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Women: the ignored majority Bias is worldwide, U.N. study finds


WASHINGTON -- Women are the largest "excluded group" in the world, lagging behind men in earning power, political influence, literacy and recognition as contributors to the global economy, the United Nations says.

"No country treats its women as well as it treats its men," the organization said in the fourth-annual Human Development Report, issued by the U.N. Development Program, "a disappointing result after so many years of debate on gender equality, so many struggles by women and so many changes in national laws."

The report called women "the nonparticipating majority." They make up more than half the world's population and work longer hours than men, but hold just over 10 percent of parliamentary positions and fewer than 4 percent of cabinet-level government posts.

Women rights groups welcomed the report, made public three weeks before the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights convenes in Vienna, Austria. Among the more controversial items on the conference agenda is one proposing that an investigator be appointed to examine and expose violence against women around the world.

In industrial countries, according to the report, gender discrimination is evident primarily in employment and wages, with women concentrated in lower-status jobs and earning half as much as men. In the developing world, there are also gender disparities in nutrition, education and health care.

"One of the greatest health risks for women in poor countries is childbirth. Maternal mortality rates in the developing world are more than 15 times higher than in the industrial countries," the report said.

But most forms of sex discrimination exist in all countries, rich and poor, the report said. And in most countries, it said, discrimination extends into the realm of data collection -- only 33 of the 173 countries in the report kept sufficient gender-based statistics for comparisons to be made in the human development index.

"Women are often invisible in statistics," the report said. "If women's unpaid housework were counted as productive output in national income accounts, global output would increase by 20 to 30 percent."

The report incorporated dozens of statistics -- data on income as well as quality-of-life factors -- into a human development index ranking 173 countries. The aim of the index is to persuade governments and institutions to stress investment in human resources, rather than factories or highways. The index system was devised in 1990 by Mahbub ul Haq, a former Pakistani finance minister and an adviser to the U.N. Development Program.

The 1993 index ranked countries in terms of their human development indicators, from "low," with Guinea on the bottom, to "high," with Japan on top.

But when the index was adjusted for gender bias, Japan fell to No. 17. Every other country also dropped several notches when gender was factored in. The United States slipped from sixth to ninth place.

The United States would have ranked first rather than sixth had only whites of both sexes been measured. If looked at as comprising a separate nation, Hispanic Americans would rank 35th -- below the Bahamas, South Korea and Estonia -- and African Americans would be No. 31, equal to Trinidad and Tobago.

On the overall index, the United States ranked behind Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Canada. Among the top six, only Sweden would move up in the ranking if gender bias were included, but only because countries above it would do worse.

Mr. Haq said the Human Development Report for 1995 would focus mainly on women. By then, he said, researchers hope to have gender-specific data from 150 countries.

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