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Around the World, Women Find Very Different Roads to Wider Rights

Without a doubt, women worldwide have found their collective voices and, in important ways, have improved their lot in life.

Some call themselves "feminists," some don't. Some come from the elite, educated classes. Others are from shanty towns, acting out of simple concern for the brutality they see around them. Throughout the world, examples of women's progress abound:

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In India, a law now forbids the use of prenatal tests that determine a baby's sex - a move designed to prevent the abortion of baby girls.

In Brazil, the world's first "women's police stations" - those largely staffed by female officers - have greatly improved the treatment of domestic-violence victims.

Women-oriented financial institutions have blossomed. Of the 2.3 million people receiving tiny loans from Bangladesh's Grameen Bank to start their own businesses, most are women and as many as one-half are now out of poverty. The Grameen model has been replicated by more than 150 organizations around the world, including in the US.

As women in America mark the 150th anniversary of the women's rights movement here, observers of international women's rights are also taking stock. And they are marveling at the way in which women are being heard and stirring up the status quo in a patriarchal world.

"Women are, over the past decade, much more active in the public dialogues of their countries," says Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But that doesn't always mean progress, she adds. "In some cases, it can mean backlash and reaction. Some fundamentalist activity in all the religions - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu - has been a reaction against women speaking up."

The most extreme example is in Afghanistan, where the two-year-old Islamic Taliban regime forbids women and girls from working or attending school. Females may not even leave their homes without a male relative. The result has been devastating: Some schools have had to close for lack of teachers. Thousands of women, widowed by the civil war, can no longer support their families.

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The women of Eastern Europe have also found that change isn't always for the better. Reforms toward a market economy have pushed women out of newly lucrative professions. Violence and sexual exploitation are on the rise. Government support for child care and health care is diminishing.

On a global scale, poverty continues to have a female face: Most women are poor, and most poor people are women. As the gap between rich and poor widens, women's relative position declines. Women have also found that the globalization of the economy doesn't necessarily help them. As companies trim labor costs, some jobs have been pushed from factories into homes - where women do the work for less pay and no benefits.

The world, in the end, presents a complex mosaic of gains and losses for women. According to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, women worldwide continue to make strides in important benchmarks:

* Life expectancy has risen from 49 to 68 years since the 1950s.

* Labor-force participation has increased from 33 percent of women in the 1960s to 54 percent.

* The literacy rate has risen from 54 percent to 64 percent since the 1970s.

* Since the 1980s, the number of girls enrolled in junior and senior high school has gone from 80 to 90 for every 100 boys.

Some of this progress is a result of the series of United Nations conferences on women that began in 1975. Most recently, the 1995 gathering in Beijing brought together a record 30,000 women, including official delegations from 189 countries.

"Only now, because of the UN conferences, is there broad acceptance of the almost absurd statement that women's rights are human rights," says Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, based in Washington.

Through those meetings, women have discovered they are not alone in their concerns and have gained insights and strength from one another. The global revolution in communications and the proliferation of media have also allowed women around the globe to feel more connected.

Western women are discovering, in fact, that in many ways they've been overtaken in their feminist fervor by women in less advantaged countries - women who have much further to go toward equality.

In India, the women's movement began in earnest about 10 years ago over the issues of rape and bride-burning, a grass-roots groundswell not imported from the West.

In many countries, women have responded to domestic violence not by putting battered women in shelters - a practice that separates them from their family support networks - but by focusing on ways to get the batterers out of the home. In the shanty towns of Peru, women blow whistles when they hear a neighbor being beaten. Then they come into the streets and make noise to shame the batterer.

Given the amount of domestic violence that persists in America, say feminists, it's clear that Americans don't have all the answers.

Changing churches transform Latina life


When Angelica Delgado de Mancillas walked into an evangelical church for the first time, she was filled with the conviction that she could change her life.

"What caught my attention were the families, the couples that looked so happy and united," she says, remembering how her own home at the time was torn by conflict and alcohol. "I felt a sudden determination to have that, too."

