Women's liberation in the Third World

Women's liberation is not a matter of interest only to women of the advanced capitalist countries with their relatively high educational level and standard of living. On the contrary, it is of vital concern and importance to the masses of women throughout the world. The underdeveloped countries of the Third World are no exception. 

There is great diversity in the economic and social conditions and cultural traditions in these countries. They range from an extremely low level of economic activity in some areas to considerable industrialisation in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, South Korea and Taiwan. All underdeveloped countries, however, are defined by the imperialist domination they suffer in common and the consequent distortions to their economies. This also has specific effects on women in these countries. 

Impact of imperialist domination

Imperialist domination has meant that capitalist relations of production have been superimposed on, and have combined with, archaic, pre-capitalist production and social relations, transforming them and incorporating them into the capitalist economy. In Western Europe the rise of capitalism was punctuated by bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the more advanced countries which broke the economic and political power of the old feudal ruling classes. But in the colonial countries imperialist penetration most often reinforced the privileges, hierarchies, and reactionary traditions of the pre-capitalist ruling classes, which it utilised wherever possible to maintain stability and maximise imperialist exploitation. 

Using torture, extermination, rape, and other forms of terror on a mass scale, and in Africa through the outright enslavement of the native peoples, expanding European capitalism brutally colonised Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa and thrust them into the world market. With the European conquerors came Christianity which was usually turned to advantage as one of the central links in the chain of subjugation. 

In the post-World War II period, under the combined impact of the weakening during the Second World War of the old European colonial powers, the desire of the new hegemonic imperialist power-the USA-to have unrestricted access to Third World markets and resources, and an upsurge of national independence struggles, most of the colonial countries of Asia and Africa won formal political independence. However, their economies remained dominated by the giant capitalist corporations of the imperialist countries. 

Today, the imperialist banks and transnational corporations use the weapons of loans and unequal trading relations, rather than troops and gunboats, to plunder the resources of the underdeveloped world. This results in an enormous flow of wealth and resources from the world's poorest nations to the richest. The impact of this plundering is not only economic. Huge environmental damage is taking place as vast forest areas are destroyed; major pollutants are released in the air, sea, land and water table; massive soil exhaustion and erosion is occurring. These ecological consequences are adding to a long- term environmental crisis of global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and the unchecked production of toxic products that are multiplying at a frightening rate. 

For women in the Third World the penetration of the capitalist market has a contradictory impact: on the one hand, it introduces new economic relations that begin to lay the basis for women to overcome their centuries-old oppression. But on the other hand, it takes over and utilises the archaic traditions, religious codes, and anti-woman prejudices, initially reinforcing them through new forms of discrimination and superexploitation. In general, the situation of women is directly related to the degree of industrialisation that has been achieved. But uneven development in some societies can produce startling contradictions, such as relative economic independence for women who dominate primitive agriculture in some areas of Africa. 

In the Third World, the development of capitalist production proceeds according to the needs of imperialism. For this reason, industrialisation takes place only slowly and in an unbalanced, distorted way, if at all. 

Peasant production

In most underdeveloped countries, the majority of the population still lives on the land and is engaged in subsistence farming, utilising extremely backward methods. The extended family-which generally includes various aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and grandparents-is the basic unit of small scale agricultural production. 

Women play a decisive economic role. Not only do they work long hours in the fields and home, but they produce children to share the burden of work and provide economic security in old age. They marry at puberty and often give birth to as many children as physically possible. Their worth is generally determined by the number of children they produce. An infertile woman is considered a social disgrace and an economic disaster. Infertility is often grounds for divorce. 

Because of its productive role, the hold of the family on all its members, but specifically on women, is strong. Combined with a low level of economic development, this brings about extreme deprivation and degradation for peasant women in the rural areas. In practice, they scarcely have any legal or social rights as individuals, and are often barely considered human. They live under virtually total domination and control by male members of their family. 

In many cases the restricted resources of the family unit are allocated first of all to the male members of the family; it is not uncommon for female children to receive less food and care, leading to stunted growth or early death from malnutrition. Female infanticide, both direct and through deliberate neglect, is still practiced in many areas. Often illiteracy rates for women approach 100%. 

