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Helping Women Seen as Boosting World Prosperity

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FOR many delegates to the upcoming Fourth World Conference on Women, all of the pre-summit fuss is simply a distraction.

Beyond the questions about whether Hillary Clinton will attend the Beijing conference and the daily tallies of how many visas the Chinese have refused, the enduring issue is the global problem of women trapped in poverty and discrimination.

Increasingly, the global economy's performance is based on how well females fare: Women will make up half of the world's labor force by the year 2000, according to International Labor Organization (ILO) projections. The ILO and a bevy of other groups say living standards for the world's men, women, and children greatly rely on women's access to health care, education, finance and better paying jobs.

In the developing world, experts say, current conditions are frequently troubling:

* Boys receive more education than girls.

* While women spend more time working, they earn just two thirds of men's earnings.

* Women often have little say about finances at home or at work, while a greater percentage than ever before are the sole breadwinners.

* Five hundred thousand women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth.

* Violence against women is alarmingly high, exacerbated by Asian, African, and Latin customs that push girls into marriage at a very young age and shut out their chance to go to school.

All of this has ''resulted in the feminization of poverty,'' asserts Minh Chau Nguyen, manager of gender analysis and policy at the World Bank.

The World Bank sees the conference, which will run Sept. 4 -15, as a way to publicize lending-policy changes that are now geared toward ''advancing gender equality.''

Development begins with education, says Ms. Nguyen. She is banking on a 25-year-long study that shows every 2 percent increase in secondary-school enrollment raises the average growth rate of per capita gross domestic product by an estimated 0.5 percent a year. The highest returns come from women, she says.

With ''economic empowerment'' as the centerpiece of the Beijing meeting, much of the focus will be on how to boost women's access to finance and management, says Madeline Albright, United States ambassador to the United Nations, and chairwoman of the US delegation attending the conference. ''We expect it to really push the subject forward and to highlight economic security for women as well as their role in economic decisionmaking,'' Ms. Albright told reporters at a Monitor breakfast last week.

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