve the payment of huge dowries. In fact, in middle-class India, higher education for daughters can bring an additional financial liability. According to a strict social code, a well-educated girl must marry an even better-educated boy. And the better his prospects, the higher her dowry payment must be.

In most developing countries, women and girls eat after the men and boys have eaten. As a result, females usually eat inferior food and less of it. Studies show that girls often receive less health care than boys. Since worldwide averages indicate that women usually live longer than men, it is significant that in Afghanistan, Iran, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, women's life expectancy is lower.

Feminists in some of these countries have recently been expressing outrage over these issues and their adverse effect on the health, indeed, sometimes the life, of girls and women.

Jamila Verghese, an Indian sociologist and author, relates a particularly disturbing incident involving some 300 pregnant rural women who underwent amniocentesis at a regional medical institute. The test is designed to detect some types of fetal birth defects, but also reveals the sex of the unborn child.

``The scary thing,'' Ms. Verghese observed, ``is that every one of these 300 women said, `Doctor, kill it if it's a girl.' Their families, or their in-laws, or whoever was in charge of them, had conditioned them to think in this way.'' Faint winds of change

If the position of women in the developing world is often unjust and pitiable, the winds of change, though still very faint, are beginning to blow.

In poorer communities, few -- either men or women -- feel any change as yet. But the pressures of the 20th century have pushed women to the limits of their human capabilities. It has become clear that unless women's burdens are lightened and the importance of their role acknowledged, humankind as a whole will suffer.

Not only are international agencies focusing their development efforts on women. But, perhaps more significantly, educated, middle-class women in many countries around the developing world are becoming more and more involved in helping less fortunate women and in fighting for women's rights.

In many Latin American countries, feminists are particularly vocal, often militant. In Africa and Asia, they tend to protest specific injustices while insisting that their brand of feminism is inclusive of, rather than hostile to, men.

In some societies, creative efforts are being made to change age-old traditions and attitudes that dictate how children are raised. The Indian nursery rhyme quoted above is one example. But overall, this new approach remains the exception rather than the rule.

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