New Internationalist

The Invisible Woman

Issue 089

Back in 1975, the U.N. launched the Decade for Women. This July, exactly halfway through the Decade, delegates from almost every nation in the world will meet in Copenhagen to review what has been achieved.

Right now in New York the conference organisers, working under former Jamaican Ambassador to the U.N. Lucille Mair, are busy analysing questionnaires filled in by 86 governments in an attempt to find out exactly what progress women are making towards equality.

Some of the results to date:

  • Faced with high costs of schooling and limited job opportunities for the educated, many parents tend to invest only in boys. The importance of girls’ work in the home and the high incidence of teenage pregnancy are also cited as barriers to female enrolment. But some countries are trying harder than others - Nepal is now giving cash rewards to schools which have the most girls in their classrooms and Kenya is offering more scholarships and lower fees to women students.

  • The last five years have seen women’s movements emerging in almost every country. One result is that women are inching forward in politics

  • There is also some evidence that women’s involvement in decision-making might change priorities:- in a survey covering three villages in India both men and women were asked to choose what the village most needed: the men voted for a new road and the women for a primary health care centre.

  • The idea that families are invariably headed by a man turns out to be one of the myths of the modern world - fully a third of all families are now headed by a woman. One cause is divorce - which has more than doubled in both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the last 15 years. And in the developing countries, nearly half of the single women over 15 years of age are now mothers.

  • New figures from the International Labour Organisation nail another myth - that men are the farmers and the food growers. In the developing world today women are responsible for 50 per cent of total food production.

  • Women are continuing to get a raw deal from the health services. Threequarters of the health problems of the developing world could be prevented by better nutrition, water, sanitation, education and immunisation, all of which are usually the responsibility of women. But 80 per cent of medical and health budgets are devoted to doctors and hospitals promoting curative medicine to a small proportion of the population. In the rural areas only about 15 per cent of the population have access to modern health care and, during pregnancy and childbirth, more than half of the world’s women have no trained help. Only a third have access to family planning.

  • In the industrialised world, pay differentials have narrowed considerably since 1975 but, on average, a woman is still paid only one-half to three-quarters of the money that a man can earn for doing the same job.

  • Most damning of all the findings in the survey is the fact that economic development itself can be bad news for women. Improving educational opportunities can mean a worsening of inequalities if it means that the opportunities only go to boys. Improved agricultural techniques like tractors can shorten the working week of men who do the ploughing and lengthen the working hours of the women who do the weeding.

Throughout the developing world, says the Conference Secretariat, a major problem is that women’s work is often invisible - a man laying a water pipe in a city is part of the statistics of development. A woman carrying a day’s supply of water from a well to a village is not. Her work, though vital to the task of meeting the daily needs of the family, goes unrecorded, unsupported and unrewarded.

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