The incorporation of these countries into the world capitalist market inevitably has an impact on the rural areas however. Inflation and the inability to compete with larger agricultural holdings using more productive methods lead to continuous waves of migration from the countryside to the cities. Often this migration begins with the males of the family leaving the women, children, and the elderly with an even heavier burden as they try to eke out an impoverished existence from the land on their own. But sometimes it is the young women who go to obtain work in the free trade zones established to encourage industrial investment and development, and which are specifically based on the cheap, superexploited labor of predominantly young women workers. Or sometimes young women are recruited to work in the brothels and bars as prostitutes. 

The desperate search for a job eventually leads millions of workers to leave their country of birth and migrate to the advanced capitalist countries or to the oil rich countries of the Arab-Persian Gulf, where if they are lucky enough to find a job, it will be under miserable conditions of superexploitation. 

The isolation and backward traditions of the rural areas tend to be challenged and broken down not only by migration to and from the cities but also by the diffusion of the mass media, such as radio and television. 

Effect of urbanisation

With migration to the cities, the new conditions of life and labor begin to challenge the traditional norms and myths about the role of women. 

In the cities the extended family as a productive unit rapidly disappears for most. Each family member is obliged to sell his or her labor power on the market as an individual. However, due to the extremely precarious employment situation, lack of social welfare support and the financial responsibilities that semi-proletarian city dwellers often have vis-a-vis their rural relatives, the familial obligations of the immediate family often still includes aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters and their children, besides father, mother, and children. Among the urban middle class and the more stable sectors of the working class, however, the family unit begins to become more restricted. 

As they migrate to the cities, women have greater opportunities for education, for broader social contact, and for economic independence. The needs of capitalism, which bring increasing numbers of women out of family isolation, come into conflict with the old ideas about the role of women in society. 

In taking jobs as industrial or service workers, women begin to occupy positions that were previously forbidden them by backward prejudices and traditions. Those able to secure an education that permits them to break into professions, such as teaching and nursing, also serve as examples that contradict traditional attitudes, even in the eyes of those women who don't work. 

The myth of women's inferiority is increasingly called into question by this reality, which challenges their time-honored subordination. 

Even for women who are not able to get an education or to work outside the home, city conditions help provide the possibility of escaping the mental prison that the rural family's isolation imposes on them. This happens through the greater impact of the mass media, the proximity of political life and struggles, the visibility of modern household appliances, laundries, etc. 

Workforce participation

In underdeveloped countries, women generally comprise a much lower percentage of the paid work-force than in the imperialist countries. It tends to vary between 8% and 20% as opposed to the advanced capitalist countries, where women make up roughly 40%. But women's participation in the paid work-force is growing in both cases. 

As would be expected, women are concentrated in jobs that are the least skilled, lowest paying, and least protected by laws on safety conditions, minimum wages, etc. This is especially true for agricultural work, piecework in the home, and work as domestics, where a high proportion of women are employed. The average wage of female workers tends to be one-third to one-half of that of male workers. When women are able to get an education and acquire some skills, they are confined even more strictly than in the advanced capitalist countries to certain "female" occupations, such as nursing and teaching. 

But women are also concentrated in industries such as textile, garment, food processing, and electrical parts and often make up a majority of the labor force employed there. Given the overwhelming predominance of such light industry in the more industrialised colonial countries, this means that, although they are a low percentage of the work force as a whole, women workers can occupy a strategically important place. 

The employment of women in such industries is crucial for the superprofits of the imperialists, both because they are a source of cheaper labor and also because the employment of women at lower wages or in lower-paying jobs allows the capitalists to divide and weaken the working class and keep down the overall wage scale. The process of imperialist accumulation cannot be fully understood without explaining the role of the super-exploitation of women workers in the underdeveloped countries. 

Unemployment and under-employment are of crisis proportions, and much of the responsibility for family spending and daily maintenance falls on women. To help their family survive, women are often forced to resort to such desperate and precarious sources of income as selling handicrafts or home-cooked food in the streets, or taking in laundry. 

