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First Ladies Meet to Help Women in Rural Poverty

WHEN 60 first ladies from around the world gather for a unique conference in Geneva tomorrow, it will be with people like Santamaya in mind.

Abandoned by her husband, the 28-year-old Nepalese mother of two was left destitute, with no land, no income, and virtually no means of support. That was before two small loans from a United Nations-backed development group - one for $3 and the other for $71 - changed her life.

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With the first she bought a beehive; with the second she bought a loom. Today a steady stream of income from honey and carpets keeps her and her children housed, fed, and educated. She has repaid the loans and even deposits money each week in a small group-savings plan.

By herself, Santamaya is a tiny engine of economic growth. Multiplied by more than 500 million - the number of rural women who live in developing countries - her example could help retrieve the third world from the grip of poverty. And this is why first ladies or their representatives from over half the countries of the world are about to converge on Geneva.

The two-day summit on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women will dramatize the obvious: the nearly desperate economic plight of women, who make up more than 60 percent of the rural poor.

It will also dramatize the not-so-obvious: that, given a helping hand, rural women can be a major factor in ending rural poverty.

"Rural women have been treated as a burden for elites to care for through subsidies and preferential government policies," says Idriss Jazairy, president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), source of the seed money used by Santamaya and a main sponsor of the Geneva conference.

"In fact, they are a productive resource that are not being put to use the way they should. They are a potential asset," he says.

In rural sub-Saharan Africa, women head nearly half of family households, comprise up to 80 percent of the rural work force, and produce 70 percent of the food.

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Despite the fact that dependence on women for food production is increasing, women from the third world own almost no land and have almost no access to agricultural extension services that provide advice on farming techniques. They receive only 10 percent of all institutional credit.

According to a recent IFAD study, a mere $50 would allow most women to become self-supporting. Combined with greater access to farming advice, the kind of small loans that gave Santamaya a fresh start could increase the productivity of the rural female labor force, with significant trickle-up effects on economies throughout the third world.

Improved farm production would increase family security, absorb surplus rural labor, increase cash savings needed for future investment, and eventually reduce national food-import bills.

It could also reverse traditional assumptions about the cause-and-effect sequence at work in third-world development. Conventional wisdom has been that economic growth is needed to help the poor. In fact, improving the productive capacity of poor rural women could well spur national economic growth.

Development experts acknowledge that empowering women can pose complications in societies where men have traditionally played dominant roles. One way to solve the problem, they say, is by pulling an end run.

In Yemen, for example, the male-staffed agricultural extension service regularly bypassed women, even though women headed a majority of rural households while their husbands worked in the Gulf. The problem was solved when IFAD created a core of women extensionists who now deliver the advice needed to increase productivity.

"To try to change the culture is impossible," Mr. Jazairy says. "We can respect the culture and try to work with it."

Jazairy says there are already signs that once men understand that women can make an economic contribution to the family, resistance to making needed credit and agricultural services available usually drops away.

"Our whole strategy is based on the recognition that women are key contributors to the development process, even though their contribution has never been properly evaluated," Jazairy says.

Jazairy says the main purpose of tomorrow's gathering of first ladies will be to convince public and private aid-giving organizations to give a higher priority to the needs of rural women.

"Half the nations of the world will be attending the Geneva conference to support the claim that rural women are bankable, that helping rural women is not just a question of welfare but of common sense," he says.

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