I. The Prospects for the Advancement of Women in the 90s
On the occasion of the World Women's Conference in Copenhagen in 1980,
the United Nations released the following statistics: Women comprise over
50% of the world population, produce 80% of all foodstuffs, and work two-thirds
of all working hours, for which they receive one-tenth of the gross international
product and own one percent of all property. These figures reveal various
forms of disadvantage and discrimination against women: unjust division
of labour in the family, economic exploitation, loss of control over resources,
and finally the unequal ranking of paid- and unpaid labour. And it is especially
the unpaid work in the family, farm, or community setting, improvements
in local living conditions, and caring for the sick and the elderly which
can add up to a working day of 14-16 hours. Although a greater percentage
of women than ever before have joined the employment market, many women
find themselves in hazardous working conditions without any form of job
security, usually working for meager wages with hardly a chance of meaningful
promotion. Many women have only the option of farm labour or work in the
informal sector in cities. The UNDP estimates that the gross national product
would increase by 20-30% in every country, if these contributions were
included (not calculating subsistence farming) (UNDP 1993).
Although the official Decade of the Woman (1976-1985) and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) have played a key role for women in the development process and have ushered in a new era of global discourse and a reorientation of international gender equality, numerous advancements in formal legal declarations have by no means made redundant continued political debate about the improvement of the legal status of women.
General assertions about causal relationships between societal developments and the situation of women are precarious, as political, economic, and cultural framework conditions differ markedly. Nevertheless, the discrimination of women proves to have a structural character in most traditional and modern societies. The UNDP has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact, that in no country are women treated "as well" as men, and that no country could be classified as "developed" when the disparities between the genders played a role in the indexing process. There are still differences in living conditions and advancement opportunities between men and women due to unequal access to employment, income, economic resources, health care, nutrition, training, and education.
Social developments, such as fundamental changes in traditional familial and societal structures, migration, urbanization, and tension between more traditional and "modern" lifestyles, as well as harmful economic developments for the majority of the population strongly influence the role of women in different areas of the Third World. The increasing disparities between more and less poor countries in the Southern Hemisphere cannot conceal the fact that societal conditions for women have not improved in the '90s.
Almost one third of the world population lives in life-threatening poverty, and women make up the majority of this figure. The poverty of women has many manifestations, for instance, meager incomes, but also a lack of literacy or job-training, and poverty in old age.
In addition, increasing legal pluralism can hinder attempts to make women equal to men before the law. Although this right may exist in the constitution and legislation of many countries, the gap between the constitutionally declared rights and reality remains large indeed. Not only are women not equal to men in religious dogma and customary law, they may also be denied such basic rights as the right to own property or conclude contracts. This constitutes not only an infringement upon human and constitutional rights, but just as importantly, in concrete terms it can force single mothers, divorcees, or widows into poverty.
In light of these facts, it is not surprising that women are underrepresented in political decision-making bodies, government offices, political parties, unions, and associations. Women find little support for their interests in such institutions, and the leadership positions are almost exclusively held by men. Promotion of women is seen by many as an annoying obligation and is, at best, tolerated as fashionable.
As a rule, however, the societal restructuring taking place in many countries opens up new possibilities for the advancement of women. This can be attributed to the fact that the degree of oppression and discrimination women face becomes more visible, and also because women have access to means of action, although primarily in urban centers. In several countries, women have managed to obtain binding regulations (e.g. electoral laws, party statutes, guaranteed quotas in municipal parliaments), which foster increased participation in party politics and organized labour. With the key expressions "empowerment" and "redistribution of power", women in self-help organizations, associations, networks and political parties demand their rights to participate in the political decision-making process, entry to political institutions, and societal power. Through these means they hope to influence the factors which cause their discrimination.
The transition from authoritarian to democratic forms of government in numerous countries have changed the parameters in which women's organizations operate. Today, innumerable women's organizations represent the interests of their members. The corresponding greater social status accorded to women has broadened their freedom of political action. But at the same time, women in some countries face insurmountable obstacles to formal organization.
This newly-won sphere of action and expression is, unfortunately, greatly restricted by increasing impoverishment. Current developments, such as religious fundamentalism or recession are such a hindrance to new feminist political approaches, that one cannot deny the existence of a "backlash." Even where the official status of women has markedly improved, women are not in a position to demand their social, economic, and political rights. One fears, that in several countries, only elitist women's organizations have a chance to participate in the political process.
...to the top...