Power for Some, but Poverty, Abuse for Millions More

Emily Owino has probably never heard of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or any of the other 98 politicians and corporate executives who make up this year's Forbes magazine list of the world's most powerful women.

While the women who made the list are worthy of admiration, millions of powerless women worldwide like Owino — a Kenyan widow whose in-laws had her raped and thrown out of her home after her husband's death — are equally worthy of attention.

Forbes picked its most powerful women by looking at their economic prowess and citations in the media, but the world's most powerless women are, for the most part, poor and invisible.

It is not just poverty, however, experts told ABCNEWS.com, that keeps women from effecting change in their own lives and the lives of others; it is a variety of factors, from deep-seated cultural mores, lack of access to education and discrimination, to disease, war and unfair laws.

By custom, Owino, 61, was ritually raped by a stranger on the order of her in-laws in order to keep the house in which she had lived since marrying her husband at 15, Human Rights Watch reported.

"They said I had to be cleansed [raped] in order to stay in my home," Owino told Human Rights Watch. "I tried to refuse, but my in-laws said I must be cleansed or they'd beat me and chase me out of my home. … I had young children who were sick and no one would assist us. I couldn't buy clothes, we couldn't eat and I had no cooking pots. When I came back from my mother's home, I saw that my land and last few possessions were taken. I was destitute."

While customs, laws and contributing factors differ around the world, the plights of powerless women in the developing world are surprisingly similar.

"There are some really pretty powerless women because there are legal and cultural things these women can do nothing about," said Kathy Blakeslee, director of the women in development office at the United States Agency for International Development.

"These are not simply pathetic women, but people who are often subject to violence, abuse and unjust laws," Blakeslee said of many women in the developing world. "Both men and women are poor, but women have the added disadvantage of being in places where the laws and customs are hostile to them. In some cases, they don't have a chance."

Economists, activists and aid workers look at a variety of factors in evaluating women's empowerment.

Most of the 1 billion people worldwide subsisting on between $1 and $2 a day are women, according to the United Nations.

"In the past decade the number of women living in poverty has increased disproportionately to the number of men, particularly in the developing countries," the U.N. Population Fund wrote in a recent report. "In addition to economic factors, the rigidity of socially ascribed gender roles and women's limited access to power, education, training and productive resources … are also responsible."

Indicators like the ages at which women quit school, get married and begin having children all contribute to the understanding of how and why women become disenfranchised.

"Whether you're looking at Bangladesh or Ethiopia, it really doesn't matter. The situations are incredibly similar," said Mary Beth Powers, a program chief at Save the Children.

"Girls at the age of 10 or 12 are forced or encouraged to leave school. … At 12 or 13, it becomes the job [of] a girl's parents to marry her off. It's the same in sub-Saharan Africa as it is in Asia," Powers said.

Even things like a woman's ability to travel contribute to understanding just how powerful or powerless she really is.

"In places like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan a woman's mobility is really limited. After a girl begins menstruating, her movements are more closely controlled. She might only be allowed to visit the four houses in her family's compound," Powers said.

In the United States, women are also kept disempowered through economics, violence and discrimination, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women.

"Women have made dramatic progress compared to a century ago when they couldn't vote, own property or enter contracts on their own," Powers said.

"Those with less access to education and knowledge have less power to make change. Education is critical, but there are great imbalances in the system even from one county to the next or one state to the next. … Women and children are the majority of people living in poverty. Women are the primary custodians of their children and therefore have more mouths to feed. Their checks can only go so far when making 77 cents on the dollar as compared to men," she said.

"Power ultimately is the ability to make change. The Forbes list is a start, but there is still much work to be done."