Hyperinflation means housewives in the cities have to go from market to market searching for the lowest prices, eating less so their children can have a little more, if there is any to have at all. Domestic labor is often carried out in urban fringe districts or shanty towns which do not have running water or electricity, medical facilities or schools. Prostitution is frequently the only recourse. The endemic unem- ployment also exacerbates alcoholism and drug addiction, which results in greater violence against women as well as even more desperate poverty. 

In the countryside the situation for women is even worse. Lack of basic public services means that domestic labor has to be carried out in brutal conditions. Domestic labor itself is expanded to include care for animals and preparation of products for market. Women must cover huge distances to find water or wood. Possibilities for peasant women to find paid work have decreased forcing women to become unwaged tenant farmers, or day workers. 

Lack of basic rights

In many countries, women have not yet won some of the most elementary democratic rights secured by women in the advanced capitalist countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Numerous countries still retain laws that place women under the legal control of their male relatives. These include for example, laws that require the husband's permission for a woman to work, laws that give the husband control over his wife's wages, and laws that give the husband automatic guardianship of his children and control over the residence of his wife. In some countries women are still sold into marriage. They can be murdered with impunity for violating the "honor" of their men. 

In countries where reforms have been made in the legal code, providing women with more rights, these often remain largely formal. Women are unable to assert these rights in practice because of the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, their economic dependence, and backward traditions that circumscribe their lives. Thus imperialism, in distorting the development of these countries, stands as an obstacle to the most elementary democratic rights for women. 

The power and influence of organised religion is especially strong in the colonial and semicolonial countries, because of the prevailing economic backwardness and because of the reinforcement and protection of the religious hierarchies by imperialism. In many countries there is no separation of religious institutions and state. Even where there is official separation, religious dogma and customs retain great weight. For example, many of the most barbaric anti-women laws are based on religious codes. In India, the misery of millions of women is accentuated by the caste system, which, though no longer sanctioned by the law, is based on the Hindu religion. In some Muslim countries, restrictions on public activity, rigid separation of women and men, even the tradition of the veiling of women, is designed to totally banish women from public life. In Catholic countries the right to divorce is often restricted or denied. 

Violence against women, which has been inherent in their economic, social, and sexual degradation throughout all stages of development of class society, becomes accentuated by the contradictions bred under imperialist domination. The greater access of women to education and jobs along with their broader participation in society in general, gives women the opportunities to lead a less protected, more public life, in violation of the old traditions and values. 

But attempts by women to take advantage of these opportunities and break out of the old roles often lead to reactions by male relatives or others, which can take the form of ostracism, beatings, mutilations, or even murder. Such barbaric violence against women is frequently sanctioned by the law. Even where illegal, it is often so widely accepted in practice that it goes unpunished. 

Educational opportunities for women in the colonial and semicolonial countries remain extremely limited by comparison with the advanced capitalist countries. This is reflected in the high female illiteracy rate. From the level of primary school to the university level, female enrollment is lower than male, and the gap generally increases the higher the educational level. 

The educational system in the colonial and semicolonial countries is organised-often more blatantly than in the imperialist countries-to reinforce the exclusion of women from social life and to bolster the imposition of the role of mother-housekeeper-wife on all female children. Coeducation is notably less prevalent, with the schools for girls invariably receiving smaller budgets, fewer teachers, and worse facilities. Where coeducation exists, girls are still required to pursue separate courses of study such as cooking, sewing, and homemaking. 

Within the framework of these disadvantages, however, the pressure of the world market has brought some changes in the educational opportunities open to women. The need for a layer of more highly trained technicians has opened the doors to higher education for at least a small layer of women. 

Reproductive rights and birth control

Women in the underdeveloped world have even less control over their reproductive functions than women in the imperialist countries. The poor educational opportunities for females, combined with the strong influence of religion over the content of education, means that women have little or no access to scientific information about reproduction or sex. 

Economically and socially they are under personal pressure to produce more, not fewer children. When there is access to birth control information and devices, this is almost always in the framework of racist population control programs imposed by imperialism. In some countries forced sterilisation of masses of women has been carried out by the government. In Puerto Rico, the forced sterilisation policies promoted by the US government have victimised more then one-third of the women of child-bearing age. Forced sterilisation schemes are foisted on oppressed groups within these countries as well, such as the Indian population of Bolivia. 

