AP 6 Sep 94 15:26 EDT V0314 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Lilian Wambue thought she was coming to Cairo's population conference to talk about the plight of African women.

Instead, the Cameroon gynecologist says angrily, the meeting is being monopolized by debate over the morality of abortion and other secondary issues.

"I have women dying in my arms almost every day," Wambue said. "They're not dying from abortions. They're dying from childbirth. I can't even save them from childbirth."

Similar complaints are frequently heard among thousands of grassroots activists from non-governmental organizations attending the U.N. Conference on Population and Development.

So far, abortion and two other highly emotional issues -- birth control and sex education for adolescents -- are dominating debate.

The Vatican, anti-abortion Christian groups and some Muslims have catapulted their opposition into world headlines. For Wambue, all the fanfare is clouding real issues: social and economic conditions that keep masses of African women living in the Dark Ages.

Lydia Joachim came to Cairo from Tanzania. She also worries that women's basic needs are being overlooked because of the heated debate. "At times we can't deliver babies because there's no water in the clinics," she said.

Giving women some control over their destiny is a main conference theme. The proposed conference report talks about women's health, welfare, education and gender equality, but this "empowerment" talk is beyond Wambue's life in Cameroon.

"Empowerment? This is a modern term. You can't imagine the women I see," she said. "They don't know anything. They come to me for answers. They bring them in dying from the countryside, and I can't save them."

Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among leading causes of death for women of reproductive age in many poor countries. It's estimated that about 500,000 women, 99 percent of whom are from developing countries, die of pregnancy-related causes every year.

Uneducated women have more children. The more children a woman bears, the better chance she has of dying in childbirth.

In developed countries, a woman's chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is 1 in 10,000. In developing countries, the average is 1 in 20.

Joachim, whose group is called Community Development and Women's Affairs, knows firsthand the suffering of rural African women.

"Sometimes, there are birth control devices on the shelves when we don't have the medicine we need -- medicine as simple as a headache remedy," Joachim said.

She said a common scenario in Tanzania is for families in rural areas to travel long distances to medical centers, hoping to save a pregnant woman having difficulty delivering.

"Can you believe we often have to send them back to villages where there's only traditional help, because there's no water in the clinic?" asked Joachim.

"Not even dirty water."