Women’s Work

Women delegates, dressed in dazzling saris, sarongs, and boubous, have gained new authority in global population debates. But will the talk bring needed changes to women back at home?

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“When I came here last year, I was a virgin girl,” says Hanna Mekureya, stirring raw coffee beans over coals. In the dark room down a side alley of Addis Ababa’s marketplace, the cow dung walls muffle the hubbub from the crowds outside. So, as the beans roast from green to brown, Mekureya tells her story in a near-whisper: how she moved to this city of 2 million people, leaving her mother and her three brothers and sisters back home, and how, a year later, she is supporting them all by having sex with men in a little room above a bar in the market.

“I was 19 then,” she says, looking down into the myrrh smoldering next to the fire. “My mother was widowed when I was a small girl. She sewed some dresses and sold them. She baked injera [the staple bread of Ethiopians] and sold that, too. But then the price of grain went up and she couldn’t afford to do that anymore.”

Mekureya quit her eighth-grade class and took a bus to the Ethiopian capital 78 miles away, a city that, until then, had been little more than a mirage. She walked the better neighborhoods looking for work as a housemaid, which would pay her about $8 a month, plus food and a bed. But with no person to act as guarantor, she was turned away at every door. Then she met a bar owner, who asked for only a few simple assurances: that she buy a new pair of plastic sandals, and that she curl her hair in soft waves around her plump face. For that, she would be welcome every night and could earn about $4.50 a man upstairs.

“Sometimes, there are no customers,” she says. But some weeks there is one man a night, and earlier this month she hopped a bus to her village of Nazareth and handed her mother $15–a little over one month’s earnings for the average person in Ethiopia, the second-poorest country on the planet.

“The street boys beg,” says Beletshachew Berhane, a social worker who recently began handing out condoms in the sprawling marketplace to hundreds of teenage prostitutes. “But the girls have another choice. They have their sex to sell. They can earn much, much more with that. And why not? They might be raped anyway if they don’t sell it.”

On the other side of town, Yeshi Alamayu, 45, for years has supported her eight children and her aging mother by gathering wood in the government’s plantation forests. Alamayu leaves her house every morning at dawn, walks five miles into the mountains, and pays a dime’s bribe to the forest guards at the gate. Whatever has dropped to the ground is fair pickings: leaves, twigs, spindly branches. She binds her booty with some rope, heaves it onto her back, and joins the traffic of women who can be seen most days of the week treading the roads into Addis, their bodies bent beneath their bundles.

Alamayu began her trade when she was 10, gathering wood with her mother from the eucalyptus forests right on the edge of town. At the time, Addis was a market town with a half million people. But in three decades, the city’s population doubled, then doubled again, then kept leaping upwards, until now, rickety tin shacks crawl up the hills and tiny plastic hovels cling to the sidewalks downtown. Desperate for fuel, the town folk have stripped the area surrounding their city naked of trees. And as they’ve done so, Alamayu’s daily search for wood has stretched farther and farther into the hills. These days, her 10-mile walk ends at the doorstep of an Addis trader, who will hand her about 80 cents for her troubles.

Like Mekureya and Alamayu, countless women around the globe weave their lives around simple survival. For many, the daily struggle dims whatever dreams they may have had. Indeed, when the photographers who traveled the world for the project in these pages asked women what they hoped for their futures, some barely understood the question. Scripted by poverty and illiteracy, the narrative of their lives had seemed immutable from birth.

These women include Zenebu Tulu, whose first year of life in the Ethiopian hamlet of Moulo was marked by a clitoridectomy. She recalls her reluctance at being kidnapped when she was 18 by her husband-to-be, who then sent elders to her parents to negotiate the bride-price. Eleven years later, they live in a one-room grass hut with their five children. Now, she says, “I’m very happy. I have my own children.”

Thousands of miles away, in a tiny village in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, Mishri Devi was married to Bachau Yadav when she was 10 years old, moving into his house when she reached puberty. Now, the couple has five children and Yadav hopes her own daughter, who is 9, will marry as well.

And in Haiti, Madame Dentes Delfoart, a mother of four, also was married as a teenager. She dropped her own first and last names (in the tradition of most rural Haitian women), and moved into her husband’s house, bringing a few prized handkerchiefs and some animals. Nowadays, Madame–the only name by which she is known–earns money “just to eat with,” by buying grains and canned food in bulk from the village market, and selling them retail from a storeroom next to her home.

Like one-quarter of the women in the world, Mishri Devi and Madame Delfoart have never learned to read or write. As their mothers and grandmothers before them, they have lived in isolation, rarely exposed to anyone beyond their districts. But the cultural walls are crumbling quickly. Albanian women name their sons after newfound pop icons like Michael Jackson and Kevin Costner, whom they see on Italian television shows which reach them by satellite. Families in Brazil eat dinner to the background sounds of CNN, where women correspondents report from bomb scenes in Bosnia or Oklahoma. With their isolation punctured, many poor women imagine that the seductive abundance of their Western counterparts might somehow be within their reach, or at least that it ought to be, since its trappings have become a part of their lives.

