The Condition of Women in Developing and Developed Countries

By Cohen, Michelle Fram | Independent Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Condition of Women in Developing and Developed Countries


Cohen, Michelle Fram, Independent Review


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women achieved significant progress in the economically progressive areas dominated by Western culture, including North America, Europe, and Australia. In developing areas dominated by non-Western culture, however, women remain more or less subjugated, and in some countries they are stripped of any human rights.

Exploitation and abuse of women, including outright violence, are acceptable in countries where women have an inferior social status by customary or formal law. Violence against women and girls is a direct corollary of their subordinate status in society. Primitive cultures have beliefs, norms, and social institutions that legitimize and therefore perpetuate violence against women. Abused women in developing countries tend to accept their inferior status and to adopt the traditional values of submission and servility. In a study conducted in Algeria and Morocco in 2003, two-thirds of the women surveyed said that domestic violence was justified in certain cases--for example, when a wife disobeyed her husband (UNIFEM 2003, 64). Poverty and custom in developing countries drive extended families to live together under the same roof, which means that young couples are subordinated to the traditional values of their parents and grandparents, making a normative change difficult if not impossible.

Denial of Property Rights

Outright violence is not the only form of subjugation directed against women. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) study Women's Land and Property Rights in Situations of Conflict and Reconstruction (2001) documents the economic subjugation that results from the absence of property rights for women (details of this report's findings are discussed later).

Access to land is crucial in many African countries where subsistence farming is the main source of livelihood. In such countries, including Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia, women usually lose their land when they are widowed because their entitlement to the land is founded on their marriage. According to the customary law, they gain access to their husbands' land through marriage, but they do not gain property rights. When they are unmarried, they have access to their parents' land as long as their parents are alive. Women in those countries may inherit their fathers' land only in the absence of male heirs, and even then their legacy is likely to be challenged by other male relatives. In theory, women may own property according to the formal civil law. In reality, however, the customary law prevails over the civil law, and the former still gives women the same status as goods or cattle. The lack of land results in abject poverty for women and the children. The testimony of a Rwandan woman whose nephews drove her away from her family farm after her parents had died is particularly harsh: "I had twelve children on my land, seven are still alive.... When I went to court I was told I had lost even before they started my case.... When I said I would stay on my father's land, since my father has given it to me, I was put in prison.... My nephews said, 'She just has to go.' They said no woman has ever inherited land" (UNIFEM 2001, 83).

In Burundi, the customary law is somewhat more favorable to women. A widow has the right to gain access to and use her deceased husband's property as long as she does not remarry. She cannot transfer this right to a third party. The husband's heirs cannot dispose of the property without her approval--they must wait until she remarries or dies--but she does not own the property; she is allowed only to use it. A divorced woman, however, does not have any rights to gain access to or use the property she shared with her husband during their marriage.

Access to land entails access to water, which is an invaluable resource in agrarian societies. Women in these societies are responsible for bringing the water for domestic and farm use, spending eight hours on average walking to and from a water source, collecting the water and carrying it back. …

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