New Internationalist

A Crumbling Refuge

Issue 118

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THE FAMILY [image, unknown] Equality

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A Crumbling Refuge
The pressure of modern development is destroying the traditional cycle of peasant life in much of the Third World. As a result, explains Perdita Huston, families are fragmenting and women not in an envious position at the best of times are falling even further behind.

LESS-ENLIGHTENED men have always tended to use the Family as a catch-all for keeping women quiet and ‘in their place’. But now something is awry: the family is in transition the whole world over. Those men who truly believe women’s place is limited to the traditional family’s protective fold had better pay attention. And quickly.

Having listened to rural women and girls in some 15 countries over the past few years, I now believe that the results of ‘development have profoundly de-stabilized the family. And that the stress of modernization has been disproportionately harmful to women to their status within the family, to their health and to their sense of self-worth.

Any rapid social change is disruptive. And, if you add the new economic demands which increase mobility of people, it is obvious that tremendous pressures bear down on Third World families.

In the not-so-distant past each family member had a well-defined and valued role. Each member performed his or her duties and acquired status and power accordingly. Even then women had little or no identity outside the family. They were rarely equal citizens by law and certainly not by custom. And they had few life choices about their education, mate or personal mobility. Their lives were dependent upon family males: father and brothers, then husbands and sons. However, within the strict confines of family responsibilities women were important When their duties were well-executed, a woman’s status grew and she became more powerful. But always within the limitations of traditional female roles. Now traditional roles are changing. And the family in which women found some status and power is evolving to meet new needs.

In many rural areas the pressure of a growing population on already meagre land holdings has thrust vast numbers of subsistence farmers into the wage economy. The constant need for cash has cast family members in new roles. In Sri Lanka a young woman explained, ‘My father is a farmer. My parents lived from the land, but when my grandfather died the land was distributed among his sons. Now my parents’ portion is very small, not sufficient for them to exist on. They continue to work the land but must search for other jobs as well.’

Far away in Kenya another young woman echoed the same preoccupation. ‘My life is very different from my mother’s. Life is much more difficult because everybody is dependent on money. Long ago money was unheard of No one needed it But now you can’t even get food without cash. Times are very difficult’

It could be argued that we are witnessing the following equation: improved health care population growth less land = less food and income importance of wages or cash more power for the wage earner. And this is a crucial point The need for cash has created a new division in society that between the employed and the unemployed and focused status on the wage earner.

Women are less able to work for wages because of domestic responsibilities, lack of education and training, and deeply conservative traditions. So iCs the men who leave home to look for a job. Women at home working long hours at unpaid traditional tasks see their power eroded. They are left behind both physically and psychologically. ‘We are left here with our ignorance, to cope and to raise the babies,’ one woman told me.

But the problem does not end there. Many women say the family has been weakened in other ways by migration and wages. ‘Men forget their women and do not come back’, or ‘they spend their wages on liquor and other women’.

An older Kenyan woman, a leader in her village, stated: ‘Most women don’t rely on their husbands now. Life is very difficult and men pay less attention to their wives. You see, men have wrongly taken advantage of having more money. Instead of using money properly to improve the lives of their families, they spend it on women in hotels. Many men cheat on their wives now because they have money. So women are fed up; they think now that relying on a man can be a problem.’

After hearing this kind of statement in village after village and country after country, the concept of the ‘protective family’ begins to appear mythical indeed.

In the countryside women are sometimes able to help each other face the dilemma of change. The Kenyan woman above had created a handicraft cooperative with other village women to earn school fees for their children.

But in urban areas it is not easy to find or create this kind of support system. Thousands of rural women migrate each week to the shanty towns of great over-crowded cities. Some come in search of husbands who have gone there, others search for food. They find themselves isolated from the family support system of their smaller community yet unable to find a substitute in the confusion of urban life.

Even architecture contributes to their isolation In Algeria, for examples the most common government housing built to accommodate a rapidly increasing population is high-rise apartments — not just in the cities but in small towns all over the country. Most Algerian women are rarely permitted to leave home, So the interior patio of the traditional house provides their only access to fresh air, space and a visiting area for friends and family. Isolated one from another in boxlike apartments, deprived of the earth itself, millions of women throughout the world are losing contact with each other and some with sanity itself. As one modern Algerian ‘cliff-dweller’ put it, ‘the high buildings are only places for suicides.’

Development planning has rarely taken into account the needs of women. Perhaps planners were hoping the family would take care of women’s needs. In reality, ‘progress’ has undermined the old ways without providing alternatives to support the family’s structure and its needs. In short, women are less powerful within the family because the family itself is disabled. Development without women, or development which leaves women at a disadvantage, ultimately renders the family impotent and society stricken.

And yet there is much that could be done. Strong, far-sighted policies which provide men and women with legal rights, education, training and access to family planning are essential to women’s emergence from an isolation they do not seek — to their participation in society and to their self-esteem.

As one illiterate yet self-confident Tunisian woman pointed out, changes are possible even though men still have most of the power. ‘Men are much better these days than they were before. They respect women more. Before a woman could be beaten, divorced and poorly treated. That kind of thing isn’t so common any more. We have family planning now and can take better care of our children. Before the new laws all women lived the lives of beasts.’

For better or worse, the leadership of the developing world is predominantly male. So the support of men is necessary if women are to be involved in development planning, in architectural design, in formulating policies for a harmonious society in which the family is the strong and stable unit of social organization. It is also male leaders who must urge fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to discard the belief and customs which prevent women from full participation in their societies.

To paraphrase the words of an illiterate Mexican grandmother: if the women of their families are ignorant, how can their children be enlightened, and how, thus, can the future be good?

Perdita Huston is a writer specializing in women and development.

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