New Internationalist

The Hundred Hour Week

Issue 083

Women in the 70s

Of all the changes in the 1970s, probably none will be half so significant as the beginnings of change in attitudes towards and by the world’s women.

On average women work twice as many hours a day as men. In the rural areas of the developing world, for example, women are responsible for at least 50 per cent of food production, in addition to the care of livestock and their myriad household tasks.

In coping with this enormous workload every day, it is not uncommon for women to work in excess of a sixteenhour day.

Development is usually measured by monitoring changes which can be statistically recorded. A man laying a water-pipe in a city is part of the development effort and is recognised as such. A woman carrying a twenty kilo jar of water from a well is not seen as part of this same process and therefore goes unrecorded.

In the case of women, who are normally excluded from the forces of modernisation and change, an alternative method for evaluating their contribution is to imagine what would happen if the Third World’s female workforce came out on ‘strike’. It is safe to say that the consequences for development would be infinitely more devastating than any single action taken by men.

As it is, the millions of women who labour so hard under such difficult conditions to meet their families’ basic needs are the real heroines of the struggle for world development. No praise can be too high for their courage and effort but it is not praise that they need. It is justice.

One of the conclusions of the International Women’s Year Conference at Mexico City in 1975 was that the development effort of the last twenty years had not done justice to women. Indeed ‘progress’ has often detracted from the capacity and contribution of women and in doing so it has often negated its own purposes.

Despite the fact that women are responsible for half of all food production in the developing world, for example, it is to the men that the majority of training, credit and technology still goes. The Economic Commission for Africa cited the example of a country which, in the drive for mechanisation, imported one hundred tractors and one mechanical weeder. Men do the ploughing, women do the weeding.

Similarly, the introduction of multiple-cropping and higher-yielding varieties of wheat and rice has increased the labour-intensive processes of farming such as sowing, weeding and transplanting, traditionally women’s work in almost every developing country. In the Gambia the introduction of ‘improved’ farming methods has brought with it a decrease of two hours in the man’s working week and an increase of one hour in the women’s working week. Cash-cropping also tends to increase the woman’s workload and in many cases also takes away land from women who have traditionally used it to grow food for their families.

As food preparers and cooks’, writes Ingrid Palmer, ‘women are the family nutritionists and the efficiency with which they perform these roles depends largely on their access to resources for production of food or goods sold in exchange for food. The more women’s access to resources weakens, the more the condition of the community’s nutrition is jeopardised’.

As these examples show, women are primarily responsible for meeting the family’s basic needs. For development planners, so keen on the concept of ‘meeting basic needs’, ignoring the contribution and the rights of the Third World’s women is an unforgivable folly.

The progress of women towards equality with men is a pre-condition of development progress. And it implies a profounder change than the promotion of equal numbers of women into jobs currently monopolised by men. Such a move would not necessarily reduce oppression and poverty - and it is the fact that women are oppressed and poor, not that they are women, which is the central issue. Nor would it be enough to build special ‘women’s programmes’ into the development effort through ‘home economics’ and other traditional women’s subjects.

Just as it has been argued that the poor must have power over the means to grow food if they are not to go hungry, so women must have an equal share in the decisiontaking process if their needs and rights are to be realised.

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