The feeling is deceptive, however. United Nations statisticians say that the gap between the world’s rich and poor has widened noticeably during the past few decades. And women represent as much as 60 percent of the billion or so people the U.N. defines as poor, those earning about $1 or less a day.

It is these millions of impoverished women who are now at the center of an international debate, galvanized largely by a conviction that improving women’s lives will mean lower birthrates. As more and more countries are overwhelmed by increasing population and poverty, development officials and activists have begun arguing that women represent a huge, untapped source of talent and energy–resources that could play a vital role in the economic growth of many developing countries. These officials are convinced that if women are educated, allowed real economic status and some political clout, and paid hard cash for their now-free labor–work that sometimes drives subsistence economies–they will contribute not only to their country’s economic growth, but also to lower birthrates.

When the U.N. and a few major Western organizations began tackling population growth in the late 1940s, their efforts focused on census-taking and data analysis. During the late 1960s, several governments introduced national family planning programs, often facing hostility from communities or the Roman Catholic Church. But the programs were largely limited to getting contraceptives into women’s hands, and remained that way until very recently.

Now, studies done both by the United Nations and organizations like the Population Council show that it’s equally important to help women change their lives. This can be achieved by giving them access to loans and credits, training them in moneymaking skills, and making primary education universally available. Women’s advocacy groups argue that if governments continue promoting only traditional family planning programs, the results are likely to be disappointing.

Gertrude Mongella is a small woman with a disarming smile, who works in a 12th-floor office in Manhattan’s United Nations Plaza. As secretary general of the conference, she has led the planning for the Fourth World Conference on Women being held this month in Beijing. Many of the delegates–women who dress in dazzling saris, sarongs, and boubous—are not government officials, but they have gained a kind of street credibility from their years heading grassroots organizations back home in their villages.

Indeed, Gertrude Mongella has come a long way from rural Tanzania, where she was born in a tiny settlement on an island in Lake Victoria 50 years ago. “There were so many girls in my village who were as bright as me but who were never educated, and for whom the doors were just closed forever after that,” the secretary general says.

In March, a preparatory committee drafted a plan of action to draw women into the paid labor force. Now Mongella is in a position to give the Beijing conference participants help in implementing those proposals back home.

“Economically, women are very important,” she says. “They are doing so many things that people don’t even realize. Look at the developing countries: 70 percent of all the food in Africa is being produced by women. Yet women are never targeted in economic development and planning.”

One of the most vocal of the new group of women is Bisi Ogunleye, an imposing, voluble Nigerian chief in her 60s, whose large presence in her multicolored head scarves has become a familiar feature at inter-national meetings. Like Mongella, the chief began life in a scrap of a village.

“I was born by the roadside, to a farming family where women would wake up early and work 18 hours a day, fetching water, cleaning the house, carrying food,” she says. Through a mixture of tenacity, talent, and luck, Ogunleye became a schoolteacher, then did graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and now heads the Country Women’s Association of Nigeria, which she founded in 1982. She also founded the North African Rural Women’s Association in 1992 and is one of the most active board members of the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Twenty years ago, the chief attended her first international gathering, the U.N. women’s conference in Mexico City. “We saw it just as a struggle between women and men,” she recalls of the delegates who converged there from organizations and projects around the world. Today, she says, gender politics have subsided because many of those women are busy running programs back home. “They don’t believe anybody is going to do it for them,” Ogunleye says. “They have to rely on their own skills. Before, we weren’t talking about things like credit loans. We were just lobbying our governments.”

Nonetheless, Ogunleye and Mongella both believe that one of the major points to be won in their politicking is to persuade governments to give monetary value to traditional women’s work, like harvesting, and to persuade loan institutions like the World Bank to deal directly with grassroots development organizations, rather than strictly through governments. Meanwhile, the chief’s group and hundreds of others like it have taken on numerous quasigovernmental functions, lending women start-up capital for homespun enterprises, organizing sewing and farming cooperatives, teaching literacy, and, as always, offering family planning.

About 5,500 women from organizations like these converged last September in Cairo, at the U.N.’s International Conference on Population and Development, where they made the case for a 20-year plan of primary education, health care, and political rights for women. It was hard not to be swept away by the heady dynamism of the moment, as activists aiming for a radical change in women’s lives swayed scores of suited men plotting population strategies in conference plenary sessions. And even more women activists are expected to show up in Beijing, at the once-a-decade U.N. women’s conference.

