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Regional trends affecting the situation of rural women

Recent developments in the social, economic and technological arenas have important effects on rural women across Asia and the Pacific region. The relevant trends are globalization, regional economic integration and accelerated commercialisation, urbanization, advances in agriculture and information technologies, political instability, civil war, HIV/AIDS, livestock epidemics and natural disasters. The multiple impacts on rural women bring significant implications for agricultural productivity, rural production and economic vitality, household food security, family health, family economic security and welfare. Few systematic studies have examined how these trends affect rural women. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that economic integration and advances in agriculture and information technologies present both opportunities and threats for rural women’s livelihoods and work, whereas political instability, natural disasters and HIV/AIDS exert considerable additional pressure on rural women’s access to resources and their work as farmers and producers.

Economic transformation and agriculture’s contribution

Regional economic transformation was accompanied by a steady reduction in the relative share of agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) across the region. While this reduction was striking in some countries - for instance in Thailand the contribution of agriculture to GDP dropped from 23.2 percent in 1980 to 9.1 percent in 2000 - it was not uniform throughout the region as documented in Table 11. Indeed, although the relative share of agriculture in the economy decreased in Asia and the Pacific region as a whole, agriculture continues to make an important contribution to the economy and by extension to food security and rural poverty alleviation in many countries. In 2000, agriculture accounted for 59.9 percent of the GDP of Myanmar. Bhutan, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Nepal and Uzbekistan each derived more than a third of their GDP from agriculture, whereas in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Viet Nam, Papua New Guinea and Tonga agriculture contributed a quarter or more to the GDP. It is noteworthy that China and India - the two most populous countries in the region - continue to derive a significant portion of their GDP (15.9 percent and 25.3 percent respectively) from agriculture.

In the region, most countries with substantial dependence on agriculture also are low-income food deficit countries (LIFDCs). The paradox seems to be that countries that depend on agriculture also lag in achieving improvements in food security. An alternative view could be that the countries that are competing to serve the world agriculture market with cheap food to meet global consumer preferences confront food insecurity struggle at home. These data suggest that in countries with a high reliance on the agriculture sector, the rural populations - including women - could face the highest risk of food insecurity and low incomes. Consistent neglect of the agriculture sector in many countries throughout Asia and the Pacific region has made it a career of last choice for men and women with other more profitable options.

Table 11. Contribution of the agriculture sector to GDP in selected countries in Asia and the Pacific region (percent)

Low-income food deficit country






































Korea, DPR



Korea, Republic of




































Sri Lanka

















Viet Nam




Pacific Islands

Cook Islands










Marshall Islands



Papua New Guinea





Salomon Islands











Samoa (Western)



Source: Asian Development Bank, Key Indicators of Developing Asian and Pacific Countries (Table 13: Sectoral Share of GDP), 2001.

FAO, Low-Income Food Deficit Countries:

Economic structural transformation marked by decreasing reliance on agriculture has several implications for the economic role of rural women in the sector and consequently for food security. Firstly, fundamental changes in national economic systems and the agricultural sector result in a loss of livelihood opportunities. Secondly, subsistence food production to satisfy household food needs can become unsustainable and households become increasingly dependent on the cash economy to access food. Thirdly, opportunities are lacking for displaced rural women to find viable livelihood alternatives within the rural production system to give an economic return on their labour. Finally, as agriculture production is transformed to become competitive amidst increased global economic linkages, rural women with limited skills and low education are likely to face greater risk of economic vulnerability. With the agriculture sector being organized for export driven production, land resources are being consolidated leaving subsistence farmers to sell the land; thus women may become agricultural labourers instead of farmers of family holdings. As women usually receive lower wages than men, their ability to ensure access to food will be adversely affected.

In this context it is important to address the issue of rural poverty in the region. The percentage of the population below the poverty line declined in the region from 32 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2000. Yet the region is still home to 720 million poor people or two thirds of the world’s poor (ADB, 2005). In Asia and the Pacific region poverty is basically a rural problem, and the gap between rural and urban poverty is widening over time in spite of impressive progress in the last three decades in economic growth and poverty reduction. Two thirds of the world’s poor live in this region and the majority of the poor are women. Most live in rural areas. Thus it can be inferred that rural women are the poorest among the poor. The increasing representation of women among the poor is referred as the “feminization of poverty”. In many rural areas of Asia, more women than men are among the “working poor” than among the poor as a whole. Women also are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest remunerated categories of self-employment and casual labour (IFAD, 2002). The reinforcing causal link between the “feminization of poverty” and the “feminization of agriculture” is a key rural gender equality concern in the region with considerable importance to rural poverty eradication programmes.