Even in countries where forced sterilisation is not official policy, racist population control propaganda permeates society and constitutes an obstacle to the fight by women to gain control of their own bodies and their lives. 

While there is a finite limit to the size of the human population that the Earth can sustain, the experience of the advanced capitalist countries has shown that birth rates drop naturally where women have a measure of economic security and control over their reproductive functions. Better standards of living; social, economic and political equality; improved education; women's control over their own reproductive choices-these are the policies needed to deal with the problem of rapid population growth, not further violation and coercion of women's bodies. 

Women in underdeveloped countries have been widely used as unwitting guinea pigs for testing birth control devices and drugs. And access to abortion, too, is tied to coercion, not freedom of choice. Each year, millions of women throughout the Third World are forced to seek illegal abortions under the most unsanitary and degrading conditions possible, leading to an unknown number of deaths. 

In all these ways, women are denied the right to choose when and if to bear children. 

As capitalism's anarchic drive to maximise profits deepens both the global ecological crisis and the impoverishment of the Third World, population control schemes will become more widespread and there will be more cases like Puerto Rico. The "population explosion" will be blamed for the economic and ecological catastrophes in the underdeveloped countries in order to divert attention from the responsibility of imperialism for causing and maintaining this misery. 

Racism and sexism are also imposed on the Third World through the propagation of alien cultural standards. If the cosmetics merchants' standards of "beauty" for women in Europe and North America are oppressive to women in those areas, they are even more so when these same standards are foisted on women from underdeveloped countries through advertising, movies, and other forms of mass propaganda. 

The strong influence of religion reinforces extreme backwardness regarding sexuality, which results in a special deprivation and degradation of women. The general proscription that women are supposed to be asexual themselves, but at the same time be a satisfying sexual slave to their husbands, is imposed more brutally on women in these countries than in the imperialist countries, through traditions, laws, and the use of violence including the sexual mutilation of female children. Women are supposed to save their virginity for their husband. In many instances, if women do not provide sexual satisfaction to their husbands, or if they are charged with not being a virgin at the time of marriage, this is grounds for divorce. The dual standard of sexual conduct for men and women is more strictly enforced than in the imperialist countries. The practice of polygamy is merely an extreme example. 

Another reflection of the backwardness regarding sexuality is the harsh oppression of homosexuals, both lesbians and gay men. 

The way forward

The fact that capitalist development in the colonial countries incorporated pre-capitalist economic and social relations, many of which survive in distorted forms, means that to win their liberation, women, as well as all the oppressed and exploited, have to wage a struggle taking up a complex range of tasks. 

The struggle against imperialist domination and capitalist ex- ploitation often begins with unresolved problems of national sovereignty, land reform, and other basic democratic tasks. Many of these involve achieving very elementary rights for social, political and economic equality so basic for women. They are interlinked with the issues arising from under-development and super-exploitation — rising prices, unemployment, inadequate health, educational facilities, and housing facilities. They also include all the general demands that have been raised by the women's movement in the advanced capitalist countries, such as child-care centers, rights and medical facilities that would assure women the ability to control their reproductive lives, access to jobs and education. 

But none of these demands, including the most elementary democratic ones, can be won without the mobilisation and organisation of the working class, which constitutes the only social force capable of leading such struggles through to a victorious conclusion, nor without the mobilisation of women to ensure their demands are met. 

Because of the relative weakness of capitalism and of the ruling capitalist classes in underdeveloped countries, civil liberties, where they exist, are in general tenuous and often short-lived. Political repression is widespread. When women begin to struggle-as when other sectors of the population begin to rebel-they are often rapidly confronted with repression and the necessity to fight for political liberties such as the right to hold meetings, to have their own organisation, to have a newspaper or other publications, and to demonstrate. The struggle for women's liberation cannot be separated from the more general struggle for political freedoms. 

The increased participation of women in social and political struggles has meant that women are a growing proportion of political prisoners in the colonial and semicolonial countries. In the prisons, women face particularly humiliating and brutal forms of torture. The struggle for freedom of all political prisoners, exposing the plight of women in particular, has been and will be an important part of the fight for women's liberation in those countries. And women have stepped into the limelight to lead this struggle-to highlight conditions of illegal arrest, of mass murder, of the struggle to know what has happened to those who "disappear." 

