An extraordinary conference took place in Washington this week that brought together some of the most successful women in American media and more than a hundred of the best known women journalists and media executives from more than 50 other countries.
The conference was sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation, which was established to serve as a clearinghouse and networking system for women journalists around the world. As chairwomen Judy Woodruff, of the "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," and WJLA-TV (Channel 7) news anchor Susan King put it: "Economic and technological changes are creating a world where country boundaries matter less and less, and where the news business has become more and more international. If our readers and viewers are expected to be more knowledgeable, the demands on us are even greater."
The foundation has among its missions the promotion of freedom of the press and the public's understanding of the role of media women around the world.
One of the most striking findings of the conference to American women journalists was the hardships that women journalists labor under in some Third World countries, where they have to cope with regressive governments and censorship. Some told of death threats and of being worried about their children being kidnapped because of things they wrote.
While the conference highlighted technological innovations that will create more of a global community in the next century, it also underscored the enormous information gap between developed countries and those whose journalists labor under primitive conditions.
Susan Butler Lowell, executive director of Women in Communications, said, "It was a stunning moment when the journalist from Tanzania reported that while she empathized with all of our struggles, in her country they were trying to put out a daily newspaper sharing four manual typewriters, one phone line and an occasional telex. It kind of got my attention."
It was apparent, too, that American women enjoy far greater legal protection in the workplace than do many women from less developed countries. At a workshop on equality, a Polish journalist told of losing her first job because she would not sleep with her boss. Carole Simpson, of ABC News, who was moderating the panel, made the point that sexual harassment in the United States was something employers began paying very serious attention to after the Supreme Court ruled that employers could be held financially liable for it. She put in sharp relief the remedies American women have, compared with women who said they had no recourse but to quit.
Nerun Yakub-Ahsan, assistant editor of the Bangladesh Times, provided a measure of the extremes under which women journalists operate and in which the people they cover live. Women journalists are "a tiny, tiny minority," in her country, which she said has 111 million people and an illiteracy rate of 80 percent. Marriages generally are arranged, and the divorce rate is very low. "In the villages, women marry at 14 and 15. Most are poor and illiterate. One thing that creates large families are the inhibitions between men and women. Husbands and wives don't talk about sex. There is so little security. The children help you on the farms. They look after you when you are old. Children are your assets."
Among the educated class, she said, women have to work to make a living. A single salary is not enough to cover food, housing and miscellaneous expenses. Professionals do part-time consulting to make extra money. "We don't have the resources to back an increase in salaries. The traditional husband preferred women to stay at home. Now many men are looking for a working wife. But the men won't lend a hand with the housework."
The Bangladesh Times is an English-language daily of 20,000 circulation and is a government paper. She said there are private newspapers that are critical of government policies, but that retaliation can come with a sudden shortage of supplies. She writes editorials on politics, the environment, pollution and children. "I have a feel for that."
What are the environmental problems? The answer was quick: "not having enough to eat. We put a lot of stress on our land because we are so poor." Cow manure, one of the best fertilizers, is instead used for fuel. The revolution in rice production has yielded a greater quantity of a coarser rice that, she said, "is not as tasty. We had a bumper harvest this year. There was enough to feed everyone, but not everybody had enough money to buy it.
"There are few outsiders who understand what a miracle it is that so many survive on so little."
Broadening those understandings is what the conference was all about.