Two decades later, Mrs. Delgado is approaching her 25th wedding anniversary and now works with her church to counsel young women searching for the same stability. "What I got from my new church was something like a liberation," she says.

Around the world, women's liberation and empowerment have most often been promoted and analyzed in educational, economic, and political terms. Those forces are also important factors in Latin America.

But here, perhaps more than in other regions of the world, the changing face of religion has played a central, though little-studied role in the evolution of the place and power of women.

During the past three decades, Latin America has evolved into a region of burgeoning religious diversity. While it is still 80 to 85 percent Roman Catholic, millions of Latin Catholics have converted to other faiths - Protestant leaders estimate about 8,000 conversions a day regionwide. A majority of those are women.

Many are women like Delgado, searching for empowerment, not through a new job or community activism, but through a reinvigorated religious faith. "It was something completely new for me, this freedom to choose the faith that fit me," she says. "It's fabulous."

For some analysts, the importance of this "democratization of religion" is that, by exercising this right to choose, women are pressuring leaders to reconsider women's roles in the church - one of the most influential institutions in Latin America.

"[Institutionalized] religion ... has been male-dominated and oppressive to women," says Alicia Rodriguez, coordinator of women's studies at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Guatemala City.

And while gains have been small - the ministry, for instance, is still largely closed to women - more women "are putting their demands to the church for a different vision of Christianity."

Ema Prez de Lugo, for one, has felt empowered by her conversion. She says her new church, Mexico City's Apostolic Church, opened the Bible to her in a way that made her feel that - even as a woman in a "macho" society - she could change her life.

"Suddenly I felt I had the power of God in my hands," she says. Her husband, Guillermo - who, like Delgado's husband, was drinking heavily - "began taking notice of the good it was bringing to our home," she says.

Guillermo Lugo followed his wife to church and today is an Apostolic pastor.

The momentum for change has carried into the Catholic Church as well. There women "are pressuring from within for a more democratic church, one that offers new roles and more-equal stature to women," says Leonor Aida Concha, a founding director of Women for Dialogue, an organization of Mexican Catholics promoting the training and empowerment of groups of mostly poor women.

"We didn't opt for confrontation as [Catholic women] have in North America and Europe," Ms. Concha says.

"We chose to promote change by working with the currents in the church that are favorable to an interpretation of Christianity as a liberating force for women."

- Howard LaFranchi

New views of Islamic law elevate women


When Leila, a young housewife, gave birth to a third daughter recently, her husband divorced her for not having a boy. Today, she and her children live in a cramped, 16-by-16-foot apartment with her mother, two sisters, and brother, while Leila (not her real name) fights the courts for financial assistance from her husband.

Her situation is not uncommon. Under Islamic law, husbands can divorce their wives in seconds, while it takes women years. To get even the meager alimony allowed, women must brave Egypt's bureaucratic court system. Men can marry as many as four wives, yet if a divorced woman remarries, she risks losing custody of her children.

But if a fast-growing group of scholars and activists has its way, that could change.

This group is reinterpreting Islamic teachings to promote women's rights, and its new take on Islamic texts is challenging long-held views on issues ranging from polygamy to a woman's right to a fair alimony.

In some ways, the growing Islamic fundamentalism - manifested by stricter adherence to dress codes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example - has moved these more-liberal interpreters of Islam to action. While the interpretations of these scholars and activists, who range from fundamentalists to staunch secularists, vary widely, most reject Western feminism for a version that reflects their culture and values.

They say the conservative male clergy has interpreted the Koran from its viewpoint, often overlooking its enlightened stance on women. And even one of the Middle East's most-prominent secular feminists, Fatima Mernissi of Morocco, has changed from accusing Islam of discriminating against women to reinterpreting its teachings to show its support of women.

"Allah spoke of the two sexes in terms of total equality as believers," Ms. Mernissi writes in her book, "The Veil and the Male Elite: a Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam."

One country in the forefront of this trend is Iran, where women have made noteworthy gains, despite the tight constraints of the Islamic government there. In 1991, divorced Iranian women gained the right to seek back wages from their husbands for housework performed during marriage.

