With her delicate neck stretched stiff to head-balance the heavy can, the young girl formed a common, sex-determined African tableau of female water fetcher. Here in the semi-arid outskirts of Mindelo on Sa Vicente Island, she stood out more than her mainland counterparts because of the desolate severity of the landscape.

If drawn further into the social traditions of her gender, the centuries-old route for the overwhelming majority of poor women throughout the Cape Verde Islands, she can expect to give birth to her first child in her first year of menstruation, give birth every year after that (except when nature protests with a natural abortion), raise a family without a husband, grow muscular working hard alongside men for pay, fetch water daily until her body gives out, and die in her early forties.

"There is no doubt that Cape Verdean women, like all African women, have been the victims of discrimination," said the island-nation's first woman judge, Vera Duarte, 28. "That is why we've begun a women's movement. We intend to change these things quickly,"

Duarte and her fellow activists in the Cape Verdean Women's Organization, founded last March, may be overly optimistic about the speed with which they will be able to bring social change to this economically depressed and conservative nation, but they have assertively challenged the heretofore unquestioning acceptance by women here of a subservient position to their men. Such a challenge is a singular phenomenon anywhere in Africa.

In a blunt appraisal of the relations between men and women, Duarte wrote in a March issue of the government weekly, Voz di Povo (People's Vice), that the Old World European attitudes of the country's former Portuguese rulers degraded women to a level where they had no legal recourse to resist sexual abuse, "irresponsible paternity" and serve as a source of "cheaper (sometimes free) manual labor." Today, women are still often their children's sole source of support, Duarte wrote, as the men here produce "a high number of offspring in great disproportion to their economic means of support."

One foreign aid official here said that 50 percent of Cape Verde's rural households, where 90 percent of the country's 300,000-person population lives, are headed by women.

Felix Monteiro, the 71-year-old retired director of finance for the country and a manuscript-collecting amateur historian, agreed with Duarte's assessment of male domination of women here. Monteiro, however, argued that it grew out of not only Portuguese traditions, but the African culture brought here by mainland slaves beginning in the 15th century. "African males have been just like men everywhere," Monteiro said.

One writer has said that the Cape Verdean family structure eveloved out of African polygamy traditions and the islands' harsh economic realities.

Limited economic opportunities and a history of cyclical droughts have for years forced as much as 70 percent of the male population to emigrate overseas for work. The wealthier peasants who remained behind saw children as economic assets from farm work and often had several "families" with as many as 25 to 30 children. At the same time, women, who were not given as much education as men, became 60 percent of the rural labor force, a position they hold today.

And while the "socialist" independence government that came to power in 1975 professes to support equality between the sexes, a reporter was told when looking at the construction of dozens of rock catchment dams in rural areas of Santiago Island, just outside the capital of Praia, that women were earning substantially less than the men for the same backbreaking work. The men, some of whom were doing less work than the women, earn $1.56 a day while the women are paid $1.04.

"This is one of our major concerns," responded Cape Verdean President Aristides Pereira, when asked about the difference. "We intend to stop this as soon as possible because this is discrimination, nothing more."

But Pereira said his government would have to move slowly in equalizing pay scales or face a male revolt. "The men, the farmers, have a strong resistance to women being paid the same as them and say it is not possible," said Pereira. "We are trying to gradually diminish the difference and convince the men that it is not right.

"Our aim is to facilitate and support [the women's equal rights] struggle," Pereira continued, "but we think it is a struggle like any other struggle. The Cape Verdean woman has to struggle to achieve equality."

According to Vera Duarte, "it is not only a difference of pay scales. Here the men have been accustomed to beating us and nothing being done about it, to leaving the women with the responsibility of the babies." Under the Portuguese, laws existed to rectify such abuses but were not enforced because of colonial paternalism, Duarte said.

Today there are new laws that are being enforced, such as jail (three months maximum) or humiliating public censure for men who beat women and mandatory financial support payments for children, she said. "In six years, the enforcement of these laws has changed the relationship between men and women for the better," Duarte added. "I am an example of change, because before independence I could not have become a judge." A University of Lisbon graduate and the relatively privileged daughter of a middle-class Cape Verdean merchant and nonconformist mother, she became a judge in March 1980.

"We will be emancipated here when we tread underfoot the degrading practices we were formerly sujected to and still are subjected to," Duarte added. "I still believe it can happen quickly."