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THE scales of world equality are out of balance. The side marked ‘woman’ is weighed down with responsibility, while the side marked ‘man’ rides high with responsibility, while the side marked ‘man’ rides high with power.
Tilting first under rules that say women must do all domestic work, the scales are tipped further by men’s greater opportunities to earn wages. Advantage builds on advantage until today they are tilted so steeply that almost all of the world’s wealth is on man’s side, whole most of the world’s work in on women’s.
The United Nations Decade for Women is an effort to right the scales, a first step in redistributing the wealth and work, the power and the responsibility more fairly between man and woman.
At the end of the Decade there are some signs that governments have begun to take their debt to their nations’ women to heart. Ninety per cent of countries now have official government bodies dedicated to the advancement of women, 50 per cent of which have been established since the beginning of the Decade. There is also evidence that the influence of these bodies are having a significant effect on government policies. Sixty six out of 92 countries have now incorporated specific programmes and provisions for women in theor National Development Plans, and the majority of these – 62 countries – have made these changes since the launch of the Decade.
The majority of countries have also instituted constitutional and legal equality between women and men, and there are only a few nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates – in which women are not eligible either to vote or to stand for election.
Inequalities remain, how ever, because the new laws are implemented so slowly, because they are often overridden by custom, and because old laws have yet to be repealed. Though 31 countries report that they are gradually dismantling discriminatory legislation, 30 others have admitted that they have not yet made a start.
It is a vicious circle. Change is unlikely to come quickly while men take the majority of the decisions. Women will not be free to participate in that decision-making until those changes have taken place. There are some encouraging signs, however, that women are beginning to rise into the higher echelons of power in some countries and to take their rightful place beside men.
In Western Europe, for example, two-thirds of people questioned by a series of EEC surveys said they believe it was time to break down the strict stereotypes of women’s and men’s social roles. And, between 1975 and 1983, there has been a significant change in attitudes towards women’s places in politics should be left to men. 41 per cent disagreed in 1975. Eight years later 71 per cent disagreed.
But these changes in grass-roots attitudes are only slowly being reflected in real political power. Tough women form between 20 and 30 per cent of elected members of parliament in Denmark, Sweden women take only between five and II per cent of the seats of government.
The centrally planned economies generally base longer histories of constitutional equality for women. And women are correspondingly better represented in the national legislature there, comprising 33 per cent of members in the Soviet Union, for instance. 21 per cent in China and 28 per cent in Czechoslovakia.
But in the majority of developing countries the United Nations has found ‘no consistent increase over the Decade’ in women’s participation in politics. Costa Rica. Venezuela. Sri Lanka, India and Kenya are typical, with women taking less than six per cent of places in government.
Perhaps the most important factor impeding women s progress to power is their domestic role. If women have to do all the cooking and cleaning when they get home from work, they have much less time than men to take part in political activity. In the USSR. for instance. women have an average of only 19 hours a week free time compared to men’s 31 hours. The difference in some developing countries is even more extreme: in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, for instance, men base three times as much free time as women.
As the UN documents prepared for the World Conference on the Decade for Women point out: ‘The overriding obstacle identified by virtually all governments is the deeply rooted traditional value system which establishes stereotyped sex divisions of roles in society.’
Governments may have identified the obstacle. but many are reluctant to ‘redress the prevailing disadvantaged situation and properly respond to women’s natural function of childbearing’. And the reason the majority of governments give for this reluctance is economic recession.
In the rich world recession is the main excuse given for failing to provide the social services that would help relieve women of some of their burden of domestic work. In the poor world governments maintain that recession makes it necessary for them to concentrate first and foremost on general development policies, and prevents them treating women’s inequality as top priority.
In both hemispheres of the globe the reply from men in government is that women must wait until things improve. Women’s problems cannot be dealt with until the current crisis is passed, until recession eases a certain amount and until development advances to a certain stage.
The trouble is that women cannot wait. Because both development and recession are riding rough-shod over them.
In the rich world it is women whose jobs tend to be more vulnerable when there is high unemployment. It is they who are expected to pick up the pieces when hospitals, nursery schools, day-care centres, old people’s homes, are closed. In the poor world it is women whose rights to land are eroded, whose work in the fields is ignored.
Poor countries are right to be suspicious when the rich world wags a reproving finger and tells them they should treat their women better, They are right to point out that the rich world cannot criticise them for inequality within their countries while the gap between rich and poor nations yawns so obscenely wide. But perhaps they are wrong to think that equality is divisible, to believe that it can be applied selectively to one section of society but not to another.