Iran now also has a four-month compulsory maternity leave and an equal-opportunity labor law. In December, four women lawyers became judges in the family courts. Even the more moderate Egyptian government doesn't have women judges.

Despite these successes, many secularists strongly oppose using Islamic discourse to promote women's rights. They say it's useless to argue with rigidly conservative Islamic clergy who have had years of study and will just answer a verse for a verse.

"You can play their game, but you'll never win, because it's their game," says Nadia Wassef, an Egyptian women's rights activist.

- Sarah Gauch

In Japan, women buck corporate conventions


Yumi Kitahira is chief of account administration at a foreign investment firm in Tokyo, which women her mother's age find remarkable enough. But there's more - she's married.

In the world's second-largest economy, it's still widely expected that a working woman will resign after marriage. But a growing number of women are entering the labor force these days and, like Ms. Kitahira, staying.

In Japan, money has long been a source of power for women. In the past, a wife's control of the household finances gave her clout at home. These days, women's ability to earn money outside the home is freeing them from traditional roles and expectations.

Their experience is changing Japan. Birth rates are declining, divorce rates are going up, and the age at which women marry has risen as more enjoy the freedom an income brings.

"Now, many women don't feel they have to marry unless they want to," says Sumiko Iwao, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University and author of "The Japanese Woman." "Income has contributed greatly toward their independence."

Kitahira was encouraged to work and has support at home. "My father always told me a girl can work just like a boy," she says.

She estimates that 60 percent of her married friends have chosen a domestic life, but she argues they are no less liberated than she is. "They are doing what they want to do," she says. But she notes, "I'm more independent than my mother because I earn money."

Independence, it should be noted, is not the same as equality, which is seen differently here than in the US. Americans assume equality is an absolute. Japanese see it as a balance of responsibility, advantage, and opportunity in the long run. Husbands might enjoy some advantages in a full-time job, but wives have greater freedom at home. If the pluses of both situations balance out, they're seen as equal. This attitude, along with the fact that Japan has enshrined equal rights in its Constitution (unlike the US), makes the debate here different. It means that in Japan, equal rights are less of an issue than is equal opportunity, says Professor Iwao.

Japanese women have worked shoulder to shoulder with men before. After World War II, Japan's percentage of working women was one of the highest in the world - although most had low-paying jobs. But as the economy improved in the 1960s, many stayed home.

With Japan's evolution toward a service economy in the 1970s and '80s, however, more women started working between college and marriage, earning a level of expendable income that was entirely new.

Many realized, as a friend of Kitahira puts it, that "money buys more than a Chanel suit."

While young men begin an all-consuming commitment to a company, women study languages, travel abroad, and pursue other interests. Because they are not expected to stay at a firm, as men may be, they quit jobs and find new ones they prefer.

That trend is likely to continue. Women make up 40 percent of the work force here and more than half the population. As more women work and delay marriage, the Japanese birth rate is likely to continue declining, ensuring the continued need for their presence in the labor force.

- Nicole Gaouette

Prying open the bars of Confucian tradition


After Mao Zedong's Communist Party took control of China in 1949, one of its first acts was to guarantee equality between the sexes - freeing women from 20 centuries of Confucian-inspired inequality.

Today, Guo Jianmei is helping to take women's rights a step further. As a lawyer in one of the first legal-aid clinics for women in China, she is helping women understand their rights in a changing society.

For decades, "few women knew of their rights or how to enforce them," Ms. Guo says.

"Women's rights have been granted from above by the government, but there are still tremendous obstacles to be overcome." Conditioned by "thousands of years of Confucian thought and a feudal system of rule, that legacy continues to cast a shadow over society today."

Guo is one of a group of grass-roots activists who are building on the advances made in 1949. As Mao's centrally planned society is being dismantled with market reforms, the party's pullback is leaving a vacuum in huge areas of social life - and that void is being filled by people like Guo.

But these activists caution against comparing China's fledgling women's rights movement to those in the West. "In the West, women have long used protests, movements, and individual actions to push for rights, and they have achieved steady progress," says Guo. In China, gender equality has been guaranteed in the constitution since the Communists took power, yet only now is a legal system developing that allows women to protect their rights.