Global economic integration

Initial unbridled enthusiasm for globalization across the region was gradually tempered by the realities of internal vulnerabilities, notably the lack of safety nets for the working poor and rural poor at times of economic crisis. In spite of the economic crisis that rocked the region in the 1990s, there remains a pragmatic realization that globalization cannot be circumvented, and that it must be properly managed for the benefit of the larger population rather than the enrichment of a few. The current reality is that regional economic integration - formal as well as informal - continues to affect household food security in Asia and the Pacific region. The households’ access to “food basket” commodities depends on economic and social circumstances beyond their local farming system. For example, labour migration for employment and overseas remittances have a positive effect on household food security in many Asian and Pacific rural communities. Similarly, aid and remittances play a major role in the relatively small economies of the South Pacific. In several Pacific Island countries per capita aid is amongst the highest in the world, and in many cases remittances exceeds export earnings.

The economic crisis in Southeast Asia brought a significant increase in urban poverty. Although the effects on rural areas and agriculture were not as great as initially feared, they were nevertheless considerable. Indeed, given the significant variations between and within countries, some rural areas suffered seriously. In general, the rural poor were adversely affected by crisis-induced cutbacks in rural expenditures by governments, reduced remittances and the return of unemployed urban workers that increased demands on rural households’ incomes (Hooke et al., 1999). Very few systematic studies analysed the impact of the Asian economic crisis on rural women, largely because the crisis was seen as an urban phenomenon. At the global level, the failure to consider important aspects of gender relations (including women’s unpaid reproductive work and intrahousehold allocation) leads to an inaccurate evaluation of the effect of economic liberalization on women both inside and outside the labour market (Fontana, Joekes and Masika, 1998). This begs the question of whether and how rural women’s livelihood strategies might have mitigated the effect of the economic crisis in rural Asia.

“The effectiveness of rural women’s livelihood strategies to support families and reduce adverse family financial impacts during the Asian financial crisis and other urban economic shocks remains poorly understood.”

Economic integration can occur within national boundaries as well as among countries. These two distinct forms of integration may or may not be linked to the trend of accelerated economic globalization. Rural production can move from subsistence agriculture to the cash economy with or without access to global markets. The demand for agricultural commodities in the global market acts as a force that can influence production and affect rural women’s situation, albeit with differences dependant on the scale and type of the farming enterprise (United Nations General Assembly, 1999). Demand for cash can drive the commercialisation process of subsistence production as women take steps to sell their home-grown produce, small livestock and home-produced foodstuffs in local markets and urban centres. Such home-grown enterprises are likely to face competition from larger scale, industrially processed food products.

For those fortunate groups with land holdings of a sufficient scale to be devoted to contract farming (either undertaken by farm households themselves or by agriculture processing enterprises), and the advantageous attainment of education and skills, it would be easy to trace the direct effect of the global market demand for agricultural produce. In these production systems, which aim to capture a share of the global agricultural market, women with basic skills and education seem to find opportunities to expand their economic options. However, an inadequate understanding of formal labour contract processes and rules places women at risk of exploitation. At the same time, global consumer shifts in taste and demand have increased the economic risks to rural women involved in these kinds of contract agriculture enterprises (UN DAW-UNIFEM, 2001). In Pacific small island countries, the intensive competition to export similar products such as papaya to the bigger countries within the region presents problems, and the trade restrictions in the importing countries present uncertainties to the local small producers where women are highly represented.

Rural development service gap amidst regional prosperity

Uneven development in the region - largely at the expense of rural areas - has amplified the difficulties facing most rural men and women who continue to act as rural producers in family farms and subsistence agriculture and who also play a vital role in export-driven agriculture production. Although parts of rural Asia and the Pacific have experienced unprecedented technological and economic transformation in recent decades, the resulting economic growth has not translated into improved welfare for most rural residents. The main reasons for the lack of improved welfare are the general lack of supportive institutions (particularly health and education services) and the inadequate attention to improvements in rural infrastructure (ADB, 2000). At the macro policy level the significant contributions of women to rural production and food security have generally been ignored, and poorly, if at all, considered in agriculture and rural development sector reform strategies and budgetary allocations.

Although development in Asia and the Pacific region has tended to focus attention on fast-growing urban population centres, recent reports estimate that the number of rural Asians will not likely decline any time soon. The Asian Development Bank estimates that there likely will be 2.2 billion rural Asians by the year 2020, and that this rural population will have much lower access to health and education and an overall lower level of general well being (ADB, 2000). In most countries of Asia and the Pacific region, the proportion of people who do not have access to proper shelter, clean and reliable water, and adequate sanitation in rural areas is higher than in cites and towns (UNEP, not dated).

Uneven economic development has resulted in imbalances between rural and urban areas, and between agricultural and industrial areas both in economic opportunities and service infrastructure including education. Lack of basic services such as health care, clean water supply and sanitation makes it particularly difficult for rural women to fulfil their domestic and care giving activities. Lack of schools within close proximity to the villages is an impediment to rural girls’ access to education.

