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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 154 | Mayo 1994
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Central America

Seven Sins Against Women and Development

Graciela Malgesini

According to the United Nations, 75% of the world's population survives on only 15% of the world's wealth. In the 41 poorest countries of the world, per-capita income does not reach $200.
A full billion of the planet's 5.3 billion inhabitants live below the poverty line. About half of this poor world is made up of women who share the misery with men, but in situations of inferiority. Inequality between the sexes is both broader and deeper in poor countries than in the wealthy ones. There are seven crucial inequalities.

Women, particularly young ones, and children are the first victims of hunger and malnutrition, and even of physical disappearance. It is estimated that more than 100 million women of the poor world "disappeared" in the 1980s, prematurely dead from the consequences of discrimination. Due to the physical circumstances of maternity, women should demand even better nutrition, but, in reality, they are the ones most sacrificed to food customs and taboos. They are also the first to suffer restrictions in their food rations in periods of penury.

Women bear the main burden of reproduction. With no means of contraception other than nursing, they go from pregnancy to pregnancy during the bulk of their fertile life—close to 17 years. In addition, the high infant mortality—115 per 1,000 live births in the poorest countries—subjects them to the constant tensions, anguish and exhaustion of pregnancy, birth and watching their babies die.

Their reproductive life is also plagued by taboos that carry with them serious health risks. It is calculated that 70 million girl children in Asia and Africa are subjected to the partial or total mutilation of their sexual organs before the end of puberty. Half of the 2.6 billion women in the world are today between 15 and 49 years of age, a group highly vulnerable to the problems related to sexual contact, pregnancy and the secondary effects of contraceptive practices, when they exist. The causes of between 20% and 45% of all deaths of poor women in this age range are related to pregnancy. In the United States and Europe this figure is less than 1%.

The reproductive responsibility also includes the education of the children, particularly in societies with low levels of formal schooling. Nonetheless, feminine education is being put off more and more in relation to masculine education. The number of illiterate women increased by 54 million between 1970 and 1985, while the number of illiterate men grew by only 4 million in the same period. This situation has an enormous repercussion on the ability to control fecundity and on infant mortality levels.

Women of the poor countries work an average of 12 to 18 hours a day, producing food, cultivating and harvesting, and working in a huge number of non-remunerated activities. The men of these countries work from 8 to 12 hours. It is estimated that feminine labor provides 70-80% of the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa and India, and about 50% in Latin America. The "invisible" nature of this work reinforces the idea that women are dependent and not the producers of goods and services, a false ideology that seems to be universal. In turn, women dedicate a larger part of their monetary income to the household budget than men.

The number of women workers has increased in recent decades, producing the "double-day" phenomenon, which involves the sum of work outside the household plus their traditional domestic tasks. This burden is greater the smaller the household's purchasing power, since help—whether from other people or from time-saving household aids—are economically out of reach. In Latin America, the feminization of the labor market is one of the most important socioeconomic changes in the past 20 years. Women's rate of economic participation ranges from a minimum of 25% in Guatemala to a maximum of 43% in Uruguay and 45% in the Dominican Republic. This increase, however, has not been accompanied by social spending policies that make women's productive activities any easier (child-care centers, dining facilities, launderettes and the like). Nor have any important and wide-reaching changes been produced in the sexual division of labor within the families.

Women do not have the same civil or political rights as men in many Islamic countries, particularly in the north and central part of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. They are denied the right not only to education, but also to individual liberty, legitimate and just legal defense, the secret vote, hereditary rights... In almost all countries of the Magreb, masculine polygamy is still permitted.

Most measures of family-based development avoid the problem of women's lower standard of living, created by patriarchial restrictions and continuing with the supposed negligence in providing credits and development assistance, which almost never include women as the titled beneficiary. These analyses do not face up to the inequalities of power or the situations of inequity and even of violence within the family itself, which is in turn embedded in a set of social and institutional norms that prop up the authoritarian patriarchal schemes.

The injustices women suffer climb in proportion to the greater poverty of their societies' human development. And putting women on hold only strengthens the tragic circle of poverty and underdevelopment. More than all wars and conflicts put together, discrimination against women constitutes the greatest universal violation of human rights, both for its territorial extension and the millions of individuals affected, and for its permanent and systematic character.

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