Introduction - 8.2

As tribal groups and ethnic minorities are incorporated into larger economic and political systems, a number of changes affect the women in these societies. While it is difficult to generalize about the current situation of women in the thousands of ethnic groups in the world, this issue identifies some apparent trends. The articles that follow - as well as a number of other publications, some of which are listed in this issue - indicate that with a few exceptions the plight of tribal or ethnically distinct women is worse than that of men.

Evaluating the relationship of a woman's culture to that of dominant cultures or political or economic systems may give insights into the diverse problems that confront women in the world. The articles in this issue discuss women in the following contexts. These are by no means an exhaustive list, but they do suggest areas of further inquiry:

* women of groups in initial contact

* women of groups in sustained contact

* women and state policies and programs

* women and industries

* women and the political arena

Within each of these general areas some patterns begin to emerge which appear to affect women the world over.

Women of Groups in Initial Contact

A number of studies have argued that the relationship between the sexes are more equal within groups that have had little or no contact with the outside world, and that once contact becomes sustained, the status of women deteriorates. The articles that follow indicate that there is considerable variation regarding this issue. Endicott and Nowak's pieces on two aboriginal groups in Malaysia cast doubt on such generalizations. Endicott, for example, argues that Batek are highly egalitarian and remain so in spite of government attempts to convert the group to Islam and to appoint headmen in villages where women are traditional leaders. Among the Batek, wages are now redistributed in the same way as produce from hunting, gathering or gardening. Nowak writes that the Malaysian government attempts to elevate only men to the status of landowners are not recognized by Btsisi' who have also resisted government-imposed religious conversion. Both Batek and Btsisi' illustrate that in spite of the prejudices in Malaysian society against women and aboriginals, both Batek and Btsisi' have maintained egalitarian relationships between the sexes.

During the past 25 years the Shavante of central Brazil have found themselves surrounded by Brazilian nationals. While a Shavante recently became the first Indian to serve in Brazil's Parliament and the government named its first fighter plane after the Shavante, the national respect that has come grudgingly to the group has not improved the lot of women. In fact, the workload of women appears to have steadily increased while men offer less assistance than before. Even the technological innovations now available - tractors, guns, etc. - help men with their work but do little to ease the workload of women. Shavante now wear clothes which women must wash. Women also tend the newly acquired domestic animals; yet, the income from women's activities is controlled by men.

The Efe Mbuti pygmies of northeastern Zaire have long established exchange relationships with Balese villagers. Peacock argues that while such exchanges are normally assumed to be dominated by men, in fact women exchange most items and are key to the success of the entire exchange system. Peacock also discusses a number of threats to the Mbuti way of life. One is that a number of Mbuti women are now marrying Balese village men. While such moves may raise the status of individual women they will destroy Mbuti culture if done on a large scale.

Martin's piece about Tiboli women in the Philippines paints a picture of women caught between conflicting cultural values. The paths chosen by the three women that she profiles indicate that such diversity of individual choice might well undermine the cultural ties essential for the Tiboli if they are to remain united to protect their culture and their land.,/P>

Griffin argues that the Agta are being assimilated at the bottom of Philippine society; at the same time settlers are introducing the alien concept that men have higher status than women. Agta women, however, dominate the agricultural wage-labor work for settlers in the area, working to acquire cereal grains and cultivated roots which the Agta now prefer to foods gathered in the wild. Because of their increased contact with outsiders through wage-labor and trading. Griffin reports, women are often sexually harassed and even raped.

Violence against tribal women, apparently because of their low social status, is not uncommon. The article on Ho women in Bihar, India discusses how women raped by outsiders lose social and ritual rights. They cannot own land; even water cannot be accepted from them. In order to earn a living such women must turn to begging or prostitution or migrate to cities.

Aitchison examines violence directed at refugee women in Djibouti. From a number of interviews she concludes that rape, sexual abuse and resultant health hazards dramatically affect the lives of refugee women though they will rarely discuss it. While Aitchison's research is confined to refugee women's experiences in Djibouti, reports from other countries indicate that such problems may be widespread.

Women of Groups in Sustained Contact

The Rashiidy Bedouin of northeastern Sudan have recently abandoned a nomadic pastoral existence for life in villages. While men have more employment possibilities than before, women in these Moslem villages are restricted to activities that are strictly segregated by sex. Rashiidy women now depend almost entirely on their men to improve their condition.

By contrast, Beneria found that in the L'Oulja area of Morocco, most women perform a variety of tasks outside of the household. Their work, however, is seen as secondary, as "helping," their primary role being domestic. Official labor statistics ignore the contribution of women who, because they themselves view their work as "temporary," accept working conditions far below those acceptable to men.

In India, the green revolution - the mechanization of agriculture and the use of fertilizers, herbicides and improved seed varieties - has reduced the number of days of employment, particularly for women. Mencher argues that most women simply want enough work to be able to stay in the villages, otherwise they will be forced to migrate to cities.

Many women in the Andes depend on the small-scale marketing of their own produce or supplies of goods they purchase from wholesalers to provide extra - or, in some cases, their families' only - income. Today, marketing is increasingly under the control of individuals or groups who want to restrict or eliminate the activities of these petty merchants. Thus the livelihood of these women and their families is threatened.

