THE ECONOMIC PARTICIPATION OF
LOW INCOME URBAN WOMEN
IN THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
From a Draft Report
Dated June 1979
Barbara G. Furst
under a Contract
Office of Urban Development
Bureau for Development Support
Agency for International Development
United States International Development Cooperation Agency
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION . . ............ * ...
STATUS OF WOMEN, URBANIZATION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR DEVELOPMENT .
Traditional Status . . . . .
Current Political and Economic Status . .
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF POOR URBAN WOMEN .
Labor Force Participation . . . .
African Women in the Labor Force . ... .
Women in the Labor Force in Latin America. .
Asian and North African Women in the Labor Force
Women and the Informal Sector. . . .
Informal Urban Support Systems . . .
Caveats, Contradictions and Questions . .
PAST AND CURRENT WOMEN'S PROGRAMS. .. . .
RECOMMENDATIONS. . . . . . .
General Guidelines . . . . .
Programs to Improve the Economic Status of Women. .
Housing and Other Programs for Upgrading Squatter Areas 36
Additional Research . . . . . 38
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . ... ... . 40
This report was sponsored by the Office of Urban Development of
the Agency for International Development with the cooperation of the
Office of Women in Development of the same agency. The author is grateful
for access to documentation centers and support of the International Center
for Research on Women, the New TransCentury Foundation, the Office of the
Advisor on Women in Development at the World Bank, the Urban Projects
Office of the World Bank, the Social Studies Section of the Inter-American
Development Bank, and other interested individuals who provided willing
ears and good advice in the preparation of this report. At the same time,
of course, the author takes full responsibility for errors of fact or
interpretation and for the views expressed in this paper which are not
necessarily those of the Agency for International Development.
THE ECONOMIC PARTICIPATION OF
LOW INCOME URBAN WOMEN
IN THE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
Given the general conditions of the urban poor in developing
countries and given the social and economic status of women within many
of these countries, it is with great temerity that one attempts to
address the issues and problems concerning poor urban women. However,
there is currently abundant evidence to demonstrate that women are
economic and social entities in their own rights within the urban
setting and many of them are not dependent upon men or the formal
system for support. Their activities in most instances have not been
recognized, and their special needs have rarely been considered.
As with many women in industrial nations, the perceptions of
the women in developing countries themselves regarding their own roles
as domestic and economic beings are often ambivalent and confused.
However, the harsh realities of life in the cities have forced many
of them to depend for survival upon their own initiative, often in
the fact of overwhelming odds. It is remarkable that there are so
many such women and that they are surviving and occasionally even
This report is based on the following assumptions:
Women play a vital role in the economic life of most of
the developing countries.
In the cities poor women are critically in need of cash
incomes but the traditional support systems which exist
in the countryside which might enable them more easily to
work away from home are not as well developed in the cities.
Women are usually found in the informal sector and, until
recently, many of them have not been included in formal
measurements of economic activity making them invisible
in labor market terms.
In many instances women are at least as business-oriented
as men, if not more so, and, given the chance, reinvest
in their businesses and accrue capital and property.
Barriers to women's greater access to the benefits of develop-
ment will vary depending upon beliefs and perceptions of individual
societies. However, in many developing societies today there are few
if any inherent cultural barriers to the wider participation of women
in the economic life of cities. Their low and, in some places
declining, rates of economic participation appear rather as by-products
In discussions of poor women in cities and their increasing
numbers, it must be remembered that men are not very well off in the
cities either. However, the problems of urban men and women, though
related to each other, are different. The differences are of course
rooted in the fact that women are and continue to be perceived as
the bearers of children and the keepers of the hearth, while men are
perceived as breadwinners and are more free to work away from home.
Similar to the early era of industrialization in the West, many men
in the developing countries are working farther away from home than
ever before. They are migrating to cities and beyond national borders
in search of wage earning jobs in industry and commerce. At the
same time women are left with the responsibility for children and
other family members.
Programs to reach women are economically and socially
critical for two reasons at least. One is the cost effectiveness
for development efforts of upgrading women's capacity to produce in
the formal economic sector, and the other is their primary responsi-
bility for succeeding generations of third world citizens. The care,
feeding, and education of children will determine their future
potential. Higher levels of education and economic activity among
women are closely associated with high standards of living, low
fertility, good family nutrition and health, high levels of sanita-
tion and high aspirations for children. In short, the condition of
women is tied not only to the level of economic development but also
to the whole package of "basic needs" which are the current goals of
There is also considerable evidence in the literature that
the urban environment is conducive to effective development programs.
Despite the chaotic appearance of the crowded lanes of squatter
settlements and city centers, they are more organized and structured
than they appear, and the goals of many squatter residents are self-
chosen upward mobility (Perlman, Epstein, Little). There are indica-
tions that cities are the setting for upwardly mobile and enterprising
individuals and self-help programs. For instance, when. an urban
renewal project was begun in Calcutta it was found that there were
an estimated 100 informal primary private schools with approximately
7,600 students operating in the squatter areas (Sivaramakrishnan).
Likewise, in a Bangkok squatter area one enterprising young women
had started a day care center while still a student. The center had
grown into a nursery school and then into a primary school which
necessitated her hiring staff and paying them from the nominal
school fees she charged (Ungsongtham).
What appears at times as social breakdown is part of the
urbanization process and from it evolves social and economic support
systems which allow urban dwellers to compete for the services and
goods of the city, for its jobs and its markets. At the core of the
process are women.
The literature on urban women ranges from ethnological
neighborhood monographs to nationwide analyses of their labor force
participation to essays on their general conditions around the world.
The material selected for this paper was chosen on the basis of its
relevance for economic development policy and programs. As a back-
ground for discussion, a sampling of demographic data is presented
regarding the numbers of women in cities and the numbers of female
heads of household. The discussion of the socioeconomic conditions
of women in the cities is based on available data regarding the
process of urbanization, working conditions, income levels and formal
and informal social and economic support systems.
STATUS OF WOMEN, URBANIZATION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR DEVELOPMENT
The traditional status and power of women varies from culture
to culture and from area to area. Despite the anthropological examples
of societies where women had or have considerable status and power,
in the emerging social and cultural patterns of today, .there are few
places where they compete on equal terms economically or socially with
men. Even in agrarian societies which require closer cooperation
between men and women, it has been the rare society where men and
women perceived themselves as having equal or overlapping rights and
obligations, economic or social.
