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Women fuel global economy

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It seems being born female comes with a price.

The large majority of women worldwide are among the lowest wage earners, if they're paid at all. Ironically, world trade, the global movement that promised to lift the destitute out of poverty, has increased inequality. The rich are getting richer while the poor stay poor. The concept seemed sound: Raise the living standard of even the tiniest nation by giving it access to foreign markets and investments. But in practice, poor countries are being railroaded by wealthy ones. And the women, in particular, are suffering.

Weaker developing nations, such as Thailand and Senegal, have been forced by international regulators to accept stiff tariffs on their own exports, while competing against cheap subsidized crops grown by developed countries. U.S. cotton farmers alone get government checks exceeding $3 billion a year, suppressing cotton prices by 25 percent worldwide. The impact has been

devastating on emerging markets, with women bearing the brunt of the economic hardship.

A nonprofit group, The Women's Edge Coalition, is studying the impact of the first decade of NAFTA. Despite an increase in trade, the preliminary findings of Women's Edge reveal a startling loss of agricultural jobs in Mexico. Co-founder Ritu Sharma blames that loss, in part, on subsidies on corn, beans and sorghum — resulting in cheap prices the Mexicans can't match. Sharma says many Mexican men have left the farms for jobs in the U.S., contributing to the flood of illegal workers here. With the feminization of farming, wives left behind must not only tend the fields, but also raise the children alone. It's a hard life for these families, split apart.

Women are invisible in the global economy, but their work is its fuel. According to a Bill Moyers report, factory women in Thailand sewing sneakers for U.S. companies make less than four dollars a day. But their wages may drop lower and deplorable working conditions worsen. According to the U.N. Development Fund for Women, a hidden consequence of open markets is that the poorest people in the poorest countries compete against each other for scarce jobs. American companies hiring overseas, such as Nike or Reebok, have pledged to abide by minimum wage laws and limit weekly work hours. But abuse of these conduct codes is often ignored by local officials contriving ways to lure global employers.

The exploitation of impoverished women will eventually only hurt, not help, international trade — and depress, not boost, the world economy. A study of the Middle East and North Africa, just published by the World Bank, calls women a "huge, untapped" economic resource. The bank's vice president Christian Poortman says, "No country can raise the standard of living and improve the well-being of its people without the participation of half its population.... To hold (women) back is to hold back the potential for economic growth."

The principle of promoting growth and stability by advancing women applies far beyond the developing world. As ambassador to Austria, I saw first hand the grit and creativity of women in extreme hardship. After the siege of Sarajevo was lifted, I helped design a "Bosnian Women's Initiative," run by the U.N., to provide women business loans, training and equipment. Coping with lost fathers, brothers, and sons, these women had grown in strength and resourcefulness — qualities essential to building a business or rebuilding a country. Through the Clinton-funded program, women survivors were taught computer, construction, and horticulture skills. In a region with 60 percent unemployment, I met a single mother who had hired six workers (from all ethnic groups, by the way) to cut sugar cubes by hand in a small room in her home. The thousands of women in the program bridged political divides while stimulating economic activity.

I think of those women in Bosnia when I read headlines about some of the world's poorest countries now flexing their muscles. India and Brazil led a walk out at the recent World Trade Organization talks in Cancun. The brouhaha was over tariffs, subsidies, and investment rights. But beyond highly charged dipplobabble and fist-shaking so prominent in global negotiations,

Most economists agree on a simpler, undisputed fact. The most important single way to lift a country out of poverty is to educate and train its women Globalization is here to stay. Let's get smart about it.

Swanee Hunt, who lectures at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is the former U.S. ambassador to Austria, and can be reached at response@swaneehunt.org.