National liberation struggles

The struggle for women's liberation has always been intertwined with the national liberation struggle. Whatever women do, they come up against the might of imperialist control, and the need to throw off the chains of this domination is an urgent and overriding task for all the oppressed in these countries, as the examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador have once again clearly demonstrated. 

Large numbers of women become politically active for the first time through participation in national liberation movements. In the process of the developing struggle, it becomes evident that women can and must play an even greater role if victory is to be won. Women become transformed by doing things that were forbidden to them by the old traditions and habits. They become fighters, leaders, organisers, and political thinkers. These deep contradictions stimulate revolt against their oppression as a sex, as well as demands for greater equality within the revolutionary movement. 

In Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, Palestine, Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere, struggles by women to end the most brutal forms of their oppression have been closely intertwined with unfolding anti- imperialist struggles. 

The participation of women in the national liberation struggle also begins to transform the consciousness of men about women's capacities and role. In the process of struggling against their own exploitation and oppression, men can become more sensitised to the oppression of women, more conscious of the necessity to combat it, and more aware of the importance of women as an allied fighting force. 

Since the rise of the colonial revolution at the beginning of this century, women have participated in anti-imperialist upsurges, but there has not been a tradition of women organising as women, around their specific demands, as a distinct component of these struggles. However, the development of the world capitalist system since World War II has sharpened the economic, social, and political contradictions which will more and more propel women into struggle around their own demands. 

The long-term capitalist depression which was signaled by the generalised international recession of 1974-75 has had a magnified effect on the underdeveloped world. The Third World debt crisis is the attempt by imperialists to foist the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the masses in these countries. A disproportionate weight of the economic crisis falls on women, in the forms of rising prices, cutbacks in the rudimentary health and education facilities that exist, and increased misery in the countryside. Thus the gap between what is possible for women and what exists is widening. 

The impact of this contradiction on the consciousness of women is reinforced today by the impact of the international women's liberation movement which has inspired women around the world and popularised and legitimised their demands. This has been exemplified by the extent of involvement of women worldwide during the Decade of Women from 1975 to 1985. At the first major conference in Mexico in 1975, the major representation and focus came from women in the industrialised countries. By the final conference in Harare in 1985, Third World women and their situation predominated. 

But even more influential are examples of what can be achieved by the victorious liberation movements, even in the face of constant harassment and military attack by imperialism. Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua are seen as symbols of the struggle to overthrow the yoke of imperialism. They provide living examples of what can be achieved when the wealth of the country is channeled to address the needs of the majority, decided by the direct democratic control of that majority, and the consequences for what this can mean for women. They demonstrate the real possibilities for change-not some abstract utopia. These revolutions, just as the Chinese and Russian revolutions did before them, serve as an indication of the gains that can be made in economically backward and predominantly peasant countries. 

Revolutionary Cuba

The Cuban Revolution has more consciously taken up the struggle against women's oppression than any other since the early days of the Russian Revolution. 

After the victory of the socialist revolution in Cuba, extensive health and education services and employment programs in a wide variety of fields were set in place. The Federation of Cuban Women was established so that women's equality was not just proclaimed but a structure was set in place for women to organise and wage the battle for equality. The battle to change sexist attitudes has been taken up and codified in law where men's family responsibilities to take half the domestic work is elaborated. 

Today Cuban women are spread across the most skilled areas in the economy. Women hold 54% of technical jobs. Women dominate the educational and medical sphere, from the lowest to the highest strata, and they win access to these areas in open competition with men. Hundreds of child care centres have been opened. 

Women have played a leading role in Cuba's many international aid projects-from humanitarian to military. Women are increasingly filling major public positions in government and diplomacy. 

These advances for women have taken place in a small Third World island nation 140 kilometres off the coast of its most determined enemy, the USA. Cuba is resource poor. Moreover, it has suffered a 30-year economic blockade imposed by the United States, forcing it to rely on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for the supply of fuel and machinery. It has repeatedly been subjected to acts of aggression from the US, with the US military base at Guantanamo Bay providing a permanent threat to Cuba's security. 