More than 1.5 million people live in the Pacific Island countries (PICs), not counting Papua New Guinea. About 75 percent live in rural areas with a subsistence life style. There is increasing demand for adequate water supply and sanitation in the growing urban areas in the region and for dependable and safe rural water supply. The problem of availability of water resources is much greater in atolls where in most places rainfall is low and seasonal and there are no natural storage possibilities. In the volcanic islands, where rainfall is plentiful, there are problems to maintain and adequately operate water supply systems that were built by external support agencies.

Source: United Nations Programme of Technical Cooperation, and Asian Development Bank Water and Sanitation Project, No. MIC96X01.

Demographic shifts and population dynamics

Much of Asia has entered the final phase of the demographic transition: human fertility is gradually declining to match the decline in mortality that began during the 1960s. The three facets of the demographic scenario are declining fertility, an increasing population of elderly and an increasing population of youth.

When the world’s population reaches about 2 000 million in 2050, half of it will reside in Asia. Two other significant characteristics observed in the region are the ageing of the elderly and the feminization of ageing. A considerable proportion of the elderly is living in rural areas where social and welfare services are underdeveloped (ESCAP, 2002). Another striking feature in the Asian region is the substantially higher labour force participation compared to the West because of Asia’s higher concentration in agriculture and in the informal sector, both of which do not have a compulsory retirement age (Chang, not dated). Hence the “greying” of agriculture and rural communities is a certainty in Asia. The demographic changes in China that contribute to the greying of farming and the economic hardship for the ageing farmers are illustrated in the example below.

As agriculture industrializes and market-oriented reforms continue in China, the traditional idea that farmers can rely on their children or land to support them when they get old is no longer valid. The population peak will arrive in 2030, when the country’s senior citizens will make up one-fourth of the total population. Thanks to the long tradition of respecting the elderly, family-based support is popular in China, especially in rural regions. However, more young farmers are now leaving their home for well-paid jobs in urban areas. Some even settle there. Many older people now have to live alone. Although land is usually considered as the last guarantee of life for old farmers, income from tilling the land is often not enough to support them because of the lower price of agriculture products and higher costs of growing. There are local situation specific constraints for farmers to fully participate and benefit from the voluntary state insurance system and commercial insurance.

Source: Elderly people in rural areas need help, China Daily, 6 June 2000.

The increasing mobility of rural youth in highly populated countries contributes to the growing migrant population in urban centres. Ageing and a changing gender balance in rural areas - intensified as men and the young men are pulled to urban centres in search of better opportunities - are likely to further complicate rural demographics. Consequently, people with fewer options - generally poor, illiterate rural women - have been compelled to assume a major role in the agriculture sector, resulting in the “feminization of farming”. Such a demographic composition in rural areas may lead to neglect of this rural population group by planners, thus presenting a worrisome possibility of further marginalization of the rural sector. As countries like Bangladesh, China and India seek to generate employment in small scale rural industries, microenterprises and town and village enterprises, the capable young women and men are lured away from agriculture, thus intensifying the demographic trends. Internal migration acts as a pull factor, drawing younger people to urban areas in search of more lucrative opportunities and leaving the elderly, particularly older women, behind as the principal farmers. Such a transformation of the rural population structure, along with the longer life span for women in Asia, contributes to the “feminization of the rural community”.

Population pressures seriously affect rural households in many parts of Asia and the Pacific region, with particular implications for women’s work, livelihood strategies and care-giving activities. For instance, the population of the Pacific Islands doubles every 30 years, placing considerable stress on natural resources and food security. Rapid urban drift - predominantly of young men resulting in an acute shortage of agricultural labour - results in rising population densities such as in the Marshall Islands where 8 000 people live on Ebeye atoll less than 0.5 km2 in size. Very high densities also exist in the urban centres of South Tarawa (Kiribati), Majuro (Marshall Islands) and Funafuti (Tuvalu), thus intensifying pressures on availability of land for home gardens and clean water supply, and resulting in very high unemployment levels and increased vulnerability to poverty.

HIV/AIDS posed threats to rural communities

Asia and the Pacific region now accounts for one in every five new HIV infections worldwide. Over 8 million people in the region were living with the virus at the end of 2002, of whom 2.6 million were young people aged 14 to 24 (ESCAP, 2003). The effect of HIV/AIDS on rural populations and food security is a growing concern in many parts of the region, not least in the Mekong Basin countries. HIV/AIDS is highly prevalent throughout the Mekong countries, particularly in Myanmar and Thailand (Bain, 1998). The spread of HIV/AIDS has been linked to an increasingly mobile population, moving in search of new work opportunities created by increased economic integration, unprecedented growth, and the shift from a centrally planned to a market economy. It is at the subnational level that the effect of HIV/AIDS on the economic output is likely to be hardest, especially in a region where more than 800 million people live on less than one US dollar a day (ESCAP, 2002). In rural parts of Cambodia, the high cost of medicine and the rural credit system combine to make HIV/AIDS a significant cause of landlessness. In Thailand it was found that among affected households one popular financial management strategy adopted was disposing of productive assets such as land, animals and equipment (ESCAP, 2002).