Gertrude Mongella sees the diplomatic process as giving women’s organizations more potency. “Women themselves have learned to network globally,” she says. “There is a lot that we have achieved. Discussing women’s issues isn’t as difficult as it used to be. At least you can put it on the agenda, and people will listen.” Indeed, the networking has spawned numerous coalitions of women’s groups, linking organizations like Ogunleye’s with those in the West, and allowing activists from developing countries access to funding for literacy, family planning, and poverty programs.

But despite the optimism, the future is still unclear. The groups face large problems, which could ultimately derail their mission to transform the lives of women.

First, plans to educate, train, and provide universal health care for women rely heavily on foreign aid. And much of that financial commitment and political backing must come from Western governments, whose track record on supporting social change in the developing world is not good.

The Cairo plan, which will cost about $22 billion over the next two decades, was embraced last September by the United States, which committed itself to help fund the program. But two months later, conservative Republicans gained power in Congress, promising deep cuts in foreign aid as one of their priorities. Among their chief targets are the very social programs that women’s development will require: those in “nonstrategic” areas like Africa, and those funded through organizations connected to abortion services abroad.

Second, women’s activists are in danger of losing focus. The argument for giving women a greater stake in their societies has been firmly rooted in the politics of population. By remaining so sharply focused on a single crisis, women’s groups have been remarkably successful in getting governments to take them seriously. But pumped up by their diplomatic success at the world gathering in Cairo, women’s activists sprang into organizing for two further massive conferences–the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen last March, and the current Beijing meeting.

In Copenhagen, women’s groups broadened their fight from population politics to the global economy, arguing that redistribution of wealth and better international lending programs were key to raising women’s status. Meanwhile, the agenda for the Beijing women’s conference has become so unfocused that the40,000 or so participants will tackle no fewer than 12 major subjects. The list includes armed conflict, economic restructuring, and the environment, each of which already has its own busy schedule of international conferences.

The third potential problem emerges when talking to the people who have most to gain from social transformation. The broad political support for improving the status of women derives from the current belief that if women had more money, better education, and better access to health care, they would have far smaller families. But this causal relationship is not so simple. (For a detailed discussion, see the essay “What It Will Take,” in this issue.) When I ask Zenebu Tulu what she would do differently if she were rich, she thinks hard for a while, and then says: “If I were wealthy, say if I had horses and a better house, I’d have more children.”

Virginia Abernethy, an anthropology and psychiatry professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., rejects the idea that improving women’s status necessarily equals lower birthrates. “There is one thing that seems to work–if women are given jobs in the cash economy,” says Abernethy, whose maverick position has support only among a minority of people working on women’s development.

“Most of the other women’s status things are completely unsupported by data,” she says. “Education would be very nice, but that’s for the next generation. What women really want is $100 to start a chicken farm or buy a sewing machine.”

In a spare one-room building in Ahmadabad, a city in western India, a group of illiterate women has done exactly what Abernethy recommends. After learning to sign their names, these women registered a new bank called the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Since 1974, SEWA has provided tens of thousands of women with loans, sometimes as little as $1, and often using the women’s jewelry as collateral.

Among the many efforts to change women’s prospects, these tiny, local projects offer some of the surest signs of success. While it’s hard to predict whether SEWA will help these entrepreneurs have fewer children, the bank is definitely helping some of those already burdened by large families.

Ten years ago, Shardaben Chauhan’s husband, whom she had married at the age of 12, died of heart disease. Chauhan was 30 and had seven children. She was also deep in debt from having hired equipment from a trader at 10 percent interest to run a small carpentry business out of her home. As an alternative, SEWA lent her 100 rupees, about $3.87, at less than 1 percent interest. By 1993, she had taken out two more loans, expanded her enterprise, and bought her house.

Even in the Ethiopian hamlet of Moulo, the new generation is one with far grander ambitions than Zenebu Tulu could ever dream. When I ask Tulu’s 10-year-old niece, Zelalem Abera, an ebullient girl who ends each sentence with a giggle, how she imagines her adult life, she says: “I want to be a doctor and live in Addis Ababa.”

Forty miles away in Addis, Hanna Mekureya still earns money as a prostitute. But now she spends her days in a classroom with other poor women, learning to run her own business. In a new program funded by Save the Children, the women are forming credit loan groups similar to the early efforts of SEWA and launching their own small industries, including soapmaking and leatherwork.

And Yeshi Alamayu, who has survived as a firewood seller for 35 of her 45 years, has joined a vegetable garden cooperative started by the International Labor Organization. Since then, she sends some of her eight children to the forests to gather wood in her place. But soon, she hopes to begin selling the vegetables she has planted in a small patch of land in the city. If all goes as planned, the crop will bring far more than the 80 cents her daily 10-mile hike yields.

Vivienne Walt has reported extensively from Africa as a staff writer for Newsday and as part of this project. She covered the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo last September.


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