Because inequality within nations can be just as dramatic as inequality between them. In Brazil, Panama and Peru, for instance, the richest fifth of the population get over 60 per cent of the country’s income, while the poorest fifth must share just two per cent. And it is not only developing countries who favour the rich. In the USA and Canada. for example, the richest fifth of the population get over 40 per cent of the income, while the poorest fifth must make do with just five per cent between them.
An idealist can hope that a New International Economic Order would correct the balance within as well as between countries. But a realist will share the doubts of the late Martin Luther King, writing from Birmingham City Jail in Alabama in 1963: ‘History is the long tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.’
Equality and justice are qualities of whole societies, of the whole world. And that is as true of men and women as it is of rich and poor. As black civil rights activist Frannie Lou Hamer wrote: ‘the freedom of the white woman is shackled in chains to mine and she is not free until I am free.’
Women have fought beside men in wars and revolutions. They have worked, twice as hard as men, in helping to create their nations’ wealth. But, time after time, they have had their reward snatched away from them and been ushered, again and again, back into the kitchen with their children. Women - the poorest of the poor, the hungriest of the hungry, the most overworked, the most disadvantaged, the most disinherited - are tired of waiting for men to decide when the time is right. The time is right - now.
It seems clear that few men are likely to give up their power, nor are they likely to take on more of the responsibilities that have always fallen to women, simply for equality’s sake. But perhaps they will countenance them for the sake of their own self-preservation. Because the penalties for inequality between women and men are very severe. And they are not borne by women alone.
Power, tempered by the wisdom and restraint of responsibility, is the foundation of a just society. But with too little responsibility, power turns to tyranny. And with too little power, responsibility becomes exploitation. The previous sections of this Report have demonstrated the penalties of women’s too-great burden of responsibility and their too-small slice of power: they are hardship, sickness, hunger, even famine, But the penalties of man’s disproportionate share of the world’s power - without the intimate day-today knowledge of the effects of that power, or the responsibility for ensuring that the basic needs of the household are met - are just as great.
Of course not all men are tyrants or despots and not all women are nurturing martyrs to duty and hard work. But masculine and feminine social roles have tilted the majority of men and women in those directions to some degree. And a tour of world statistics demonstrates the dangers of masculine power unleashed from feminine responsibility.
Since 1945 there have been 105 wars causing around 16 million deaths - almost all in the developing world. And male soldiers were not the only victims; nine million civilians were killed and a further 8.3 million people had become refugees from the war zones by 1983, Today the world has stockpiled an estimated 50,000 nuclear warheads.
that together pack a punch five thousand times greater than all the firepower used in World War Two and enough to destroy half a million Hiroshimas.
Though the vast majority of arms spending is accounted for by the US and the USSR, developing countries are also spending large amounts of their scarce wealth on arms. It has been estimated, for instance, that the massive foreign debt of developing countries to the banks, financial institutions and governments of the rich world is only one-twentieth of the value of their arms imports. These, then, are the priorities of a world where power is concentrated in masculine hands.
If it is men who predominate among the drivers of the war machine, it should not be surprising to find women among the most passionate of those working for peace.
Nine months after the beginning of World War One, while their menfolk were busy with threat and counter-threat, toting the colours of manhood and war, over 1,000 women from 12 countries met together in The Hague, in the Netherlands. and founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom - the first international peace movement.
That was 70 years ago. Today women are still working for peace and trying to act as a countervailing force to the snarling stand-off of the Cold War.
These women are doing more than simply protesting about war. They are not so naive as to think that removing the nuclear arsenals would automatically bring about a peaceful world. As the women at Greenham Common put it: ‘Peace isn’t just about removing a few pieces of war furniture, or bringing about an international cease-fire. It is about the condition of our lives. Peace is the absence of greed and domination by a few over the rest of us.’ And women protesting at the Pentagon in the US echo that sentiment:
‘There can be no peace while one race dominates another, one people, one nation. one sex, despises another.’
The world, where masculine power is severed from feminine responsibility, is a world shot through and through with the wounds of structural violence. And war is only the bloodiest of those wounds, the most visible manifestation of a quieter violence that the powerful perpetrate against the powerless.
To put it more simply: all the arms in the world don’t offer the security of one embrace.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
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