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New aspects to reporting Third World women

THE POWER TO CHANGE: WOMEN IN THE THIRD WORLD REDEFINE THEIR ENVIRONMENT Women's Feature Service . Publisher: Kali For Women, New Delhi . Price: Rs 90

By Gail Omvedt
Published: Monday 15 February 1993

-- THE WOMEN'S Feature Service (WFS) is a news service that deals not just with equal rights for women, but with "development from a progressive, women's, or gender, perspective." It has transcended the Leftist tendency to see women as a force to be incorporated and led and instead stressed women's innovation, creativity and ability as self-employed producers to move out of economic and social crises.

This perspective, they argue, grew out of their work: "As the feature came in from the field, it became clear that something unique was going on. Women... were slowly taking control of their environment".

The scope of Power to Change is broad and covers women's oppression and activism related to economic and ecological crises. With news features and analytical essays covering three continents whose countries have diverse economic, social and cultural mores, questions at times arise about the legitimacy of generalising from the cases reported.

Yet the important theme -- women's innovations for sustainable development -- does emerge. It is most evident in Africa, apparently the most ravaged continent of the South. An able introduction by Colleen Morna puts the initiatives of women in perspective: on the one hand, the mounting debts and failing welfare programmes in the face of IMF/World Bank-imposed "structural adjustments," and on the other, the bureaucratised developmental policies of post-independence elites that ravaged agriculture.

Against this stand the struggles of women: Wangari Maathai and the women of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement planting ten million trees and women farmers seeking alternatives to the "green revolution", chemically dependent kind of agriculture despite not owning land and being excluded from government extension schemes. Along with this, Africans have come up with collective and government supported alternatives for "structural transformation", forcing the World Bank to modify its adjustment recommendations, put forward alternatives stressing priority for agriculture and women and argued for "popular participation" as a base for development in the Arusha Charter of 1990. There are lessons in this for India.

The sections on Latin America and Asia are, however, a bit thin. The Latin American selections focus on rural and indigenous ("Indian") women. There are reports on Indian struggles not only for land rights, but also for those of other natural resources (such as salt) and to maintain mangrove swamps against the depredations of the shrimp industry.

The India section overlooks the existence of rural women and deals only with the working class, slum women, women fighting capitalist ecological disasters and women struggling to fulfill subsistence needs. This may be due to the diversity and complexity of the societies of the South and of analysing the nature of the current economic crises. "The causes [of impoverishment and ecological destruction] have to be ruthlessly addressed," the introduction states, and it zeroes in on structural adjustment and IMF/World Bank-imposed export-oriented development.

Statist forms of industrial capitalism have been as impoverishing and ecologically destructive as the more "free market" forms. The roots of destructiveness appear to lie in the effort to foster energy-intensive industrialisation at the expense of agriculture and basic subsistence production. Criticism of this basic flaw in all contemporary "development" is weak, though the WFS reporters' field reports are leading them in this direction. And, reporting on this consistently, sensitively and in depth is a contribution that overrides all else.

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