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LIFE AIN'T FAIR - JUST ASK THE WORLD'S WOMEN

A study released Thursday supports what women worldwide have long suspected: They are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated - even in the most egalitarian nations.

For the sixth year in a row, the U.N. Human Development Report ranked the world's countries on an index based on such criteria as life-expectancy, education and income.Canada was first on the regular scale for the second year in row; the United States was second, up from eighth last year; and Japan was third, unchanged from 1994. At the bottom of 174 nations were Mali, Sierra Leone and - in last place - Niger.

This year, the researchers introduced a new dimension by adding gender as a factor.

"The male community is going to hate us," said Mahbub ul Haq, a leader of the team that wrote the report for the U.N. Development Program - and a man.

"It came out, in country after country, that women do 53 percent of the total work and men do 47 percent - some paid, some unpaid, some direct, some indirect, some in the market, some in the household," he said.

Topping the gender-related scale were Nordic countries, with Sweden first, followed by Finland, Norway and Denmark.

"This is hardly surprising," said the 230-page report. "These countries have adopted gender equality and women's empowerment as conscious national policies."

The United States was fifth, followed by Australia, France and Japan. At the bottom - Mali, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

Nordic women make up at least 30 percent of their countries' national legislatures. In the United States, about 10 percent of Congress is female.

Worldwide, women hold only 10 percent of legislative seats and 6 percent of government Cabinet posts. Seventy percent of the world's 1.3 billion people living in poverty were women.

To judge the total contribution of women, the report estimated the value of such unpaid work as child care, housework and farm labor as $16 billion for both sexes. The report said about $11 billion worth of that work was done by women, who toiled longer than men in every country.

"If women's work were accurately reflected in national statistics, it would shatter the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world," said Haq, a former Pakistani finance minister who is special adviser to U.N. Development Program.

Even in the Nordic countries, women lagged behind men. Sweden was best on the gender development index, scoring 0.92 with 1.00 indicating total sexual equality. Afghanistan - at the bottom - rated a 0.169 index.

Strong economic, educational and health-care development doesn't automatically mean that men in those countries share wealth, power and opportunities with women.