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Adrian Cozette Chandler, a U.S. educator and colleague of mine, has come up with a great idea and hopes to see it materialize: the publication of a bilingual book, written in easy-to-understand English and Japanese, in which ordinary American and Japanese women review and candidly discuss issues crucial to human progress and confronted daily by Third World women.

More than half the world’s 6 billion people are women, and four-fifths of them live in developing countries. Almost always, and wherever they live, women are the poorer and less privileged members of society.

Affluent women, including those in the United States and Japan, tend to think of their own problems first and are often unaware of the plight of working mothers in the less developed world, says Chandler. Although more girls now have a better chance of learning how to read and write, many still do not go to school, fetching water and collecting firewood in order to live.

“We in affluent societies do not know much about want,” Chandler says. “We must put [the] difficulties faced by the poorer billions first, tell their stories, educate ourselves to know more of the reality of their hardships . . . and help mobilize public opinion in their favor. Women at least have to support ‘our half of the sky,’ ” she adds, in a reference to the Chinese saying, “Women hold up half the sky.”

The book Chandler has in mind would combine photos, essays and interviews, touching off the kind of understanding and compassion that, she hopes, would encourage people of conscience to take action — not just simple charity, but a sustainable-development effort.

What is envisaged is a world of growing interdependence among nations. American and Japanese women from all walks of life would fill out questionnaires, compare and study their views and seek a common basis for building new initiatives for peace. There will be no development, and no peace, without the participation of women.

There is no shortage of challenges. Over the past 40 years, the infant mortality rate has been halved, the malnutrition rate has declined by one third, and the proportion of children unable to attend school has decreased from 50 to 25 percent, as the choices and opportunities people enjoy have increased.

Yet one thing remains unchanged: Women are still among the poorest of the poor.

* Midway through the International Year of Older Persons, we are well aware that one in every 10 people in the world is 60 years or older, 11 percent of them above 80. The majority are women, accounting for 55 percent of those above 60 and 65 percent of those above 80. The female ratio among the elderly is rising, as women live longer than men in a vast majority of nations.

* Women are more likely than men to be poor in old age and are often exposed to a higher risk of chronic illness, disability, discrimination and marginalization. Women, more likely also to be care-givers, often face a triple burden: child care, care of the aged and, of course, seeing to their own well-being.

* Youth are also vulnerable. About 153 million people aged between 15 and 24 are functionally illiterate. Among them 96 million, or 63 percent, are girls.

* In many low-income countries, most children from the poorest households have no schooling at all. In 1996, girls made up only 43 percent and 40 percent of primary- and secondary-school enrollments respectively.

* Each year, 13 million children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition, starvation and preventable disease in developing countries. That is, at the rate of 35,600 child deaths a day, almost 1,500 an hour, or about 25 per minute.

* Women, gravely concerned about the consequences of this tragedy, are also aware of the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in war and other forms of armed conflict, and even in their home countries. Every year, as many as 2 million women and girls are trafficked around the world. Women are sold to sweatshops where they are literally worked to death. Of the world’s unemployed and underemployed, too, the first to suffer are women. They are commonly found in part-time rather than full-time work, or in the informal business sectors, and their earnings are at best 75 percent of every dollar, euro or Japanese yen earned by men.

What are the causes of these and other failures? Some experts tie them directly to the continued underrepresentation of women in nearly every political forum. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, which advocates gender equality and the advancement of women, 190 heads of state and government attended a special session of the General Assembly. Among them were only five women.

Of those five, two are now top U.N. officials. Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland has been elected director general of the World Health Organization, and former Irish President Mary Robinson has been appointed to the newly created post of High Commissioner for Human Rights. But they were not the only women occupying high positions in the U.N. Besides High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, there are Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette (Canada); UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy; Executive Director of the U.N. Population Fund Nafis Sadik; and Yakin Erturk (Turkey), director of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.

Chandler believes that women are indeed rising to the challenge of creating a better tomorrow for those underprivileged billions. Americans and Japanese, building on the strength of their powerful economies, must be ready to take the lead.

U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, addressing a U.N. forum in New York in March 1999, also recalled the Chinese saying “Women hold up half the sky,” and said that women could only hold up the sky if their feet were planted on freedom and equal justice.

There are as many options open to women as there are to men, perhaps even more. The whole world must strive to create the conditions that would allow women, wherever they live, to make choices in their own lives. The responsible choices they make deserve the support of all societies.

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