Life for women in the developing world is fraught with challenges. To overcome them, they need to continue pushing on their own behalf, but they also need more support from men, according to several speakers at a two-day conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Late in the session, the moderator of a panel on politics raised a question that underscored that notion and touched a nerve.

“It’s absolutely true that we need men to encourage and support women. How can we do this? How can we get more men at conferences like this?” relayed Asim Ijaz Khwaja from a group of questions collected from the audience.

Khwaja, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said he was initially surprised and pleased to be a male minority in a hall filled almost entirely with women, and then was dismayed to realize that there were “so few men” participating.

Since 2003, the Radcliffe conference has explored how a variety of topics relate to gender. Past seminars have addressed the law, art, food, and religion. This year’s event drew together scholars from around the globe for “Driving Change Shaping Lives: Gender in the Developing World.”

In conjunction with the conference, Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library has mounted the exhibit “Our Bodies, Ourselves: The Collective Goes Global.” On view through Oct. 12, the show charts the creation and lasting impact of the 1970 publication “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” what many consider “the bible of women’s health.”

A key to empowering women in developing nations is the commitment and support of men and male-dominated societies and governments that can introduce important reforms, said several participants.

A top political leader in Malawi said she understood that dynamic when she took critical steps to engage men in reducing the nation’s high maternal mortality rate. In a grassroots effort, she helped to get village chiefs in the countryside to encourage women to give birth at health clinics instead of at home.

Turning the chiefs into “change agents,” said Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda during a session on health, has yielded “positive results.”

“Once you have won over the chief,” said Banda, “you have won over the whole community.”

During the panel, Kirk Smith offered sobering statistics involving his research on cooking in the developing world. Exposure to indoor pollution from stoves that burn solid fuels kills an estimated 1.5 million women and children annually, said the professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley. Newer, safer stoves are available and when used cut mortality rates dramatically, but their implementation typically requires the engagement and the approval of male heads of households who have “most of the control of the money,” said Smith.

But the panelists uniformly agreed that the women in the developing world are also taking the lead in changing their own lives.

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a union of 1.3 million poor women workers in India’s informal economy of home-based workers, street vendors, artisans, craftswomen, agricultural laborers, and domestic workers. Founded in 1972, the union has helped women to fight for their economic rights and has spurred more than 100 cooperatives — collectives of businesswomen — as well as ones geared toward social services such as health programs. Women are the driving force.

“It’s impossible for women to fight against injustice and inequality alone,” said Mirai Chatterjee, SEWA’s director of social security. “Through the system or through the collective, [the woman] is inspired, she gets strength, she gets courage. They stand by her, and slowly, slowly she begins to fight for change within the family, within the community, and society at large.”

Thuwayba Al-Barwani, dean of the college of education at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, described a renaissance in her country over the past 40 years, one guided in large part by a strong focus on educating both boys and girls. She called the social indicators of Oman’s education reforms “very positive,” citing lower maternal mortality rates, fewer divorces, and a higher life expectancy for educated women.

Women “know that their empowerment lies in their ability to use their wisdom,” she said.

Many women reject labels of victimhood, according to Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, who offered firsthand insight and a counterintuitive perspective on the plight of migrant laborers during the conference’s opening panel on March 3.

Parreñas, an authority on sex trafficking and migration, spent nine months in 2005 alongside Philippine women who work as hostesses in Japanese social clubs. Many of the women choose the work, consider it a “path to economic mobility,” and enjoy their jobs of flirting, singing, and dancing, said Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. Their classification as trafficked persons by the U.S. Department of State, she argued, prevented many from returning to Japan and resulted in the loss of an occupation that most “actually found empowering.”

In a panel on politics, Aloisea Inyumba, a senator in the Rwandan parliament, said there had been a paradigm shift in her country following its 1994 genocide. People there agreed, she said, that “politics was going to be based on the basic and fundamental concerns of our people,” and not on discrimination and hate.

“It’s from this new definition that the women of our country took the lead to rebuild our country,” said Inyumba, alluding to the Rwandan parliament where women hold 56 percent of the seats.

In a brief summary of the conference, Jacqueline Bhabha, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, acknowledged that empowering women in the developing world requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches. Men and women in positions of power and authority play a key role in driving change, as do organizations such as unions and cooperatives that involve local communities in making a positive difference in women’s lives.

Offering parting remarks, Radcliffe Dean Barbara J. Grosz said she was inspired by the number of people who had stopped her in the hallway during the two-day event to say they had “learned a great deal here, they had new collaborations, they had new research to do, they thought of new scholarship, and there were new actions that they were going to take.”

Read information on International Women’s Day events.

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