IN New Delhi, the Ministry of Human Resources Development is housed in a rather smelly, modern building on a wide, elegant, tree-lined street. Upstairs, the visitor passes room after room piled high with sheaves of yellowing, dogeared documents. The offices are poorly lighted, messy, and low on modern equipment. Cups of milky tea, however, are served on command.

A short, plump woman in a sari sits in one of these offices behind a large desk. She is C. P. Sujaya, joint secretary in the branch of the Ministry focusing on women, and one of the highest-ranking female officials in the government of India.

She has a kindly face and an easy, open manner that clearly telegraphs her enthusiasm for her work. And she quickly puts her finger on one of the most crucial problems that planners confront when attempting to integrate women into the development process: the subconscious attitude that women -- half the population of the world -- are just another special-interest group, such as, for example, the handicapped.

``The most common criticism I hear,'' Mrs. Sujaya says, ``is from people who say, `We have so many problems in this country. Why do you want to add one more problem?'

``I say to them, `Why don't you look at the link between women's problems and all those other problems? It's not an extra problem we're thrusting on you: If we solve this one, think of all the others we will solve.' ''

Mrs. Sujaya chuckles good-naturedly and shakes her head, adding, ``There's a lot of educating to be done.''

Yet the very fact that Mrs. Sujaya is in that cluttered office at all, patiently explaining the crucial role of women in development to her male colleagues and to foreign journalists, is highly significant. It is evidence of the increasing awareness at government levels that women have a major -- rather than a marginal -- role to play in solving some of the urgent problems that beset mankind.

Development experts around the globe agree: So far, progress for the hundreds of millions of women in the developing world is reflected primarily in increased awareness -- on the part of governments, international development bodies, and independent agencies -- not only of the plight of these women, but of their tremendous potential as well.

Even more important, awareness on the part of the women themselves is generating a network of new energy, positive action, and hope.

Women in developing countries are no longer invisible to planners and policymakers. The United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85) has acted as a catalyst, spawning many new agencies whose chief purpose is to support women's participation in development; inspiring countless projects all around the globe which directly focus on women's needs; spreading new information about women's true roles; gathering gender-based statistics; and funneling funds to feed small and large projects alike.

There is hardly a development or aid agency in the world today which does not have its women's department, its women's projects, or which does not take women into account in some phase of its work. What does it all mean?

What difference will it make in the life of Julia Garc'ia in her Colombian slum, of Rosemary in Kenya with her nine children, of the tens of millions of women throughout the world who are still toiling alone, barely surviving, with no relief in sight?

An awareness of the need for women to play an equal role with men in the development process must be translated into action -- in the corridors of power as well as in the villages, the slums, and the minds of men and women themselves.

Even more significant than awareness in high places, observers say, is the newfound, sharply focused sense of self-worth, purpose, and commitment that is growing among women at the grass-roots level, resulting in a network of activity and communication between a myriad of women's groups from all over the globe.

Last July, 16,000 women from all over the world met in Nairobi, Kenya, for the final conference of the UN Decade for Women. More than 4,000 of these women were Africans. Many had traveled by plane from other African capitals. Many had traveled by bus from small villages. The fact that these women came together to share ideas with others from around the globe is unprecedented and highly significant. Again and again, observers have described the size and spirit of this meeting as a dramatic indication of the emerging self-awareness and improved self-image of women in the developing world.

Most experts agree that the UN Decade prompted many governments to pay lip service, at least, to women's issues -- an important accomplishment in itself. But the UN Decade did more than that. ``Governments have been shamed into taking action -- at least on paper,'' one observer at the Nairobi conference said. Governments step up action

More than 65 countries now include programs for women on their national development agendas. Most nations have enacted or introduced legislation to protect women's rights. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is now officially recognized as a crime.

Even before the UN Decade, pockets of progress for women had long been evident in some developing countries. In others, new political administrations hold particular promise.

Among developing nations, Tunisia has long been noted for its beneficial policies toward women. Soon after the country became independent from France in 1956, a Personal Status Code was enacted which, in addition to abolishing polygamy, emphasizes equality between the sexes in family law and gives women equal legal status with men. President Habib Bourguiba also waged an aggressive, and largely successful, media-based family planning campaign designed to torpedo the traditional male assumption that fath ering many children is evidence of virility.

Today, Tunisia's Ministry of the Family and Promotion of Women is involved in a number of projects, notably the training of rural women in income-generating activities. At the graduate-level Tunisian Institute of Advanced Business Studies, 50 percent of the students enrolled are women -- a telling indicator of how far women have progressed in this nation of 7.2 million people.

In India, Prime Minister Gandhi recently allocated $667 million for women and children's programs over the next five years, and is stressing women's issues in many sectors.

``This young prime minister is talking about women's issues,'' says Rami Chhabra, program director of the Family Planning Foundation in New Delhi. ``He has been refreshingly supportive on all [women's] questions. I think we can lay our hopes on him. He certainly has taken some steps which are very promising.''

``There is no doubt that Nairobi has kept the attention of the world focused on women's issues,'' Mrs. Sujaya says. ``But I'm afraid that if we don't act on this impetus, it will lose momentum.'' Networking from within

Even though the official decade is over, and even if, as is feared, agencies divert funds from women's programs to other activities, women themselves have started working together, and they show no sign of stopping now.

Grass-roots women's organizations have sprung up in cities and villages all around the globe: From Mexico to Kenya to Indonesia, individual women and women's groups are planning strategies, comparing experiences, sharing ideas, publishing materials, and developing technologies appropriate to women's needs. Another heartening sign of progress one finds when traveling through the developing world is the number of well-educated, urban, middle-class women who are devoting their time, energy, and expertis e to improving the lot of their illiterate, poverty-stricken sisters.

They may be employed by large international agencies, as is Razia Ismail of UNICEF, New Delhi; by local governments, as is Chandni Joshi in Katmandu, Nepal; by grass-roots women's groups, as is Julia Kunguru of Kenya Women Finance Trust; or they may be independent development consultants like Amparo Giraldo in Bogot'a, Colombia.

These women, and hundreds like them, are highly skilled in the field of women's role in development. Their understanding of the problems is deep, their energy unflagging, and their personal commitment boundless. These are the women who are designing the projects, channeling the funds, and organizing the programs that could make a difference in many lives.

And, in part as a result of the NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum at the Nairobi conference last July, women from industrialized nations have begun talking -- and, more important, listening -- to women in the developing world. The North-South split, at least in the context of women's issues, is to some degree becoming a North-South dialogue, according to many participants in Nairobi.

One of the major conduits in this worldwide network is the International Women's Tribune Center (IWTC), based in New York. It was founded in 1976 in response to requests for information and assistance from women who had attended the UN Decade's opening conference in Mexico City.

IWTC acts as a contact and referral office for some 13,000 women's groups in 160 countries. It publishes materials, conducts workshops, and provides women in groups around the world with training in communications and media techniques.

But Anne Walker, IWTC's executive director, balks at hearing her organization described as the ``hub'' of a worldwide women's network.

``We try to work collaboratively, rather than as a hub or a core,'' she says. ``A network is a group of equal partners. It's different from a bureaucratic structure -- it's a group of people who have a peer relationship.''

Equal partners: Viewed in the context of worldwide development, these words have dynamic significance. For true progress to come about for all mankind, development specialists say that governments, agencies, small groups, and large, will have to work together as equal partners. But, they add, what will undoubtedly bring about the most profound and the most urgently needed change, is for men and women to work together as equal partners, too.

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