Still, many Chinese say the Communist revolution was a key milestone for women here.

"The founding of the People's Republic of China brought the greatest leap forward for women's rights in Chinese history," says lawyer Lin Jianjun.

Before, Confucian dictates decreed that a woman must be the loyal servant of her parents, her husband, and her in-laws, locking Chinese women into a social prison that few escaped. "One hundred years ago, Chinese women could not go out in public unescorted or receive an education," says Ms. Lin. In one extreme example of the Confucian state creed, says Guo, "When a man died, he was sometimes entombed with his most-prized possessions and his wife, who was buried alive."

Chinese women have been freed from many of the restrictions that bound their ancestors, and they now hold jobs in virtually every area of the economy. Yet only a handful have climbed to the upper rungs of the Communist Party's ladder of power. And while the party has helped liberate women in many ways, it for 20 years has also imposed a "one-child policy" that severely limits reproductive rights. That policy, combined with advances in medical technology and a traditional preference for boys, has created a new gender inequality: Single men now far outnumber single women, and the gap is growing.

For its part, Guo's women's rights center at Beijing University is drawing international attention for its work. During a June 29 visit to Guo's office, US first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the clinic's efforts to protect women's rights.

The clinic already relies in part on support from US donors. Yet stretched budgets, entrenched hostility among some government officials toward the clinic's goals, and a dearth of pro-women's rights philanthropists here place the center's future in doubt.

"Over the short term," Guo says, "the future of our clinic may depend on foreign sympathizers with our cause."

- Kevin Platt

A helping hand for Africa's entrepreneurs


A few months ago, Aminata Ndiaye and dozens of women who run textile shops in Senegal's capital did something most local businessmen saw as a blunder. They discontinued one of their bestselling items - a special cloth from Mali.

"The cost of paying off customs officers with bribes and taxes was just too high," Ms. Ndiaye explains.

But the women knew what they were doing. When the wealthier local businessmen swooped in, paid the taxes, and imported the cloth themselves, the price went through the roof. People couldn't afford it, and they began to look for a cheaper cloth - a type Ndiaye just happened to have in stock. "Now my business is booming."

All across Africa, women entrepreneurs are building on this kind of close-to-home business savvy to win a measure of economic independence - and, through that, to gradually achieve greater social and political influence.

"Often, all women here need is a little backing to get started," says Wendy Wilson Fall, West Africa regional director of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), explaining why more development organizations are supporting small-scale credit plans designed for women.

Today's emphasis on helping female entrepreneurs is a shift from the 1970s, when aid organizations assumed that African women were mostly unpaid housewives. But the fact is that many were parlaying their knowledge about, say, the latest style of embroidery into new business opportunities.

One scheme popular throughout Africa is known here as a tontine. Women put money or other forms of capital in a common pool, and then draw straws. The winner takes all. "It's like a pyramid scheme," says Ms. Wilson Fall, "except they rarely fail, because as long as the group sticks together everyone eventually wins."

In 1993, NCNW set up a matching savings-and-credit plan around a women's tontine in Dal Diam, a village in the interior of Senegal that US President Clinton visited in April.

"We helped the villagers turn their tontine into a formal investment group, registered with the local chamber of commerce," says Wilson Fall. NCNW built wells so the women could turn their subsistence vegetable gardens into larger irrigated farms for cash crops.

Now, the annual income of the village has nearly doubled. The women have started a general store and helped build the first health clinic there.

A recent United Nations report on women's development, however, notes that men often hamper women entrepreneurs, particularly in rural communities where men mostly retain control of land. Women entrepreneurs are also constrained by their family obligations.

Yet women do have social and economic power that is not immediately apparent. In Senegal, for example, only men drive taxis, but women may own them. Women also have a surprising measure of political power, although men dominate local and national politics throughout Africa.

"Africa is overflowing with women leaders," says Soukeyna Ba of Women's Development Enterprise in Africa, based here. "They lack only the training and the means to bloom."

- David Hecht

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