In tropical Africa, the role played by women is one of the most
ambiguous in the world. Traditionally, she had a certain amount of
autonomy, especially in polygamous systems because she was in fact
head of her own household and responsible for her own children. She
had land to till and she took part in the construction and maintenance
of her house. Furthermore, as a rule she had trade items and sometimes
cash which she generated herself to provide additional goods and service
which she did not produce. Cash cropping for export in West Africa,
which began at the end of the last century, did not include the women's
agricultural activities or trading networks, with the result that
while the cities and seaports drew men, the women were left the agricul-
tural and/or rural markets and intracountry trading. The reasons for the
poor economic position of many African women relative to men today does
not appear to be inherent in culture but rather is a result of modern
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In many Muslim cultures,particularly where female seclusion
is the ideal, the move to the city for women in many instances confines
them still further. Whereas before migration she was an active
member of the economic life of the rural community, in the city she is
virtually economically inactive and in some places does not even do
the family marketing. And, ironically, because a secluded woman is
a sign of status for many, as families prosper, women in many instances
are still further secluded (Youssef-l).
Southeast Asian women, because of a variety of culturally and
socially recognized norms appear to have a substantial amount of power
over their own economic well-being and within the family. There is
some evidence that in Indonesia women had greater power historically
and that it declined somewhat during the colonial era, to be regenerated
in the struggle for independence and then more recently to have fallen
into decline (Vreede). However, at the household, extended family and
neighborhood levels, the organization of women, and their group and
personal strength have given them a social mobility and economic inde-
pendence which is unmatched perhaps in any other part of the world.
Women in Indonesia have historically played important roles
in earning money for family support--through participation
in agriculture, in marketing, in the production of handi-
crafts, and in the service sector. In this respect, Indo-
nesia is different from other Asian societies with a
largely Muslim population, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh,
where women are discouraged from activity outside the home,
but resembles other Asian societies where Islam does not
play an important role (Papenak, et al).
The same holds for the Philippines. There is no need to liberate
the Filipino woman. She has always been so. (Reining, et al).
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Extrapolating from traditional statuses and roles of women in the
different regions of the world, it is quite apparent that the obstacles
to women's more equitable participation, politically and economically,
will vary from region to region. One can state relatively confidently,
that women are least likely to be allowed to participate in their own
destiny in the countries stretching from north Africa to the eastern
boundary of Pakistan (Youssef-l,Van Dusen). They stand a slightly better
chance in Hindu and Christian or Buddhist India, and as a force are a
potential to be reckoned with in southeast Asia (Geertz, Papenak). In
Latin America women are already accepted in the labor force, especially
for certain types of work where their skills are considered superior to
men, and in Africa, despite their ambiguous position as entrepreneurs they
are very visible and likely to become more so.
Despite the differential status of women around the world, however
it must be remembered that in many parts of the world such as Indonesia
and the Philippines there is nothing inherent in the individual cultures
themselves to prevent women from becoming more active participants in the
economic life of their countries. This is especially so among poor women.
There is sufficient evidence that the strength and vitality of urban
women, even if poor by conventional standards, make them ideal clients
for sensitively planned and implemented programs.
Current Political and Economic Status
The realities of the economic and political position of women
of developing countries and the lack of leverage among the poor preclude
simple solutions for alleviating the economic conditions of poor women.
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Political and economic status go hand in hand, and male-oriented govern-
ments are not likely to change in the immediate future. Among educated
and more affluent women their formal organization and mobilization for
political purposes may lead eventually to recognition at the national
level. However, such processes are not likely to affect poor women at
least for some time to come. Despite universal suffrage and the implied
political equality between the sexes granted by the constitutions of
most developing countries and the general espousal of equal access to
education, the ignorance of poor constituents and limited national resources
preclude the general application of such precepts.
In light of the Collver-Langlois thesis relating the economic
status of women and family structure to the degree of economic development,
it is ironic that the constitutions of most developing nations, many of
them with feudal economic and political systems, are modelled on consti-
tutions of industrial countries. Such constitutions include women's
suffrage which was usually granted in the West only after industrialization
was well established.
The gap between the constitutional ideal and the economic and social
reality in many areas in developing countries reflects the fact that life
at the local level for many citizens operates much as it always has and
for many people their lives are not directly affected by government
programs and policies. From this they derive a certain local economic
and political autonomy. Therein may lie the potential for effective
appropriate technologies and small-scale locally based development
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programs. Local systems and institutions continually adapt to meet
local needs, and the absence of a political voice at the national
level rarely affects such processes. Therefore, while political power
may indeed be necessary for middle and upper class women to become
economically more independent, meeting the basic economic needs of poor
urban women need not depend upon their acquiring the same power.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF POOR URBAN WOMEN
Labor Force Participation
Data on labor force participation rates of women around the
world, their income levels, and unemployment rates are abundant,
uneven and at times unreliable. The following does not pretend to
be an analysis. Rather it is a sampling of the data; as such and
despite its unevenness, it provides a general picture of the position
of women in the formal and informal labor sectors of the developing
While women have a high rate of agricultural labor force
participation in the developing countries, their participation in
the modern sector labor force is very low compared to men.* This
can be attributed to a variety of reasons including labor surpluses
*Women's "economic activity" and its contribution to the maintenance
of the labor force is quite another issue. Elizabeth Jelin writes
"What is beyond discussion is that housework plays a vital role in
the maintenance and reproduction of the labour force, and therefore
has to be taken into consideration when analyzing the total picture
of social production" (Jelin-2). She has proposed that one way to
go about measuring the value of women's work in economic terms, is to
add up the total income of a household and then to divide it by the
number of active adult members of the household. This would provide
some measurement of the real value of "women's work". Eva Mueller
has proposed a series of questions to be asked in household surveys,
many of them related to time studies, in order to gain a better under-
standing of the contributions of women.