In the health sector, the spread of HIV/AIDS in many parts of rural Asia has served as a wakeup call for action, overtaking the traditional stance of silence and denial. A few countries in the region, particularly Thailand, enacted place measures in the past decade to combat HIV/AIDS. Such early commitment is paying off, but many regional countries still struggle to find a cohesive action strategy.

Anecdotal and observational information further indicates that the movement of urban immigrants infected with HIV/AIDS back to their rural villages likely will increase the demands on rural women’s support as income-earners and caregivers. The rural women in HIV/AIDS high incidence countries will face additional economic and work burdens as the family structure changes because of the attrition of family members.

Regional political realties and governance dynamics

The regional trends in political realities that affect the rural livelihoods of women highlighted here are civil conflict and the movement towards decentralized governance.

Civil conflicts

Rising levels of political instability and the increased occurrence of civil conflict throughout Asia and the Pacific region have intensified pressures on rural producers, both women and men. The dire impact of war on agriculture and food production in countries like Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Sri Lanka is widely known. Less, however, has been written about the effects of civil war and ethnic tensions in places like Nepal, Aceh, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. For women, political instability and conflict tend to result in increased agricultural work as men have been drawn away to wage war. Even in countries that apparently are peaceful today, the legacy of conflict lingers. Landmines in cultivated fields are an enduring reminder of past conflicts and constitute a real danger to rural communities. In countries such as Cambodia and Lao PDR, the number of abandoned ordinances is so great that farmers are forced to abandon productive land.

Situation of Rural Women in Sri Lanka’s Post Conflict Rural Economy

Just six kilometres from the major urban city of Trincomalee, 32 year old Ambika (a pseudonym) and her family live in a dilapidated house with no electricity, drinking water and sanitation facilities. Her husband is 36 years old. She has three surviving children after two children died when they lived in the ‘welfare camp’ - one at childbirth and the other at three months.

They returned to Kappalthurai in 2002 after ten years in a welfare camp to find their land occupied by strangers. Now they are living and farming on two acres of encroached state land. They are not concerned about getting their land back. Ambika was a farmer before displacement. After they returned she had obtained a loan to cultivate paddy but could not repay it because of crop failure on account of the drought. There is no alternative source of water as tanks are in a state of disrepair. She also has to protect her crop from wild elephants. Despite all these obstacles she has a great desire to continue farming. She grows her own seeds, goes to the store three kilometres away to purchase fertilizers and sells the produce to the trader who comes to the village.

She attends to household chores and looks after the children. She collects firewood from the nearby forest for cooking and goes to a neighbour’s well to obtain drinking water. She has a homestead with vegetables and poultry. She ensures that her children go to school, but she has to travel a long distance when she needs medical attention.

Ambika is a member of the Madar Sangam (Women’s Rural Development Society), but it is her husband who has joined the Farmers’ Organization. She has no awareness of gender issues and accepts her situation.

She is still not sure of their future and therefore does not want to build up assets or improve their housing condition as they could be displaced if war breaks out again. Her main wish is an end to the war.

(W. Leelangi & CENWOR, 2004).

Decentralized governance

Within the governance arena, the push for decentralization in the region presents opportunities for taking action for the advancement of rural women at the local community milieu. In countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan national efforts have been made to expand the participation of women in local governance councils and organizations through specific numerical quotas. Though women are becoming increasingly visible in the local governance bodies, their informed participation is yet to become a reality.

Many countries in the region promote decentralized governance and thus development responsibilities are shifted to local authorities. This has created disassociation between the national commitment to the global gender equality agenda and the local commitment to its implementation. Most importantly, there is a widespread lack of understanding of the national commitment and inadequate resources to support a social agenda promoting gender equality. Traditional gender biases and power dynamics in the local communities do not support transformation towards gender equality; local elites, both men and women, are unwilling to support gender equality approaches and women’s empowerment strategies in development interventions. Local governance structures may have decentralized responsibility for development, but not the authority for revenue generation and the provision of adequate funds to develop and implement programmes for the advancement of rural women.

