James Gustve Speth, Administrator ,U.N.Development Programme.

Every nation holds the secret key to unlock the door on development: women. To be more precise: poor women. Statistics suggest the magnitude of the issue. The number of rural women living in poverty in the developing world has increased by almost 50 per cent over the past 20 years, to more than 500 million.

The growing "feminisation" of poverty comes partly as a result of war and civil conflicts, environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation, all of which take a disproportionate toll on women. Yet, with education and economic opportunities, women can advance from a situation where they are triply disadvantaged - being poor, being female and perhaps, too, being single parents - to one where they work, in society at large, and in the development of the next generation.

A growing amount of solid evidence suggests that a woman's income and her degree of control over household spending have a direct impact on her children's nutrition and health. In Brazil, for instance by about 20 per cent when income is in the hands of the mother rather than the father. Since women play a critical role in both the rural economy and household food production, raising their productivity in agriculture contributes to better family nutrition and increased income. Studies show that given the same access to land, education and technology, females can equal or outproduce men.

Investing in girls' and women's education is now widely recognised as yielding the largest return on the development dollar, leading to reduced fertility and increased participation in development and democracy-building efforts and economic productivity.

Women's educational advancement also helps future generations. In Columbia and Thailand, among other developing countries, children of educated mothers perform better on pre-school tests. Studies also show that educated mothers are more likely to send their children to school.

It is often women themselves who are challenging the structural roots of inequality while alleviating the symptoms of poverty that inequality creates. The Self-Employed Women's Association of India, for instance, has helped organise street vendors and others and provided them with training, credit and savings facilities, and health services. The institution has also been a force behind policy and legal changes that support poor women who are self-employed.

The Centre for Women's Health and Education (MUSA) in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais began by providing low-income women in urban areas with social services and training in civic education. Today, in response to women's desire to be economically independent, MUSA is organising classes in clothing production - from sewing to financial management and marketing.

And in South Africa, during the process of redrafting the constitution the National Women's Coalition was formed. Members drafted a Women's Charter for Effective Equality that became a powerful tool for ensuring that the new constitution incorporated gender concerns. Today, the national budget in South Africa is reviewed by a parliamentary committee that examines the potential of each budget item to contribute to gender equality goals.

But in too many parts of the world, opportunities are being lost because social conventions relegate women and girls to second - or third-class citizens. Attitudes can limit women's aspirations and stunt their capacity for growth and change. The result: a vast reserve of unrealised development potential.

First and foremost, laws and social mores often prevent women from owning land. In sub-Saharan Africa, where women have prime responsibility for food production, they are generally limited to user rights to land, and then only with the consent of a male relative.

Women also receive a disproportionately small share of credit from banking institutions. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, women constitute only seven to 11 per cent of the beneficiaries of credit programmes.

Lack of education continues to obstruct the sweeping changes that are needed. Two out of three illiterate people in the world today are women. Far too many women around the globe still lack access to family planning and reproductive health services, another obstacle to development and the realisation of opportunities.

But perhaps the most disturbing threat to women's advancement is violence. According to Human Development Report 1997, it is estimated that one in three married women in developing countries are battered by their husbands during their lifetime. Rape, dowry deaths, bride burning and other forms of domestic and sexual violence occur at an all too frequent rate.

As long as these barriers exist, progress across the board will be stifled. Efforts to achieve sustainable human development will only succeed if our resources empower women as well as men to seize opportunities and make a difference for themselves, their families and their communities.

The bottom line? Women and children are the future.

Source : CHOICES The Human Development Magazine. Vol.6 No:4.