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Sunday, May 21, 2006 

Women are key to curbing poverty
By Jonathan Power May 21, 2006

THE SECRET KEY to driving down the rates of poverty and population growth is female. To be absolutely precise, it is poor women living in the Third World's rural backwaters, where 75 percent of the world's hungry scrape a living. Everything else is a sideshow.
The last few years the number of rural women living in poverty has gone up in both India and China, although during the latter half of the 1990s the figures were falling. In Africa, although the numbers haven't gone up, the fall in numbers is modest. Only in Latin America and the Caribbean has there been marked improvement.

Too rapid population growth is one part of the problem, but even where it is slowing -- as in China -- there has been a sharp jump in the number of female-headed households. Changes in traditional values, the emigration of men to look for work in the cities and overseas, increased family breakup, low productivity, and a deteriorating environment all are working to reinforce each other.

In a number of countries, the problem is exacerbated by a male-dominated culture or by social instability resulting from conflict and war, civil disturbance, or over-rapid industrialization.
Although women are a critical element of production in the rural economy -- in Africa women produce three-quarters of their families' food supply -- social custom usually subordinates them. Women's access to land is severely constrained, yet in the rural economy only land of one's own gives access to the means of production.

Islamic law grants land rights to women, but in daily life the threat of divorce or other social sanctions encourage women to cede practical control of their land to men. In Africa, customary land systems often give married women the right to a certain number of fields, but they must give priority to their husband's fields and livestock.

Development has not favored women or the rural areas. Over the last 20 years, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, investment and aid allocated to rural areas has gone down by 20 percent. And most crop and livestock projects are aimed at men. Project designers, bankers, and aid officials all too readily assume that women cannot afford to buy improved seed, fertilizer, and irrigation equipment. Nor can they repay loans. These attitudes are based more on prejudice than fact. The repayment records of poor women are often much superior to those of better-off borrowers.

Lack of education postpones the day of reform. A near billion earthlings are illiterate, and two thirds of them are women. Investment in women's education is probably the single most cost-effective activity for any government at any level of development.

To underinvest in women compounds every other mistake. Education and economic opportunity can produce in triply disadvantaged women -- poor, female, and single parents -- a triple multiplier effect: in the home, in society, and, not least, in nurturing the next generation.

Contrariwise, when women participate in economic life, population growth is controlled. There is growing evidence that a woman's income and her degree of control over household spending benefits her children's nutrition and health. Thus, improving female opportunities and income lowers child mortality and morbidity. Over the long run women will then have fewer children.
Access to land provides a similar benefit. If a woman can work for herself, she will need fewer sons to assure her care if something happens to her husband.

Tragically in many parts of the Third World, men are either absent, seeking work in the city or the mines or travelling to distant lands, or simply not pulling their weight. Men, when deprived off their traditional macho activities such as war-fighting, political intrigue, or hunting, often become almost idle rather than putting their shoulder to the plow. The burdens of life and well-being are thrown onto women, who are not equipped by education, tools, or advice to realize their unfulfilled potential.

The answers to successful economic and social development, we all know, are multi- faceted and complicated. But one thing is very clear: Take care of women's poverty and education, and then population growth and small-scale rural economic growth will largely take care of themselves.

Jonathan Power is a columnist based in London.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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