MORE THAN 100 WOMEN who are active in women's organizations in the Washington area gathered early this week in a WETA-TV studio for a satellite chat with women from Atlanta, Boston and Copenhagen where a United Nations conference on women was winding up. The idea, according to organizer Shoshana Riemer of Arlington, was to provide an opportunity for American women who could not attend the conference to question women who could about how their countries have responded to goals set five years ago at the International Women's Conference in Mexico City.
The American women heard from such diverse countries as Peru, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Portugal, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. The message from abroad is one American women have been hearing at home: Progress has been made in these countries towards improving and equalizing the status of women, but there is still a long way to go.
The questions from American women in the three cities hooked up for the satellite conversation focused on women's health, education and employment, and they produced interesting insights into the way women are living in foreign countries. Literacy, for example, is a major problem in a country such as Kenya where, "if any hardship comes to the family, it's the girl who is asked to stay at home and the boys keep on in school," as a Kenyan doctor explained.
But many of these countries have recently passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex or race and mandating that women be paid the same as men. Two years after its 1974 revolution, Portugal adopted a new constitution in which sex discrimination was prohibited. It also adopted a family law giving both men and women the same rights in a family unit and doing away with the head of the family concept. Portugal's new family law also recognizes the right of women to choose between a professional life and work at home and states that work inside the home and child-raising have value.
New Zealand also recognizes work inside the home and child-rearing by paying a family benefit for each child, usually to the mother. This work inside the home is further recognized under New Zealand divorce law which presumes a 50-50 property split.
Countries such as Kenya and New Zealand have found that passing equal-pay legislation is only the first step toward equal treatment of women in the workplace. The Kenyan doctor said her country now needs "to get women working so they can take advantage" of equal pay. In New Zealand, women have found that they need to publicize the existence of equal pay legislation in order to inform women what they are entitled to.
A Nigerian woman said that agricultural extension workers have been advising women in rural areas of her country to try to increase their income as well as their output. The Great Nigerian Deal, apparently, is that rural women work of farms and city men come and buy their products for little more than cost and then, you guessed it, sell them off in the cities and make a killing.
American women heard of more familiar problems in New Zealand where, as a New Zealand woman put it, "barriers of attitude . . . and some structural barriers still exist" in education and employment. She said her country needs to revise its curriculum and textbooks to remove the boys-do-math stereotypes. There are not enough women in executive jobs in New Zealand industry and government, she said, and New Zealand feminists are devising programs for "fostering women" and training them "so they can support each other and feel good about taking on extra responsibility. We do strike attitudinal barriers -- (such as) women don't want to work for a woman boss."
The woman doctor from Kenya said her country has made some progress in moving women into middle-level management, although it still has no women in parliament and no women judges. But Kenyan women have at least succeeded in getting some of the day care they need and have themselves set up more than 6,000 day care centers, above and beyond government and private industry centers.
Sri Lanka is considering legislation that would make child care facilities compulsory in factories. As a woman from Sri Lanka put it, "the extended family is dying out and help is dying out." Middle-income families can't afford nannies."
That may sound familiar, but it was the woman from Portugal who got the biggest round of understanding laughter from the studio audience in Arlington, when she sounded a refrain that apparently is now being heard around the world: "It is always the mother who takes care of bringing the child, and collecting the child," she said. "It is not just a day care system we need, but a sharing of responsibilities."