Policy and institutional constraints impeding rural women’s advancement

National governments in the region have embraced CEDAW, though with differences in levels of commitment and progress in terms of achievement. Since 1979, countries in the region also implemented agencies such as the National Commission on Women, civil society organization coalitions and national ministries for the advancement of women, as well as units under the regional economic organizations (ASEAN, APEC and SAARC) to promote the advancement of women. Following declaration of the Beijing Platform for Action, regional governments responded by creating new agencies and expanding the national institutions for the advancement of women. These institutions have become specialized agencies within national governments with a mandate to focus on the agenda for gender equality and the advancement of women. The regional responsibility of working with these national ministries falls under the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Countries in the region also developed national plans of action for women, reflecting the national commitments to the Beijing Platform for Action that serve as blueprints for achieving gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment objectives. Nonetheless, an inherent weakness of inadequate attention to the concerns of rural women in these institutions and policy instruments remains.

In part, the foundation of these inherent weakness and invisibility of rural women can be traced to UN measures for women’s empowerment and the indicators of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) indicators used by the UN to measure women’s advancement include urban biased indicators and do not reflect the current realities of rural women. GEM indicators include the relative percentage share of women in parliament, in administrative and management positions and professional and technical jobs, and in adjusted GDP per capita (UNDP, 2004). It is essential to examine objectively whether these indicators measure the advancement of rural women in the unpaid family work sector and facing social restrictions and resource constraints to provide for the household economy. An MDG indicator for measuring advancement of women is the changes over time in women’s participation in non-agriculture sector employment (UNDP, 2004). Though the limitations of these indicators can be explained by data limitations in the rural sector, they also illustrate the lack of an articulate lobby and collective action to address the persisting rural gender inequality.

Most often the national ministries for gender mainstreaming and advancement of women are not adequately funded to undertake macropolicy and structural changes. They lack fundamental understanding of technical aspects related to agriculture and rural development sectors. In a few countries such as Fiji, Philippines and Sri Lanka and in some states in India a gender budgeting approach is being introduced (Goetz and Jenkins, 1996). As one report explained:

Budgetary policies can ignore gender-specific needs and have differential impacts on men and women because of the systematic differences between the sexes in relation to the economy. Gender responsive budgeting applies a gender lens to budgetary resource allocation, providing more visibility to women’s unpaid work (UNIFEM and NlPF, 2003).

In the Philippines, gender budgeting policy continues to serve as a key element in implementing gender mainstreaming, but there is need for budget literacy and defining accountability. There is some urgency to ensure that the GAD budget policy survives the current austerity measures amid the raging financial crisis in the Philippines (Umali, 2004).

In the region, diverse technical line ministries serve as agencies of change to address the concerns of rural women as actors in agriculture and the rural economy, and as stakeholders in rural communities. Ministries of agriculture, livestock, fisheries, environment and irrigation and rural development are examples of technical line ministries. The trend has been to create focal units or focal persons for gender or women within these technical line ministries, though with limited interaction among the various focal persons in the discrete line ministries. Consequently, the institutional situation remains with parallel structures to achieve objectives associated with the advancement of women and development in rural areas. Agencies focused on gender equality and women follow the agenda for gender equality, women’s empowerment and advancement of women. The technical ministries vested with responsibilities for the development of agriculture, rural communities and the rural economy function on their own fulfilling their technical objectives. Hence, these two parallel paths for development seldom cross unless explicit efforts are made to bring an integrated approach that would fulfil the agenda for the promotion of rural women. It is crucial that policy dialogue and interagency interaction for programme development to promote rural women should cut across many technical areas. Because of these institutional constraints and policy limitations, however, national efforts remain insufficient to respond to the real resource and service requirements of rural women.

“In Asia and the Pacific region a cohesive macro policy approach or framework for integration of rural women’s concerns and effective strategies to transform the agriculture sector by taking advantage of the human resource potential vested among rural women has not emerged.”

Social programmes for empowerment of rural women

The Asia and Pacific Islands region is dynamic in social experiments focusing on assistance to rural women. Most frequently the programmes to assist rural women are funded by international development agencies. Though the trend in countries like Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Thailand and India seems to move towards identifying national resources to achieve social equities for rural development, in general social programmes in many countries are mostly driven by donor assistance targeting rural women. A common trend of promoting a gender equality agenda driven mostly by external resources raises the issue of sustainability of economic and social empowerment activities directed to rural women. India enacted a complex social programme delivery structure and involvement of multiple ministries serving rural women. There, the challenge is to make effective use of the assistance with accountability to the community stakeholders, timeliness of delivery and achieving positive effects. In contrast, many countries face the challenge of finding resources - both financial and human - to support the national plans of action for gender equality and advancement of women. In resource poor policy environments, the agenda for advancement of rural women does not rank high when allocation priorities are set. Monitoring at the local community level will become increasingly important to ensure rural gender equality. However, to date gender differentiated indicators, and processes to monitor and evaluate gender equality and the advancement of women in rural situations, have not been satisfactory. The region also witnessed the tremendous growth of non-government organizations (NGOs) in developing programmes for rural women. These non-government agencies have become implementing agencies for the donor driven projects to assist rural women. Though some NGOs have done remarkable work, those that act as a mediating agency between funding sources and rural women tend to create dependency among rural women on the NGO. Asian rural women still have not mastered the art of dealing with public institutions in their own right because of limited knowledge of the complex process and bureaucratic rules and procedures in accessing public resources.

