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International Women's Day: Struggle For Equality and Freedom In Developing Countries
Published on Thursday, March 8, 2007 by the Independent/UK
International Women's Day
Struggle For Equality and Freedom In Developing Countries
by Anne Penketh

Rosa Franca wants justice for her daughter. Five years ago, 15-year old Maria Isabel left home in Guatemala City for work and never returned. Her rape and murder was not an isolated case: in the past five years, 2,700 women and girls have been the victims of targeted killings in Guatemala, with the number rising each year.

Activists of Workers Women's Association chant slogans during a rally to mark International Women's Day, Thursday, March 8, 2007 in Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of women demonstrated in nation-wide rallies on International Women's Day, demanding freedom, equal rights and an end to discriminatory laws in this Muslim nation. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
But Rosa Franca is still campaigning for a police investigation, something which would have been taken for granted if she had lived in London or Paris.

When governments and women's rights campaigners mark International Women's Day today, spare a thought for the plight of women in impoverished developing countries where campaigners are taking huge personal risks to work for equality and freedom. Across Guatemala, women will be demonstrating to demand that their government takes action to halt the slaughter of women which has reached such levels that it has been named a "femicide."

The statistics are stark: everywhere you look in the developing world, women's rights are under threat, be it from sex trafficking, denial of education or job discrimination.

Figures compiled by the British government, development agencies and human rights groups resemble a roll call of shame:

  • Two-thirds of the world's 800 million illiterate adults are women as girls are not seen as worth the investment, or are busy collecting water or firewood or doing other domestic chores.
  • Two million girls aged from five to 15 join the commercial sex market every year.
  • Domestic violence kills and injures more people in the developing world than war, cancer or traffic accidents.
  • Seventy per cent of the world's poorest people are women.
  • Violence against women causes more deaths and disabilities among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war.
  • Women produce half the world's food, but own less than two per cent of the land.
  • Of the more than one billion people living in extreme poverty, 70 per cent are women.
  • Almost a third of the world's women are homeless or live in inadequate housing.
  • Half of all murdered women are killed by their current or former husbands or partners.
  • Every minute a woman dies as a result of pregnancy complications.
  • Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, yet earn only a tenth of its income.
  • One woman in three will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
  • 43 million girls are not able to go to school.
  • Last year, one million HIV-positive women died of AIDS-related illnesses because they could not get the drugs they needed.
  • Human Rights Watch, in reports on 15 countries including Afghanistan, Brazil, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Togo and South Africa, has identified violence against schoolgirls, child domestic workers and those in conflict with the law as on the rise.
  • Women across the developing world are the victims of systematic abuse.

Despite pledges at the landmark 1995 Beijing women's conference to boost the number of women in government, progress has been scant and slow. According to a report compiled by the international think tank, the Salzburg Seminar, only 13 out of 193 countries have 25 per cent or more women in government decision-making positions. In 1994, the percentage of women holding ministerial rank was 6.2 per cent. In 2005, the figure was 6.8 per cent - a rise of 0.6 per cent.

Charities such as ActionAid say that women's rights have slipped off the international agenda in recent years at the expense of the campaign to end poverty. They have made women's rights their top global priority and campaigned for the issue to be placed at the heart of government development policies.

"Thirty-five years of working with communities on the ground has taught us that unless we support women in recognising and claiming their rights, we have no hope of creating a fairer and more just world. There isn't a single development issue that isn't a women's rights issue - that's why women are still on the march," said the ActionAid policy director Jessica Woodroffe.

Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, will confirm in a speech today that his department is responding. He will outline how Dfid is to shortly change its focus to "put more emphasis on the vital role women play in preventing conflict and securing peace". Dfid will also work with governments to have "fair opportunities" in trade and employment through micro-credit schemes and enhance their human rights. A 100m Governance and Transparency Fund will help people in developing countries to hold their governments to account so that women can secure their rights without fear.

Ms Woodroffe welcomed the shift. "It's great that a state has decided to give a place to women's rights," she said. You can't fight poverty without a women's rights campaign."

Four women, four examples of rights under threat


Ten-year-old Divya works 14-hour days searching through slag for waste metal, carrying heavy weights and mixing concrete on building sites. "We have a food problem at home. We are hungry. This is why my father sends me to work," she says. From 5am to 7pm, Divya scavengesfor bits of material that can be sold and works as a labourer. After work she collects water and helps out at home.


Maggy was displaced by the war. Her neighbours were slaughtered by Hutus. "One morning I heard banging on the roof - it was a Tutsi crowd armed with machetes. I recognised some of them, they were my cousins, screaming: 'Open the doors or we will burn you all!'" Maggy, a teacher, now builds homes where Hutu and Tutsi orphans live together. "I took them all in ... they were just children."


Musarrat, 21, was snatched at gunpoint by the local feudal lord and raped three times after she had married a man her father disapproved of.When she went to lawyers, she was told the case was not worth pursuing. "I don't know how long I will be allowed to live," she said."My life is finished. The law only helps my rapist."


Thu, from Vietnam, was smuggled over the border into China when she was 18. She was beaten and starved until she agreed to work in a brothel. "I was taken to a family in Lang Soon. They locked me in, beat me, and told me I must sleep with Chinese men." Thu eventually escaped, but after returning to her village, she was ostracised. She now makes a living from making and selling cushion covers.

© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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