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in many parts of the world, the tendency for men to be more "urbanized"
than women and have more skills, perceived "suitability" of men for
certain kinds of jobs, the limitations on women as a result of their
domestic and reproductive roles, and sex discrimination. "In the
scramble for urban jobs, employers tend to fill jobs by ranking
applicants as follows: educated (literate) men, uneducated men, educated
women, uneducated women" (Nassau).
In many instances, where minimum wage laws and such benefits
as childcare and maternity leave have been introduced, women as
workers have been perceived by potential employers as an economic
liability. "In order to avoid their legal obligations, many firms
simply fire women when they marry or when they become pregnant"
(Merrick and Schmink).
Leaving such operative forces aside, Collver and Langlois have
related women's labor force participation to levels of economic development
and to social factors such as marriage and childbearing patterns and have
distinguished four types of societies which illustrate the relationships.
According to this model, industrial countries are characterized by a
high degree of female labor force participation associated with diminished
household responsibilities, and the desire for a higher standard of living
and high wages. Social values permit employment while married but limit
work after childbirth. In the second instance, best illustrated by
South American societies, women are permitted or encouraged to work until
marriage, and indeed such women often go to the city to work as domestics.
In the third, illustrated by Caribbean systems, women are often heads of
household, there is a high degree of common-law or casual unions between
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men and women, a high degree of illegitimacy, and women are of necessity
economically active. The fourth category is the standard Muslim society
where there is early marriage, early childbirth, female seclusion and
a very low degree of participation in the industrial or commercial labor
However, in spite of the differences in the status of women in
the various regions of the world and in spite of the level of economic
development, in no place do the labor force participation rates of women
in the formal sector approach those of men, although it may be doing so
among young people in Thailand (Pongasapich).
African Women in the Labor Force
In Sub-Saharan African cities, market activity is the most important
source of income for most working women. In the formal sector it is esti-
mated that in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana, women's share of employment
is less than 15 percent (Gugler and Flanagan). In Nairobi 16 percent of
those unemployed and seeking work are males and 30 percent are females (ILO).
In Botswana "52 percent of the female peri-urban work force are unemployed,
are actively seeking work but unable to find it. Only 14 percent of the
male work force is unemployed" (Nassau).
Close to a third of all women economically active outside agriculture
in Liberia and close to half in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria are self-
employed traders. "In Ghana women in trade hold more than nine-tenths of
the positions, numbering over 300,000 in a predominantly rural population
of less than nine million in 1970" (Gugler and Flanagan). Among Yoruba
women of Nigeria it is estimated that two thirds are in trade (Awosika).
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In Ghana the streets and market place are dominated by women, and
retail market and modern sector shops, industry and offices dominated by
men (Van Allen). Despite the peripheral economic status of market women,
trading has become a way of life.
Trading as an occupation for the urban woman is very
attractive because of her need towork to provide at
least a supplement to the husband's contribution to the
family, and the lack of other opportunities in the city
for an uneducated woman. Estimates are that 65 percent
to 90 percent of the women traders are illiterate (North, et al).
Market activities for West African women are so much a part of
their lives that they do not perceive of such activities as an occupation
(North et al). Their income from market activities is often the sole
income for women and their children. It is common for family members or
husbands to give women the initial capital, often in very small amounts,
to set themselves up with the understanding that their profits will be
used to support themselves and their children.
In some instances these women have been able to organize themselves
into associations for both cooperative buying and to regulate prices. They
have been powerful enough to gain the attention of political leadership
in Ghana (North). However, attempts of market women to organize in Ibadan
met with little success because of factionalism among the women themselves,
and in the Ivory Coast they are not organized to any effective extent
The most obvious arena through which female migrants
(in Africa) have contributed to change is the world of
the marketplace. They have been responsible for most
of the small-scale distribution of the overseas manu-
factured goods imported into some parts of West Africa.
They have also been instrumental in moving commodities
from one West African country to another, thereby making
food stuffs, textiles, housewares, medicinals, etc.,
available to cor-sumers who would not otherwise have access
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to them. In many instances, female commercial migrants
have also helped to introduce new types of machinery,
for example, pepper-grinding machines and flour mills,
and to promote new techniques for getting tasks
While some African market women have exhibited business
acumen, most of them deal in very small quantities with very low
profit margins and barely eke out enough to feed themselves and
their children. In Ghana, though "a few market women do very well indeed ...
the majority of the traders make a substandard income from their efforts"
(North et al). In the Lagos market over 85 percent had less than N100 at
the start of their business (N = $2.50), and annual net incomes were very
Formal sector employment in Africa is extremely limited in
relation to the labor market and men get the jobs that are available.
Unless and until women are given access to the modern sector and the
sector is expanded considerably, women are likely to remain in the
informal trading sector.
Women in the Labor Force in Latin America
There have been rapid changes in the distribution of both men
and women in Latin America working in agriculture, industry and ser-
vices in the 20 years between 1950 and 1970. About one fifth of the
workers in Latin America are in industry compared to industrial
countries where it is twice that. In 1970, 47.57 percent of the men
and 15.70 percent of the women in the labor force were in agriculture.
Industry accounted for 23.13 percent of working men, and 17.06 of the
women. By far the highest rate for women was in the service sector
which accounted for 67.24 percent of all working women compared to
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29.30 percent of working men. Despite the rapid increase in non-
agricultural jobs, the number of jobs for available workers is
woefully inadequate, and this is reflected in the underutilization of
In Jamaica, 40 percent of females who head households
work as compared to only 32 percent of all women ...
Among all female heads of households (including those
who work and do not work) 20 percent are in sales and
services. Males are primarily located in the production/
labor sector (36 percent); only 5 percent of all female
heads are located in this sector. As anticipated, women
heads of household are not represented in the more lucra-
tive sectors of the economy but continue to find employ-
ment in marginal occupations. Only 6 percent of these
women are found in the white collar sector, i.e., cleri-
cal and professional/administrative jobs, while twice
as many men are found in these types of employment (Buvinic,
Furthermore, in the Commonwealth Caribbean, while 54 percent of male heads
of household earn more than $1000 a year, only 13 percent of women heads
of household do so, a further indication of the link between poverty and
families headed by women (Buvinic et al). (For a more in-depth analysis
of the relationship between poverty and family structure, see Anna
Sant'Anna, "Income Distribution and the Economy of the Urban Household:
The Case of Belo-Horizonte," World Bank Working paper 237, June 1976).