Self-help groups and microcredit/finance programmes

Asia and the Pacific region pioneered participatory rural appraisal and mobilization of rural women, and consequently witnessed the remarkable growth in women’s groups focused on economic empowerment. A popular mode of social capital mobilization is through organizing women’s groups in rural communities. Self-help groups in India, for example, mobilise the human potential of rural women, often by using microcredit as an entry point to mobilise them and to organize the community based groups. Throughout Asia and the Pacific region, microcredit frequently is the central component of development strategies aimed to improve the economic empowerment of rural women. Although rural women’s savings have contributed to capital mobilization in the region, women themselves have not recognized the significance of their contribution to fund accumulation in national banks and thus to affect macroeconomic capital market dynamics.

In recent times, a pragmatic understanding of the role of microcredit/finance is emerging in the region, with the recognition that credit alone cannot contribute to economic and social empowerment of rural women. Historically in Asia and the Pacific region, microcredit programmes have not addressed the credit needs of small and marginal farmers. The perceived problems in extending microcredit to farmers include the risk of investing in agriculture; seasonality of agricultural production; poor loan repayment performance of agricultural lending and the technical nature of the agriculture production system. Agriculture communities’ microcredit needs should be addressed more thoroughly (Hakim, 2004). From another perspective, in countries such as Cambodia, government regulations monitor the flow of funds and microcredit delivery. Though such regulations are necessary to ensure accountability, some measures have made women’s access to credit relatively more complicated and difficult to process. Yet another trend, found in India, is for commercial banks to join forces with traditional microfinance providers to serve women’s credit needs. Restrictions on microcredit loans set by global financing agencies often pose additional problems for rural women. As financial markets integrate at the global level and formal credit organizations are promoted as primary funding sources to improve agricultural productivity and rural enterprises, it becomes urgent to investigate the constraints that the associated stringent measures and competitive processes place on rural women’s access to microcredit programmes.

In Cambodia, despite the growing maturity of the microfinance industry, there are still a wide range of issues that have not been addressed by most microfinance institutions. In particular, many microfinance products and services do not enable, or encourage, women to effectively increase their economic security. As a very high percentage of Cambodia’s female population over the age of fifteen are involved in some form of economic activity, it is important that microfinance services and support for micro-enterprise development is provided in a manner that enables women to effectively participate and benefit.

Programme design, implementation and operations all heavily influence women’s levels of participation in microfinance programmes. Whereas most organizations claim to have gender policies in place, in many cases there appears to be very little understanding of the constraints faced by women, particularly when attempting to access microfinance services. The methods that microfinance organizations use to introduce their services to women and the ways in which products and services have been developed and delivered can also exclude women.

Enabling simple physical access to programme services is the first step. However, it is also important to help women to access markets, collateral, information, appropriate technologies, and to overcome difficulties relating to minimal education levels.

(C. Robyn, 2003).

Environmental destruction and natural disasters

The 1999 UNDP Human Development Report identifies the importance of the environment for human development. The report states,

Human development also depends on unpaid work by men and women in the household or community, providing “care” so essential to human survival. And it also depends on the natural environment, another essential resource for all, particularly for poor people who derive their livelihood from natural resources. It recognizes seven threats to human security, differing for individuals at different times, and included among these are economic insecurity, food insecurity and environmental insecurity (UNDP, 1999).

This care aspect could be expanded to include care for the environment as the base for livelihood, most often accomplished through the unpaid work of men and women living in agriculture and rural communities. There is a growing concern that destruction of the environment to support economic growth and new life styles comes with negative consequences for rural livelihoods. The UNDP report identifies two types of environmental emergencies: the “silent emergency” of chronic environmental degradation, and the “loud emergency” associated with such things as wild swings in temperature and rainfall (UNDP, 1999). Irrespective of underlying causes, Asia and the Pacific region experiences its fair share of natural disasters and repeated cycles of disaster recovery with dire consequences for livelihood stability.