The outside employment of males does not appear to have a uniform impact on their families. Boyd's article on the Awa in Papua New Guinea argues that the unpaid agricultural labor of women in villages subsidizes an exploitative, wage-labor system where men migrate long distances to work on coastal plantations.

Among the Yura of highland Bolivia, traditional reciprocal work relationships have made it possible for men or women to be gone during the agricultural season. In fact, Harman suggests that if wage-labor is introduced in these highland areas, it would disrupt traditional labor arrangements and possibly threaten the communal land-use systems that have not yet been recognized by the government.

In Yemen the migration of up to 50 percent of the adult males from some regions to work in other countries has had a profound effect on women, most of whom stay behind. Hebert argues that the increased income from remittances reduces the workload for women - some tasks which previously took six hours now require only one - but that remittances have also contributed to inflation. More importantly, the absence of men puts married women under the control of their in-laws for long periods; as a result the divorce rate has increased.

Women and State Policies and Programs

Four articles discuss the relationship of women to government policies or programs. Whiting, in a discussion of educational systems and the Kikuyu in Keyna, argues that women as primary caretakers of children the world over, play an important role in facilitating or hindering the changes in values and family life encouraged by states. Yet, as she points out, new values are often in conflict with traditional ones, leading to changes in family and village social organization and placing great strain on the resources of the state. Now, many young people are fully educated and ready to work but there are no jobs. In the meantime, because of their new values and lack of traditional skills, these graduates cannot easily go back to live in their villages.

Schildkrout, in a similar vein, discusses the role of Hausa women in northern Nigeria in the education of their daughters. Secluded Moslem women in this region market products through their young daughters who can sell them in public. The young girls earn money which is used later for their dowries. Schooling takes girls away from such marketing activities and postpones purdah for women long past the age of 10-12 when it usually starts. For both these reasons, traditional Hausa women have been reluctant to allow their daughters to attend public schools. There is an additional concern that once educated there will be few jobs for women.

The formal legal status of Moslem women has changed since the beginning of the century. In her article Mayor argues, however, that whatever progress has been made in the Middle East, is not irreversible. Governments, such as the one in Iran or, oddly enough, those rich with oil income, often propose "reforms" which cause a deterioration in the legal status of women. In the meantime, as Beneria, Hebert and Schildkrout's pieces demonstrate, women's lives change with or without formal, legal recognition.

Another area in which government programs affect women is in health care. Babb discusses a Bolivian health care system designed to be promoted through village women. Officials were convinced that since women are the primary deliverers of health care and the protectors of the health and well-being of the families. They could be an effective resource for extending formal health care into local communities.

Women and Industries

There is considerable debate as to whether the type of industrialization that is now occurring in the Third World is "good for women." Within the present international economy, Enloe concludes, factories are being established in the Third World because it is cost effective. At such plants imported parts are assembled into products that are designed for export. Young, unorganized women are easily recruited for low wages and local governments guarantee minimal labor problems. Women do not gain skills that improve their lot. In many cases women's earnings are controlled by men within their families. Recently, however, women in a number of countries have begun to organize these factories.

In an article which discusses the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) proposed by President Reagan, Sara argues that while the proposal would lead to the establishment of industries and the creation of jobs, profits will ultimately depend upon exploiting unorganized, predominantly female laborers. Safa sees the CBI as yet another example of an "international division of labor that pits countries and workers against each other on a global scale."

Guttmacher, who works with women migrants in the US, argues that most Latin American migrants are, contrary to popular opinion, women, and that most of them were forced onto national and international labor markets due to drastic changes in their communities, many of which resulted from "modernization." In the US women migrants are paid less than their male counterparts and are more easily controlled. In addition they face a number of serious health problems, both on the job - often at home - and off, which are exacerbated by their often illegal status in the US.

Women and the Political Arena

Women the world over are beginning to organize to protect their rights and their ways of life. In some cases they are infusing public life with a new moral perspective based on their traditional female role. In other cases they are taking back a role that has been recently denied them. The interview with Darlene Keju explores the profound role women have played in the struggle of the Marshallese people to take control of their land as well as what happens to it.

The success of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, after years of silent vigil, contributed to the fall of the military government and the need of the country to purge itself of the perpetrators of atrocities against thousands of innocent people. While the success of these women has scared military governments throughout the southern cone, perhaps the world, a similar movement is gaining momentum in Chile. Bunster documents the struggles of women in Chile to take an active role in the political arena and to topple the Pinochet government. In Chile, as in Argentina, women are becoming the guardians of moral order in their society as well as in their families.


As societies come into increasing contact with larger economic and political systems, the lives of women are irrevocably altered, in many cases negatively. Yet, improvements in the lives of these women can only be brought about within the context of their own cultures and within the cultures of the groups that are coming to dominate them. Improvements, however, will not only result from quantitative analyses of the situation of women but also from qualitative ones. While it is hard to quantify values, beliefs and cultural variables, they will prove to be as important for understanding what appears to be the general deterioration of the status of women in a number of societies as a focus on wages, number of days worked or percent of jobs held. In the West there has, perhaps, not been enough emphasis on the values and beliefs that produce the types of data on women that are easily quantified.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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