Despite the rapid expansion of industry in Mexico City women
are unable to find places in the modern sector. As mechanization advances
in Mexico, employment goes predominantly to men, occupational segregation
increases with development, and women's participation in formal employment
declines with age while it increases in informal activities (Arizpe). With
modernization the participation rates of women in the labor force in
Mexico has actually decreased, this despite the fact that many women
who are unemployed and looking for a job are often better qualified
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educationally than male counterparts. (In much of Latin America,
even among the poorer communities, women have usually attended school
longer than men.)
Because they tend to be in the informal sector, women's economic
activity is under-reported in Mexico, where according to formal labor
statistics 79.9 percent of the women appear as economically inactive,
"a totally inaccurate figure, to say the least" (Arizpe).
In Guatemala "male workers increased their participation in the
industrial sector (1.4 in 1950, 12.5 in 1964, and 17.5 in 1973). By
contrast, the proportion of women workers in this sector declined from
28.1 percent in 1950 to 21.7 percent in 1973. The female loss was parti-
cularly acute in crafts and productive process work" (Youssef and Buvinic).
Domestic servants are the largest single component of the non-
formal labor sector for urban women in Latin America. According to Jelin,
rural women are acculturated to urban life as servants starting in lower-
middle class households and working their way up to better households
(Jelin-l). Chaney argues that most domestic servants'are in fact in a
"trap" where their work is perceived as having low status. She says
such work is a deadend for most women.
In 1970, one-third of persons in the urban traditional
sector occupations earned $23 a month or less, while
only 12 percent earned $116 or more. In contrast, a
third of those in the modern sector earned $116 or
more. Women, however, earned less than their male
colleagues in the urban traditional sector. Among
the self-employed, for example, women's incomes averaged
only $30 per month, versus $70 for men. Domestic
servants earned an average of $31 per month, versus
the $50 per month average wage for the sector.
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As in many other parts of the world, the alternative to
the formal sector or domestic service for Latin American women is the
market place. Market women of Lima consider their work better than
domestic and factory work and often they have arrived in the market
place after having done both (Bunster).
However, despite this perceived improvement in their status
they still live a precarious economic existence. Many of them depend
upon their children to carry produce from the wholesaler to the market
stand, to care for younger siblings while they work, and to take their
place should they become ill. Women complained that their work and
its location made them ill. There were no buying or credit coopera-
tives, and because they set up their business in poor neighborhoods,
their profit margins were minimal. In addition, though they are a "vital
entrepreneurial resource", they are subject to harassment from market
inspectors and the police (Bunster).
In Latin America, as in many parts of the world, women tend to be
passive and "even when they are employed in specialized occupations outside
the home, they tend to fill the lower ranks, receive lower wages and
have fewer opportunities for training and promotion than men" (de Miranada).
Asian and North African Women in the Labor Force-
Labor force participation of women in the formal sector in
Asia is extremely varied in level and in kind. For instance Pakistan
has one of the lowest rates in the world while the participation of
women in the electronic assembly plants of the Far East is substantial.
However, between these two extremes, in other countries such as Indo-
nesia and Thailand, the picture is not significantly different than for
Latin America and Africa.
- 16 -
In Thailand in 1970 it is estimated that 83.4 percent of women
workers were agricultural. Manufacturing accounted for 3.7 percent, trade
and commerce for 6.0 percent, services for 5.4 percent and other non-
agricultural employment accounted for 1.5 percent (Hanasuta).
Among the women working in manufacturing in Bangkok, it is esti-
mated that 63.57 percent are in textiles, 9.62 are in food or beverage
processing. Among all the women working outside manufacturing 92
percent are in retail trade (Chitranukroh). There is generally a high
participation rate for Thai women in the labor sector compared to other
countries, and there is some indication that young women today have the
same opportunity as young men at certain levels.
At lower levels females are not being deprived of opportu-
nities for work and opportunities for self-improvement
and social mobility. There are opportunities to enter
into the prestigious job category at the lowest level
which economically speaking is at the transitional stage
where lower and middle economic groups meet (Pongsapich).
These jobs are above those of factory workers, construction laborers,
restaurant workers, and bus ticket collectors and below teachers,
government workers, nurses and bank workers. They include mechanics,
carpenters, welders, smiths, barbers, hairdressers, tailors and
In Indonesia it is estimated that 33 percent of Indonesian
women participate in the labor force (Milone). This is considered low
for Asia but high for a Muslim country. Thirty percent of, the women in
the labor force are in manufacturing, trade and services and another 20
percent of women are listed as "unpaid family workers." Among all the
women working outside agriculture, 35 percent are in sales (usually in
small quantities oF food and beverages) and the very poor are rag pickers.
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According to a 1975 report on the status of women in India,
their labor force participation rate has declined.
The percentage of women in the total labour force came
down from 33.44 percent in 1911 to 31.53 percent in
1961 and to 17.35 percent in 1971. The percentage
of female workers to the total female population
declined from 33.73 percent in 1911 to 27.96 percent
in 1961 and 11.86 percent in 1971. According to the
1971 census, there were 31 million workers, 28 million
in rural areas and only 3 million in urban areas ...
only 6 percent is engaged in the organized sector of
the economy, and the rest are in unorganized, non-
agricultural occupations (Indian Council).
Women form 7 percent of the labor force in urban areas.
In India the informal labor sector accounts for 41 to 49 percent
of the female labor force while only 15 to 17 percent of the males are in
this sector (Mazumdar).
Like India,.Pakistan has one of the lowest female participation
rates in the world, with 8.1 percent of females 10 and over actively
involved in the labor force, compared to 78.7 percent for males. Although
80 percent of all rural women are involved in agricultural work, in the
cities only the more educated women were in the labor force and then
usually in teaching or other education-related activities which are some
of the few approved occupations for women (Helbock).
In Morocco, of the total population of divorced men and women
who are job seekers, 63 percent are women; in urban areas, 70 percent of
them are women (Youssef and Buvinic).
