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Many women's lot still poverty and violence.

For the North American press and the dominant culture, "women's issues" are seen as fine-tuning equality between women and men within the middle class. Women are assumed to already have an education equal to their male peers. The issue is the opportunity to use that education in jobs of comparable status and pay. In the church, the issues have to do with the women's right to enter the ordained leadership class and use of language that is inclusive of women.

Although these issues are certainly legitimate, it is important for affluent people to remember that for a large percentage of the women of the world the issues are much more desperate, having to do with brutal poverty and physical violence.

A U.N. report on the status of women some years ago stated that women do two-thirds of the world's work but receive only 10 percent of the income and hold 1 percent of the property. The 1993 State of the World report graphically shows that many of the world development plans fail to improve the lot of women and their children because they mistakenly assume that men support women and children economically and that raising the men's income will automatically improve the well-being of women and children.

The report brings to light the invisible world of gender differences in poverty. Throughout much of the world, women, through their own subsistence labor, are expected to provide not only the food, clothing and articles of domestic life, but even the money for items such as children's school fees. Men spend much of their income on themselves, their own clothes (which they expect women to clean) but also luxury items, watches, radio and cassette recorders, cars or motor scooters for their own use. Men also spend much of their money, in the company of male comrades, on drink, gambling, sex and entertainment.

Women and children may receive "extras" from the husband/father, but the actual labor to put food on the table and maintain a decent roof over the heads of the family falls largely on women's backs. Poor women in the Third World work an endless round, not only cooking, sewing and cleaning, but also fetching wood and water, raising vegetables and poultry, and selling food and handicrafts in the markets. When very desperate, they send out their children to sell small items and bring back pennies to help the rest of the family.

It is this subsistence labor, unaccounted for in the official GNP of the national economy, which is the actual major source of the daily necessities of life for the women and children of popular classes of much of the world. Since women have much poorer resources than men, they and their children are poorer than the men of their own families. Men often treat themselves to luxuries while their wives and children lack necessities. They also use the power of male prestige and finally their fists to repel their wife's criticism of their failures to support their families.

This pattern of gender differences in poverty, as well as the violence that silences women's criticism of it, was starkly evident to me in my months in Nicaragua earlier this year. The Nicaraguan populations is 70 percent unemployed. That is to say, officially 70 percent of the adult male population lacks paid jobs. How women are actually counted in this figure is unclear to me. This does not mean that men and certainly not women or even children are idle. What it means for women and their children is a constant hustle for survival.

In the countryside, women maintain gardens and poultry. Since medical care is virtually unavailable under the current regime, except to the rich, women have returned to growing or gathering herbs for natural medicines. From earliest morning to late at night, women are hard at work, finding food and cooking it, not just for their families but to sell or trade for other necessary items. Children swarm the streets, assaulting every car at stoplights with small items for sale. The smallest and poorest offer dirty rags to "wash" your windows and you give them some pennies to get them to move out of the way so you can drive on.

Although many men lack paid jobs, the ingrained cultural definitions of male honor forbid them to participate in women's work of cooking, washing and child care. Car repair seemed to be a major, visible occupation of men. Impromptu "garages" spring up in every vacant lot, attracting gatherings of men. It is estimated that about 60-70 percent of families are headed by madre solteras (mothers without husbands). This seemed to mean primarily that the husbands and fathers of children moved around to different households, expecting food, sex and domestic service from women but contributing little by way of support. domestic violence was a constant factor in many households.

This world of poverty and violence against women and children needs to become visible in the calculations of those who wish to help the poor. Much more of the plans of church and social agencies need to be aimed at aiding women directly, recognizing that aid to women has much more to do with the welfare of children and the resources of the family than does aid aimed only at males.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.
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Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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