A number of United States legislators are directing their attention toward a huge, crucial, yet largely neglected sector of the third world's population - women. A bill that would direct the Agency for International Development (AID) to intensify its efforts to integrate women into the development process has been introduced by Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas and Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. So far, it has gathered 49 co-sponsors, among them seven Republicans.
The bill is seen by members of the Select Committee on Hunger as a positive, pragmatic step in the battle against hunger and poverty in developing countries.
Observers say the issue is one of economics. Women produce between 50 and 80 percent of the food consumed in developing countries. They provide their families with water and fuel, and their earnings are used to supply their children's basic needs.
A number of independent agencies that focus on women have sprung up in recent years, and the UN Development Program has added three new departments aimed at better integrating women into the development process. Yet experts say much more needs to be done.
``This government has not really dealt with the contribution of women in the third world to their families, their communities, and their countries,'' says Mr. Leland. ``We can't continue to allow that to happen if we're going to support survival ... in the third world.''
``Women have been the invisible factor in development,'' says Jody Jacobson, a senior researcher at Worldwatch, a non-profit research organization focusing on global trends. ``Women are the heads of households in much of Africa, but they've never been included in the decision-making processes that development projects are based on. Nor has attention been paid to their needs in terms of land tenure, credit, and marketing facilities, or better varieties of the crops they grow.''
In 1973, an amendment sponsored by Charles Percy, (R) of Illinois, sought to correct this. It resulted in the creation of a Women in Development (WID) division at AID. WID spends $2 million a year (out of a total AID budget of $2.2 billion) sending technical experts to AID missions around the world to point out areas where the agency's efforts on behalf of women need strengthening.
But an independent report commissioned by AID last year indicates that agency-wide commitment has been limited, and that the impact of AID's programs on women has been negligible. ``AID's Women in Development Policy is not being implemented fully or vigorously, and there is little enthusiasm and few incentives for doing so,'' said the report by the International Center for Research on Women.
The current bill would require AID to:
Ensure that at least 50 percent of the participants in any development activity are women.
Collect data broken down by gender and include it in all agency papers relating to development projects.
Train all agency staff in strategies for incorporating women in the planning, design, implementation, and evaluation of AID projects.
These directives meet with a mixed reception from Kay Davies, WID's director: ``I have a real problem when we get into the numbers game. We're not after quantifying, but after the quality of an issue.'' Keeping track of the numbers who benefit from each project is impossible, she adds. ``We don't really need sensitizing training. The agency supports Women in Development. We've developed very detailed courses for specific people.''