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba faces enormous economic difficulties. Cuba has lost access to its most significant trading partners and faces an even more stringent economic blockade imposed by the US on ships of any country trading with Cuba. Yet the economic privations which the Cuban people are suffering are collectively shared. And the programs to extent greater equality for women continue. 

Despite all these problems, Cuba continues to serve as a shining example to other Third World peoples and particularly to the poor in Latin America over the past 30 years. 

The Sandinista experience in Nicaragua

The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua has built on the lessons of revolutionary Cuba and on the impact of the emergence of the second wave of women's liberation struggles world-wide. Nicaraguan women organised as a separate force in the national organisation of women, AMPRONAC, which was part of the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Somoza and to mobilise women to play their part in this struggle. 

In 1979, after the overthrow of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship, AMPRONAC changed its name to AMNLAE with two objectives-to fight to defend the revolution and to fight for women's liberation within the revolution. 

In 1977 only 29% of women were economically active. By the late 1980s women represented 37% of industrial workers, 35% of agricultural workers and 44% of the cooperative movement. Many women joined the women's battalions in the army and the popular militias. Around 80% of the revolutionary nightwatch and 70% of the Civil Defence Brigades were women. Women held 31% of the leadership posts in the Sandinista government. They were offered technical training and scholarships for tertiary education. Childcare centres in the city and rural areas were built. 

The increased participation of women in the political and productive life of Nicaragua was spurred on by the fight against the US-backed contra war. But throughout this period, not only economic advances were made. Advances were made in all areas of attitudinal change. Civil equality began to be established, the use of women's bodies for advertising prohibited, the divorce law amended to provide unilateral divorce, and laws establishing joint responsibility of both parents to provide food, medical attention, housing for children in and out of marriage were set in place. 

While there was a period in the mid 1980s during the war when the demands of the women were put to one side, within two years this was reversed and AMNLAE increased its role. Women entered the constituent assemblies where discussions of a new constitution were taking place. And women began to organise within the trade union and other mass organisations. This activity was directed at examining the obstacles to increased participation of women. 

These initiatives brought the problems of the "private sphere"-family planning, abortion, domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, combating machismo-into the public sphere for the first time in Nicaraguan history. The ratification of the new constitution meant that many of these demands became law. Special legal offices and centres were established to ensure these laws were enforced. These centres helped women resolve their immediate problems, educated them about their legal rights, and provided counseling. They also led campaigns to expose violence against women. Similar transformations of better conditions and women's demands have taken place in the workplace with unions for the first time taking on some of the responsibilities and demands, even offering sex education and family planning at work. 

At the time of the 1990 parliamentary elections in Nicaragua, laws concerning physical abuse of women and children and decriminal- isation of abortion were waiting to be passed in the National Assembly. Since the FSLN lost these elections, AMNLAE has had to go on the offensive to prevent erosions to the gains made for women by the pro-US government of President Violetta Chamorro who has made a point of promising that her government would return women to the home under patria potestad-the "right" of the husband to "control" his family. Massive cuts of jobs and cuts to women's projects have taken place. In 1992 one of the most repressive anti-homosexual laws in Latin America was adopted by the Chamorro government. 

Discussions and evaluations are also taking place about the role of AMNLAE, its relation to the FSLN and ways to improve the organisation of women in the struggle for their rights. But the gains made by Nicaraguan women during the 10-year period of revolutionary government under the FSLN's leadership provide an inspiring example of the way forward for women in other under- developed capitalist countries. 

In many countries today women are organising themselves in a similar way to the Nicaragua experience. Women's organisations and the separate mobilisation of women are taking place in unity with the general mobilisation of the oppressed in countries like the Philippines, Palestine, Indonesia, etc. 

Increasingly the Nicaraguan experience of "the revolution inside the revolution" is seen as the model to organise the struggles of women with those of the oppressed — whether in the Third World or internationally. The content and intent of the first early years of the Russian Revolution is thus reaffirmed as the way forward even if the organisational forms have developed since that time.