Environmental degradation and vulnerability

Documented evidence substantiates that the loss of environmental resources in Asia and the Pacific region threatens human livelihoods. In the report, State of the environment in Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP and ADB, 1995), the situation related to forest use and livelihood options is explained as follows:

Among the tropical regions of the world, Asia and the Pacific have the fastest rate of deforestation (1.2 percent per year), the fastest rate of commercial logging, the highest volume of fuel wood removals, and the fastest rate of species extinction. Among the subregions, Southeast Asia has the highest deforestation rate followed by South Asia. The large and rapidly growing populations and high economic growth in many countries are placing exceptional demands on the region’s forest resources. The two major causes of forest destruction in the region are clearing for agriculture (including shifting cultivation) and excessive cutting of industrial timber and fuel wood. Fuel wood collection, an important source of livelihood for millions of poor people in the region, also accelerates the rate of deforestation.

The Word Bank identifies eight major global environmental issues that contribute to environmental instability: Global climate change; loss of biodiversity; stratospheric ozone depletion; freshwater degradation; desertification and land degradation; deforestation and unsustainable use of forests; marine environment and resource degradation and persistent organic pollutants. In each category various social and economic factors are recognized; none is positive, and all adversely affect the livelihood security of people dependent on natural resources (Watson et al., 1998). Though the effects of forest resource loss on women’s lives are well articulated in the development literature the impact of desertification, land degradation and the loss of biodiversity on rural livelihoods, particularly those of women, are not well documented.

Within the tribal populations, women traditionally have greater responsibility in the domestic arena which drives them to interact more with the surroundings. This greater affinity results in a deeper understanding of the complex micro-environments and in an accumulation of dynamic gender specific knowledge. The people of Kolli hills (India) recognize the use of a variety of plant species for food and primary health. Women know which wild tubers are edible and men are aware of the utility of these plant resources. And women are more familiar with plant species that are useful in primary health care.

Tribal and rural farm women and men have been cultivating and managing the crop genetic resources at their personal expense for the public good. These are the foundations for modern plant breeding and biotechnological sectors. They have to be recognized, supported and rewarded in accordance with the provisions given in the legislation.

(R. Rengalakshmi, et al., 2002).

Disasters and vulnerability

Asia and the Pacific region has suffered repeatedly from natural disasters such as flooding, drought, typhoons and earthquakes and rare but catastrophic tsunami have created hardship for rural communities as a result of considerable damage to livelihood assets and loss of human lives. An increasing incidence of natural disasters in recent times has resulted in a serious loss of property and agricultural assets, which has threatened agricultural production and intensified vulnerability leading to food shocks and food insecurity (Ninno et al., 2001; FAO, 2001; O’Brien, 2001). The region witnessed famine in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because of drought, and the dire situation in Mongolia that brought the threat of a food security disaster in a community dependent on livestock and land for its livelihood. The example of arsenic poisoning of rivers in Papua New Guinea illustrates a man made environmental emergency that ruined the livelihoods of fisher folks. Floods in Bangladesh and drought in the southern Indian states are becoming common occurrences that lead to the immediate loss of livelihoods and threaten the long-term economic viability of households and the community as a result losing the asset base. Evidence confirms that prolonged drought causes migration of rural households seeking alternative livelihoods in urban centres, usually low wage work, and of farm household members becoming casual agricultural labourers.

In the Asian region, particularly in East Asia two major disasters have affected the national economy and the heath of the population. The first is the human epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that affected the general economy. So far, the effect of SARS on rural households has not been well documented. The second disaster, the Avian Influenza epidemic, directly affected agriculture households in East Asia. Avian Influenza is potentially dangerous for human lives in the region and could become a global human health hazard. It is documented that the economic impact of the Avian Influenza varied depending on the type and scale of poultry production systems. The direct impact was caused by the death of sick animals on farms, stamping out the virus, cleaning the farms and the associated costs and other implications for farmers, their families and workers (Dolberg, 2005).

“Because of the crisis in Viet Nam, the poultry sector has decreased in size. Poultry production in the surveyed households before the outbreak was the main economic activity for 68 percent of the male headed poultry farms and 32 percent of female-headed, whereas in July 2004 the survey found these rates to be 30 percent and 12 percent respectively.

Households with few assets and no other animals than poultry have experienced Avian Influenza as a shock, leading to reduction in assets.”

(F. Dolberg, 2005).

Women are more vulnerable during disasters because they have less access to resources, are victims of the gendered division of labour and are the primary caregivers to children, the elderly and the disabled (Jones, 2005). According to OXFAM, more women than men were killed by the Asian tsunami, as figures from India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka suggest. In some areas the disaster claimed four times as many women as men. The report states that women were worse hit because they were waiting on beaches for fishermen to return, or at home looking after children at the time (OXFAM, 2005).