An unpublished World Bank report estimates that in one poor
neighborhood in Rabat unemployment among women (which means women looking
for work and unable to find it) was 50 percent while only 15 percent for
men. In another neighborhood the unemployed included slightly more
- 18 -
unemployed women household heads than unemployed males. If one
assumes that there are many more male heads of household in any given
neighborhood, that is a very high unemployment rate for women indeed.
In summary, the data from Asia are varied and reflect the
combined factors of traditional status of women and the level of
industrailization and urbanization in the areas for which data are
available. For instance, the opportunities of young Thai women to.
enter the formal sector in low intermediate jobs are not available
to many women in the Near East and North Africa and more nearly
resemble Latin America and the Far East. These patterns are obviously
related not only to the status of women but also to the degree of
industralization or urbanization of the countries in which they
work and to the number of jobs available.
Women and the Informal Sector
When all is said and done about women in the labor force,
despite incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data, the universal
picture that emerges is one in which women make up a small percentage
of workers in the modern sector.
Indeed, there has been a decline in labor force participation
rates of women in some parts of the world. This decline is tied to
the process of economic development. Early industries in many
developing countries consisted of the processing of raw materials.
Such industries as sugar cane processing or textile weaving were
considered as extensions of craft industries, though removed from
the home, and women were prime participants in many such industries.
However, with the increased sophistication and capitalization of industry,
- 1 -
participation rates for women in many places have declined. At the
same time where assembly line work of a delicate nature is available,
such as in electronics manufacturing, women are often considered the
more skilled workers and are in demand. Such work is in fact repet-
itive and monotonous. It is not known whether such jobs are women's
because women really perform them better or because men reject such
Despite low participation in the formal sector, however, in
virtually all cities of the world a substantial number, if not the
majority, of poor women are economically active. This economic activ-
ity is such that it is overlooked in formal estimates of their labor
force participation. Furthermore, the work that they do to sustain
family and household is not counted as "work" in such estimates
The world of work is divided between the "respective domains of
the sexes" and the woman's proper domain excludes her from decision
making and from inclusion in modern economic activity (Chaney and Schmink).
In small industries, where she is often found, such industries rarely
are the capital intensive kind which are likely to increase her productivity
and thus her wages.
Because women are excluded for the most part from employment in
capital intensive industries and in most instances, have little access
to the education skills needed to command work in the modern 'sector,
their economic activities have tended to be in the informal or service
sector, including domestic services, street vending, and casual manual
- 20 -
There is no doubt that a larger percentage of low income
earners are in theinformal sector and the majority of economically
active women in all countries are in this sector. It is estimated
that 46 percent of those in theinformal sector in Lima are women,
and that their average income is about $30 compared to $70 for men
(which was near to the average earnings of blue-collar workers in
the formal sector)(Mazumdar).
In Brazil among self-employed males income distribution is
roughly the same as for wage earners, but above a certain level of
income a larger proportion of self-employed are found in higher
earning groups. However, the distribution of earnings of self-
employed females lies below that of female wage earners (Mazumdar).
Many of the workers in the informal sector would appear to be secondary
workers in families whose heads have jobs in the formal sector,
these secondary workers being often females or young people (Mazumdar).
The issue of "secondary workers" in industrial and developing
countries, including the definition of the term, is cloudy. With
the increasing number of female headed households where a woman is
the primary or sole breadwinner, her earnings are not necessarily
secondary or supplementary. Papanek claims furthermore that the
sometimes false perception of women as secondary workers affects
The widespread assumption that women's earnings 'are
simply supplementary to those of male household mem-
bers is a very significant element in determining
women's wages and the access of women to specific kinds
of employment and promotion. According to this idea,
women are willing to work for lower wages than men,
because both their actual financial needs and their
opportunity costs (based on alternative uses of their
- 21 -
time) are lower than those of men. This clearly
results in lower labor costs in occupations where
the labor force is entirely female. It is unlikely
that this economic reality will be easily. challenged
by the recognition that, in fact, a large proportion
of women in the labor force of many countries are heads
of households or are independently supporting children
in households where men are also present.
In summary, in the developing countries the similarity of
responses among poor women to limited access to the formal labor
sector is striking. With a few exceptions, such women earn cash
incomes from marketing, domestic service, manual labor and cottage
industries. When they do work in the formal sector such work tends
to be limited to a few specialized "women's" industries and is labor
intensive, low-paying and unskilled.
Informal Urban Support Systems
The literature is replete with descriptions of the social and
economic support systems of women in the poor neighborhoods of Beirut,
Mexico City, Delhi, Benares, Cairo, and Lagos (Joseph, Lomnitz, Singh,
Chatterjee, Rugh, Little). The picture that emerges is the substitution
of neighbors and other migrated relatives in the neighborhood for
services once provided by integrated and homogeneous rural systems. There
is an exchange of goods and services which is informal but which parallels
economic activity. The men come and go from the neighborhood in search
of work, but the women maintain the social and economic fabric of the
neighborhood. They continue the domestic services associated with
household maintenance and they exchange childcare, small quantities of
food, and other goods and services. In a shantytown in Mexico the networks
are comprised of nuclear families where "the active participation of men
- 22 -
is often overshadowed by the role of women in the daily reciprocity of
goods and services which knits a network together" (Lomnitz).
In Africa rural women traditionally had their own sphere of
interaction. "Men and women accommodated each other in groups. Among
illiterate and semiliterate women, this solidarity has been intensi-
fied in the urban setting ... It is urbanization which, by providing
new social structures, brings women together and facilitates their
meeting and making common cause despite ethnic, tribal and other
sectional differences" (Little).
In instances where women work away from home as street vendors,
as domestics, as sweepers, or in factories, they depend upon family
members, often older children or grandmothers, and neighbors to care
for their small children (Bunster). When asked what happened to
her children during the day a Delhi sweeper woman said "They are in
the care of God" (Singh). Many women in the market places of the
world have their children with them.
For many women income earning activities are performed in the
home or in the neighborhood not far from home. If she needs extra
cash she prepares extra food and sells it from a stand, or she brews
beer in the backyard and sells it (often encountering difficulty
with the law if she is doing so without a license). In this way
she integrates both her household responsibilities and her.cash
In some instances women establish themselves commercially with-
in the neighborhood which keeps them further tied to it. In one
area of Beirut, women spent three quarters of their waking hours in
- 23 -
their apartments and the streets of the immediate neighborhood (Joseph).
