The world's women count

WOMEN are not a special-interest group; they are half the human race. This is the lesson that must perhaps be learned chiefly by the other half, the male half, which overwhelmingly predominates in the governments, religious organizations, and other power structures of the world.

More specifically, this means that the development of the third world has got to include women -- as a valuable resource, full partners. Given their crucial roles as providers of food, fuel, and water and as managers of their families, solving women's problems means solving everyone's problems.

This realization is sinking in -- but only very gradually. For the women in the villages of the third world, life is pretty tough, as we read in the just-concluded Monitor series by Kristin Helmore, ``The Neglected Resource: Women in the Developing World.''

It's not unusual for a reporter to interview someone in tears, after a fire or some other catastrophe. What is less usual is for someone to be in tears merely describing her daily life, as was a woman in the Bolivian village of Culli Culli Alto when the Monitor interviewed her.

All too often the coming of ``progress'' to the villages of the developing world has meant mechanization of agriculture -- but only of the cash crops the men grow; women who grow the food for the family are left with their primitive tools and without modern fertilizers. Progress has meant the deterioration of the natural environment, so that women have to trudge farther for water and fuel. And it has meant the building of modern roads that drain away village men to the big cities.

The world over, many women have lost status as their villages forsake their traditional value system, food self-sufficiency, and barter economy in favor of an urban-oriented cash economy. They find their long hours of labor on behalf of their families literally don't count -- aren't figured into the gross national product of respective countries.

The developing countries are not, of course, the only place where these lessons of women's worth must be learned. The labors of a suburban housewife in the United States don't count in the GNP figures for her country, either.

We must all become feminists insofar as feminism consists of seeing women as fully human and not as a subordinate subspecies or servant class. Women are obviously not identical to men. But the feminine mode must be seen as fully equivalent to and equally as valid as the masculine, just as various typefaces in a printer's catalog appear different but contain all the letters of the same alphabet.

At the same time, women's problems will not be solved by making men feel threatened. Injustices against women diminish men, too, and many men realize this. But men who have identified themselves and their manhood in terms of domination of the family and monopoly of its resources may be in for a rough transition period ahead. It has been the particular accomplishment of many women in Africa and Asia to be able to see development in terms of working together with men rather than away from them.

Indeed, there is evidence that mind-sets may be changing faster than macroeconomic conditions in the countries involved. In some cases social progress -- men and women learning to live in better harmony together -- is being undone by economic conditions. Young husbands and fathers unable to find meaningful work often end up seeking solace from a bottle.

All this suggests that a new view of the economic difficulties of the developing countries is called for. We often tend to see these countries as faceless masses rather than individuals. The Latin-American debt situation, for instance, is often discussed in terms of what it will do to Citibank. It needs also to be seen in terms of whether Jos'e will start beating up on Maria again.

``A person does not walk very far or very fast on one leg,'' former Tanzanian President Julius Nyrere has said. ``How can we expect half the people to be able to develop a nation?''

We're looking forward to the day when all nations walk on both legs.

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