Helping Women Seen as Boosting World Prosperity

FOR many delegates to the upcoming Fourth World Conference on Women, all of the pre-summit fuss is simply a distraction.

Beyond the questions about whether Hillary Clinton will attend the Beijing conference and the daily tallies of how many visas the Chinese have refused, the enduring issue is the global problem of women trapped in poverty and discrimination.

Increasingly, the global economy's performance is based on how well females fare: Women will make up half of the world's labor force by the year 2000, according to International Labor Organization (ILO) projections. The ILO and a bevy of other groups say living standards for the world's men, women, and children greatly rely on women's access to health care, education, finance and better paying jobs.

In the developing world, experts say, current conditions are frequently troubling:

* Boys receive more education than girls.

* While women spend more time working, they earn just two thirds of men's earnings.

* Women often have little say about finances at home or at work, while a greater percentage than ever before are the sole breadwinners.

* Five hundred thousand women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth.

* Violence against women is alarmingly high, exacerbated by Asian, African, and Latin customs that push girls into marriage at a very young age and shut out their chance to go to school.

All of this has ''resulted in the feminization of poverty,'' asserts Minh Chau Nguyen, manager of gender analysis and policy at the World Bank.

The World Bank sees the conference, which will run Sept. 4 -15, as a way to publicize lending-policy changes that are now geared toward ''advancing gender equality.''

Development begins with education, says Ms. Nguyen. She is banking on a 25-year-long study that shows every 2 percent increase in secondary-school enrollment raises the average growth rate of per capita gross domestic product by an estimated 0.5 percent a year. The highest returns come from women, she says.

With ''economic empowerment'' as the centerpiece of the Beijing meeting, much of the focus will be on how to boost women's access to finance and management, says Madeline Albright, United States ambassador to the United Nations, and chairwoman of the US delegation attending the conference. ''We expect it to really push the subject forward and to highlight economic security for women as well as their role in economic decisionmaking,'' Ms. Albright told reporters at a Monitor breakfast last week.

''Currently, 90 percent of the 550 million impoverished women around the world lack access to credit, even though loans of as little as $100 would allow them to improve their livelihoods,'' says Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank's vice president for environmentally sustainable development.

Beginning this year, the World Bank plans to provide $150 million in loans for an estimated 750,000 women, whose family members number 3.8 million.

Mr. Serageldin has taken his cues from Muhammed Yunis, president of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the world's best known microbanker. He started his operation almost 20 years ago when he saw that ''the bottom-most poor people'' - women in subsistence-level agricultural, craft and trade work - needed only modest loans to expand their operations into viable businesses. Rebuffed by established bankers who refused to deal in such small sums, Mr. Yunis formed a lending cooperative. Today the bank works with 2 million borrowers.

World Bank data show that investments in women pay off: The recovery rate on loans to women is 98 percent, compared to the 60 to 70 percent of loans to men that are eventually repaid.

In the Grameen Bank example, ''The impact of that credit on the welfare of the family is higher when the female does the borrowing,'' says Nguyen.

Women tend to spend their money on better nutrition and schooling for girls, areas largely ignored by their male counterparts.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, a recent World Bank report finds, a woman's gain is not a man's loss.

''As the number of women workers increases, total labor supply increases ... the overall 'size of the pie' [between women and men] can increase because there are more educated women in the labor market, resulting in efficiency gains [which can] prevent a decline in men's wages,'' states the report.

But ''the massive entry of women into active economic life has only rarely been matched by corresponding improvement in their living or working conditions,'' claims Mary Chinery-Hesse, ILO's deputy director general who is heading up the ILO's delegation to Beijing. Even in the industrialized countries, she says, females still lag behind men.

In Japan, women earn half their male counterparts' wages in nonagricultural work; in France, that figure is just over 80 percent.

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