In Lagos many women set up their small street stands in the neighbor-
hood. "Gaining a known clientele ... and finding middlemen-creditors
are achievements which tend to stabilize residence, especially for
women" (Gugler and Flanagan).
In Brasilia the economic activities of women have, at times,
overridden other considerations. "Women also find in domestic
services and in small business, especially dressmaking, that they
can increase their income and improve their position vis-a-vis their
husbands, and in several cases have successfully resisted the migra-
tory urges of their spouses" (Epstein).
In addition to the neighborhood or relatives who tend to
function as an interacting group in support of each other, there are
a variety of other more formalized associations. Some of them are
religious, some of them social, some economic, and some are occupational.
There are market women's associations in Africa, a women's social
organization which acts as liaison between the neighborhood and
political headquarters in Paramaribo (Brana-Shute). Rotating
credit associations among men and women exist around the world
whereby each contributes a fixed amount periodically. At each
collection one person takes the whole pot. The money may be used
for business capital or for household goods or celebrations. Memberships
in such associations tend to increase with socioeconomic status (Barnes
As with most social analysis of traditional or emerging societies,
it is difficult to separate out social from economic activities and
in the case of women's groups it is still more difficult because they
tend to retain traditional institutions longer. Lewis, writing of the
Ivory Coast, says that "Capital resources available to a woman increase
her well-being when they are translated into denser social ties--into
social being." She goes on to say that salaried women and petty traders
have more associational ties than inactive women and students. However,
in Mexico City among poor women, "The relationship between women in net-
works is not particularly emotional; rather it is utilitarian and confines
itself to the exchange of information and the mutual sequence of borrow-
ings and favors" (Lomnitz).
The positive relationship between economic status and membership
in clubs and associations is illustrated by the fact that in Africa as a
woman's commercial status improves she is more likely to be married and
also she is more likely to have more formalized associations (Lewis).
Conversely the organization of poor women is very informal and based on
mutual trust and friendship.
Human support networks, of course, exist everywhere--among rich
and poor, in city and countryside, in industrial countries and in develop-
ing countries. The difference between such support systems is one of
degree rather than kind with the greatest degree of difference between
the rich (where people "buy" some services) and the poor where they are
obtained through reciprocity. Despite the prevalence of traditional
informal and formal networks, it must be kept in mind that'they provide
support only up to a certain point. Furthermore, formalized but
traditional women's organizations are usually found among the relatively
- 25 -
affluent. Despite the fact that much attention has been devoted to
the potential of such organizations for development purposes, it is
unlikely that such an approach would have much of an impact on very
poor women unless steps are'taken to organize them first.
Caveats, Contradictions, and Questions
Descriptions of the conditions of poor urban women in Asia,
Africa and Latin America lead to several valid generalizations. At
the same time they also contain contradictions.
For instance, the statement that the urban poor tend to manifest
a high degree of family breakdown and social dysfunction is rebuted
byJanice Perlman who found in a Rio de Janeiro favella that "90 percent
of those we interviewed are members of a nuclear family ... About 80
percent headed by males, and two-thirds of the residents are married
or in 'stable' common-law unions." This may be a peri-urban area
which is more established or which has a higher economic base than
others. It is quite possible that the barrios, favellas, bustees, and
bidonvilles of the world could be put on a scale which would indicate
the level of economic and social stability of each in relation to the
other. And one could therefore assume that some of these settlements
are closer to the perceived ideal neighborhood than others, and that
therefore the degree or kind of development needs will vary from
squatter area to squatter area.
In the Middle East women have little control over the fruits of
their labor (Safa) but in a Rio de Janeiro squatter settlement one woman
had sufficient clout in defending her neighborhood-based business that
she could dissuade her husband from moving (Epstein).
- 26 -
Even speaking of women in the Middle East it is observed that
at the household level the woman has more powerthan is generally
believed. "Ironically, there are indications from studies of both
village and urban subcultures that women often have more authority
within their own households than they are supposed to have according
to explicit norms" (Gulick).
Naturally each community will have the values which go with its
particular economic level. Of significance for development planners
is the fact that low economic status does not permit the observance
of many of the values of the greater society. "Social segregation
(between the sexes) in the village is clearly marked and the partici-
pation of women in farming is due to dire necessity and is not an
indication of any relaxation of segregation principles" (Gulick).
The same can, of course be said for the cities.
In an Indian sweeper community, where high caste values are
hardly likely to be the norm in any case, the women controlled the
money and the men shared household tasks. Having contributed
substantially to the family income, the women doled it out as necessary.
"It appears that in an environment where identical opportunities for
paid labor are open both to men and women and the network is sufficiently
close-knit for neighbors to supervise children during the day, a joint
pattern of conjugal division of labor emerges" (Chatterjee).
In Botswana, Adrienne Nassau found that
Men interviewed in Botswana reported that women like to
leave all decision-making to their husbands, while women
indicated that in most families decisions are joint.
In addition, community leadership responsibilities are often
vested in women--an unusual feature in a society which is
nominally male dominated.
- 27 -
Another contradiction which appears in an analysis of the
literature on women in the cities is that, despite their continuing
traditional roles, there is "some evidence that women tend to be quicker
than men to embrace innovations that promise to improve their position"
(Guglerand Flanagan). Women who have been left behind in the country-
side tend to have more conservative and fixed ideas. However, once the
women leave the countryside, especially in West Africa, the reverse
seems to be the rule. Once the women get a taste of urban life, they
can be far less traditional than men. A survey in Ghana among students
showed that the boys wanted to retain the old polygamous marriage system,
while the girls wanted a nuclear family and monogamy based on the Western
model (Cohen). In Peru, urban women as well as men realized the value of
literacy for city living (de Sagasti).
No quantitative data were readily available to demonstrate female
innovativeness relative to men, but the ability of some African market
women to capitalize on market activities, accrue assets and reinvest in
business is relatively well known. This, in fact, could be rooted in the
woman's responsibilities as family provider and the fact that responsi-
bilities often become more acute in the cities. Often the earnings of
men are spent on memberships in clubs or societies or to buy chiefdoms.
The accumulation of cash, therefore, has different significance for men
and women although both sexes use it to further or intensify their
respective traditional statuses. The woman's more economic view of
the world is reflected in some of the literature on attitudes toward
family planning. Although children have been important for women to achieve
status, very often the reasons that they gave for wanting many was economic
- 28 -
security in old age. Children are seen by both men and women as socially
and economically necessary, but the women's views lean more toward
economic necessity (Furst).
In some instances, the business activities of women and their
ability to take advantage of resources has come to light in programs
that were not set up for women specifically. For example, in El Salvador
it was found that 85 percent of the borrowers in a small credit coopera-
tive were women and that the default rate was only 3 percent (Personal
communication, Donna Haldane, The World Bank).
It has been suggested that women's strength derives from their
status at the periphery or outside the formal economic and political
structure and that attempts to provide a place for them in the formal
system might undermine what they already have (Personal communication,
Michaela Walsh, Office of Technology Assessment). Whether this is so
or not must await further evidence.
A survey in Ghana conducted by a World Bank team found that
women were reluctant to talk about their business and credit needs.
This reluctance may stem from a suspicion that such information was
being gathered to curtail their activities.
The impressionistic view of women's business acumen and
their reluctance to make their needs known has several implications
for programs aimed at this particular segment of any society.
PAST AND CURRENT WOMEN'S PROGRAMS
In the past public and private programs to help women
usually focused on them as wives and mothers. These programs
addressed fertility, food preparation, or motherhood, and included
family planning, nutrition, health education and other family services.
- 29 -
When programs were developed to help women earn cash (such as
production cooperatives), the products were usually extensions of
homemaking and/or agricultural skills including needlework, weaving,
other handicrafts or agricultural produce.
Recently there have been attempts to organize women into consumer
and credit cooperatives, especially in Latin America. In India, a small
credit cooperative has been organized with some success in Ahmadabad among
5,000 small entrepreneurial women such as street vendors, cart pullers,
"junk smiths", and garment makers. This cooperative lends money in small
amounts ranging from Rs. 250 to Rs. 1000, and the cost of a membership
share is Rs. 10 (U.S. $1 = Rs. 8).
An AID-sponsored survey of women in Asia and Latin America
regarding their childcare needs is underway. Not surprisingly,
tentative findings suggest that the needs for such care are greater
in the city. Mobile creches have been organized in India to care
for children left by the roadside at construction sites while their
mothers work as manual laborers. The system has expanded to include
nursery schools, health services, and the training of childcare and
teaching staff (Mahadevan).
More recently, international lending agencies have begun to
incorporate "women's components" into comprehensive urban projects.
These include skills training centers and childcare centers for the
children of trainees. In principle women have access to building sites
for houses on an equal footing with men; at times they have had
difficulty meeting the building schedule set by such programs
because they lack both workers and credit to construct their houses
within the required time period.
- 30 -
Because innovative programs which address the specific eco-
nomic and social needs of women in the urban area are so recent,
there has been little, if any, opportunity until recently to assess
the effects of such programs. At this writing the Population Council
is preparing a report which reviews and assesses some urban women's
projects and approaches to gathering information as a basis for
urban service program design. The activities under review include
ten or more health, credit and childcare programs in India, transporta-
tion and day care programs in Latin America, and credit programs for
women in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The report will incorporate the
proceedings of a seminar on urban women held March 5-23, 1979 at the
East-West Population Center. The seminar focused on such issues as
female migration, female adjustment/adaptation to urban life, labor
force issues, social mobility, urban planning for women, research
methods for urban women studies, and policies and strategies for urban
development efforts. This report will be issued some time in the
summer of 1979.
In development programs for women, it must be kept in mind that
they contribute substantially to the maintenance of their families
in economic terms and to the national economy. Their greatest need
is for cash incomes and, among business women, access to capital
and credit. At the same time they are responsible for the well-being
of their families. Ideally urban programs should be designed to assist
women in their dual roles.
- 31 -
In designing programs which will affect women positively,
care should be taken to ensure that the institutions and activities
upon which women depend are not eliminated or changed in ways which
will deprive them of already scarce resources.
National and local policies should be scrutinized in order to
assure that they do not inadvertently discriminate against women. For
instance, police harassment of petty traders without licenses in
some parts of the world affects women more than men because women
tend to predominate in these activities.
Regulations regarding title to property and land are very
important in urban sites and services programs. It is not altogether
clear whether in all parts of the world women have equal access under
the law to such sites.
Zoning laws in residential neighborhoods which bar economic
activity -- such as cottage industries or vending -- can have an
adverse effect on women who depend on such activities for their
Minimum wage laws, maternity benefits and other legislated
social programs often act as inhibitors to the employment of women.
Care should be taken in the development of industry that women are
not displaced from their traditional roles in such work and that
regulations to improve their working lives do not inadvertently
create further hardships.
The needs of particular groups of women will often be
determined by their ages or by their particular stage in life --
whether they are single, have children, have infants, or have grown
- 32 -
children. The female age structure of urban communities can help
determine needs -- for education, job training, or family welfare.
Young single women may need skills training; young mothers childcare
centers and skills training; and older women entrepreneurs, credit
services. Obviously programs should be based on perceived needs and
number of clients.
Projects for the poorest women should be of an "appropriate"
nature. That is to say, for those women whose lives revolve around
home and household where support needs are relatively basic, programs
need not be excessively expensive or highly sophisticated and could
be organized and supported locally.
Wherever possible, women themselves should participate in the
design, development and implementation of programs.
Women's organizations, both those of the established upper income
women and those at the neighborhood level, should be enlisted in setting
Programs to Improve the Economic Status of Women
Evidence from the literature and from conversations with develop-
ment professionals leads to the conclusion that the single most important
development activity likely to benefit the urban poor, both men and women,
is the expansion of the small business sector and of the job market. Because
of the low absorptive capacity of industry relative to the available
labor force in most developing countries and because women have access to
jobs usually only after men, any expansion of the job market would benefit
both men and women.
- 33 -
In those industries, formal or informal, where women tend to
be concentrated, efforts should be made to adjust the capital/
labor ratio so that as many jobs as possible are created with
a given amount of capital. For instance it was found in El
Salvador that for each job in one textile plant the working
capital outlay per job was $2,200, and, in one informal
sector industry, permanent jobs (of 15 years or more) could
be created for as little as $100 to $200 (Personal communication,
Donna Haldane, World Bank).
Where women are owners of small businesses such as tailoring
or food processing, efforts should be made to increase the
productivity of these women (if the market will bear it)
through the use of small capital goods such as sewing machines
or small and easy to operate food processing mills and presses.
For the makers and sellers of handicrafts or other cottage
produced products*, such as dyed cloth, the intro-
duction of new techniques for upgrading the product and more
efficient production and marketing should be considered.
Where possible, attempts should be made to organize individual
women entrepreneurs into production, marketing and credit
*By this is not meant souvenirs or other tourist items (although they are
not necessarily ruled out), but locally needed and used implements and
- 34 -
Women should be encouraged to participate in trades not
normally thought of as "female" in either developing or
industrial countries. For instance, women in Botswana felt
that service station attendants should be men (Personal com-
munication, Adrienne Nassau, World Bank). Furthermore,
although these same women in the rural areas would aid in
the construction and finishing of houses, they did not feel
it fitting to build houses in town. (Lest construction work
be thought of as male universally, it must be remembered
that women are the main carriers of building materials on
construction sites in northern India.)
The development of such programs as recommended above must be
accompanied,of course,by further research and inquiry. For instance,
for each project it will be necessary to learn what are women's industries
and where are they at the moment. How many women work in such occupations?
Are they already organized? If there is a plant or factory setting, how
efficient is plant management? What might be the effects of upgrading
or expansion of the plant? Will men get the jobs if the technology is
In market activities (both improvement of locally made products
and the provision of credit), what is known about the market dynamic and
the effects of such intervention? Is it not possible to saturate a
limited market with so many small entrepreneurs and so many'trade goods
without expanding the number of customers that no one makes a profit? Can
markets for such goods be expanded? As individual projects unfoldycon-
stant monitoring will be necessary to discern the real effects upon women
of such interventions.
- 35 -
Housing and Other Programs for Upgrading Squatter Areas
Care must be taken to assure that women have equal access
to sites and services in comprehensive urban shelter
In self-help housing programs, where women do not have the
financial or labor resources of men, women should be given
access to credit for building materials and more flexible
In the overall design of such projects, because of the needs
of many women to work near home, consideration should be given
to the integration of industry and marketing centers with
housing. Local neighborhoods themselves generate considerable
market activity, and the planning of market locations within
such neighborhoods would not only seem logical in the
development of viable and stable neighborhoods, but would
also greatly assist women who operate small businesses.
Where women must leave the neighborhoods for industrial or
other work sites, a system of transportation should be an
integral part of such planning.
Where an industrial component is built into a comprehensive urban
plan it would be logical to include also a skills training
program for women so that they could qualify for work in
that particular industry. It is assumed that skills training
programs are not provided in a labor market vacuum, and such
training would be a subcomponent of the industrial component.
- 36 -
* The household needs of women require that they have access
to goods and services near their homes. In addition to
food, this includes access to water and fuel for cooking
and where necessary heating.
Housing design should include space for kitchen gardens
Because of the obvious critical need among poor urban
women they must be listed even though their costs are
often beyond the resources of national governments and
lending agencies. For this reason any attempts to provide
such services must be low cost, appropriate and eventually
* Each comprehensive urban project should include health
centers and schools for young people of both sexes.
* There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate an inverse
correlation between education and/or employment of women
and fertility and furthermore that contraceptive use is
greatest where employment and family planning services
are available in the same place (Furst). Because cities
are centers of working women they would also be ideal
places for the most effective family planning programs.
* Childcare centers would have at least a two-fold benefit.
They would free women to work outside the home and at the
same time free young girls from domestic responsibilities
so that they can attend school.
- 37 -
Women's centers should be developed and participation
of local women encouraged. Such centers could provide
employment advisory services, literacy training, and
health, nutrition and other family oriented information.*
A report on the special needs of women in the development of
urban housing and slum up-grading projects is currently being prepared
at the Foundation for Cooperative Housing and will be forthcoming
Finally, a plea for additional research. For many places in
the world, it is simply not known what proportion of the urban popula-
tion is female or what proportion of households are headed by women and,
therefore, the size of the client population.
Likewise there are few data available on health, nutrition
levels, and other indices of well-being among urban women and their
children. Therefore, it would seem logical to find out what such needs
are for women and their families in the cities, in order to design
programs to address them.
Research on living arrangements within households would seem
appropriate for urban shelter programs. Traditional modes of living
have generated certain house types or arrangements of rooms within houses,
*Unfortunately, the "battle between the sexes" continues in many parts of
the world and women are more likely to be at ease in groups among their
own sex, especially since they share similar responsibilities. While
agreeing that the best programs are probably those which integrate
services for men and women, it must be remembered that women in traditional
societies often find their greatest support among other women. This is
especially so in matters that involve the household, such as health,
nutrition, and childcare. Therefore, women's centers may prove the most
efficient way to mobilize their collective strengths for community programs.
especially in societies where the sexes are separated. While recognizing
the limits of economic resources to provide "ideal" dwellings, in large
projects which are designed and built of a piece, it would seem logical
where possible to adapt such design to social as well as environmental
The question of the ability of women to work together in business
enterprises is an open one and probably varies from country to country or
region to region. Therefore, before attempting to organize cooperatives
among market or other entrepreneurial women, it would be wise to ascertain
the feasibility of such organization before programs are launched.
Because current projects for women in the cities are new, monitoring
of these projects and of their effects upon women is essential. For instance,
although training may be provided for women, there is nothing to assure
that they will find jobs after they have been trained. Furthermore, there
is no way of telling how the potential economic position of such women
will affect their lives, whether their earnings will cause them to be
exploited by their family or, indeed, whether their improved skills
will not be exploited by industry.
In short, although it is obvious that women in the cities need
assistance, it is not known exactly how much of what kinds of assistance
they are most in need of or how they themselves perceive their own
needs. When introducing innovations, therefore, care must be taken to
assure that such innovations are appropriate for the setting, that they
receive the cooperation of those for whom they are designed, and that they
do in the end benefit women.
- 39 -
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