Various case studies and local narratives suggest that gender is a highly significant factor in the construction of social vulnerability to risk, and in the responses to hazards and disasters. Men and women clearly have different coping strategies during the disaster cycle. For instance, during the cyclone of 1991 in Bangladesh, a greater number of casualties were reported among women, who failed to receive warning signals largely because of socially imposed constraints on female mobility and their responsibilities to care for children and livestock. Similarly, women suffered more during the post disaster period, experiencing a sharp increase in workloads because of their multiples roles. At the same time, although many of their traditional income-generating activities disappeared (home gardens and livestock), women (unlike men) were unable to look for work outside the home (UN Economic and Social Council, 2002). In this context, gender-responsive institutional changes and collective action strategies are needed in disaster management to balance women’s vulnerability to disaster with their proven capabilities to cope under difficult conditions (D’Cuhana, 2001).

Ahmedabad-based Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI) undertook to assess the compound effects of sustained drought and a major earthquake on the livelihoods of poor women in the district of Surendranagar. Women’s livelihoods in disaster-vulnerable regions are a particular concern, as the Institute identifies women as important community actors, income-earners, and stewards of natural resources whose efforts increase the food, water, housing, and fodder security of the rural poor. Noting the invisibility of women in relief operations, lack of gender-specific data, and inattention to women’s unique needs in disasters, a recent DMI publication concluded:

“…women are active workers in South Asia. Although the majority of work is home based, how disasters impact such work is neither studied nor known.”

(Elaine Enarson, 2001).

Emerging technologies: Production and communication

In Asia and the Pacific region the focus on emerging technologies considered here fall under two general categories, namely the technologies associated with agriculture and rural production and the information and communication technologies.

Agriculture technologies

Agriculture technologies can be grouped into two broad categories, namely the mainstream agriculture technologies and alternative agriculture technologies. Mainstream agriculture technologies are defined here as those technologies that are promoted by the agriculture research, education and extension organizations to improve productivity and that depend on high external inputs. Alternative agriculture technologies are defined as technologies that promote local control in production systems, empower local communities, restore the environment and use low external inputs (Savant, not dated). The proponents of mainstream agriculture promote productivity. The promoters of alternative agriculture emphasize sustainability. Though it should be obligatory for those working on improving the situation of rural women to assess current and potential gender specific impacts of technologies promoted by competing paradigms, in reality very limited attention has been paid to addressing such women specific impacts of competing technologies. For example, a Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project documented that women’s labour requirements intensified when the farm adopted high yielding rice varieties and other new varieties. More work was also involved with extra fertilizer applications, improved seed storage techniques and knowledge intensive activities like Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Demand for women’s labour decreased by land levelling and direct seeding (Nesbitt, 2003).

New technologies for agriculture are generally knowledge intensive and thus demand improved resource management practices. It is imperative to weigh both the benefits and disadvantages of these advanced technologies for rural women as well as the implications for their economic opportunities in such a changing technological milieu. Knowledge intensive technological development favours the educated and skilled in the developing countries of the region. Given the regional situation where rural women record less formal educational attainment, it is important to anticipate and counter the adverse impact of these knowledge-intensive technologies on the work and livelihood strategies of rural women workers.

Integrated Pest Management

The Asian region has pioneered both the green revolution and Integrated Pest Management as technologies for improving food production and resource management. The green revolution approach in the last century was promoted to improve agriculture productivity. IPM is promoted as a technology to improve resource management and contribute to sustainability. The concept and practice of IPM has been widely adopted first beginning with rice, then to cotton and vegetable production. IPM from a crop-based approach to a community-based approach is promoted in the region. In Pakistan, FAO implemented Cotton-IPM Project focused on the health risk concerns of farm women and their families in intensive pesticide dependent cotton production and developed programmes to train women facilitators to train farm women on cotton-IPM practices (FAO, 2003). To date, there has been limited well-researched documentation on the role of women in IPM, its relevance to women’s crops and the impact on their workload and the contribution of their unpaid labour for the economic efficiency of the IPM based production systems (Mancini et al., not dated).


Biotechnology has emerged as a significant technology in Asia and the Pacific to expand agriculture production gains. Marked by strong ideological differences between the non-governmental sector (mostly against) and the scientific community and private sector (in favour), the debate about the benefits and hazards of biotechnology continues unabated. The extent to which modern biotechnology will contribute to the achievement of food security for all is still an open question (Pinstrup-Andersen, Pandya-Lorch, Rosegrant, 1999). In this context, most governments in the region appear to be following a “watch, wait and see” approach. There is general lack of information about the extent to which women farmers in the region know about and understand the potential opportunities and risks of a new agricultural revolution driven by biotechnology. Yet given the low educational attainments of women throughout the region, and the highly sophisticated organization of production likely to be required in biotechnology-based agriculture, it seems reasonable to speculate that the majority of rural women would be further marginalized by such developments.

Livestock revolution

Livestock technologies for expanding production to meet the regional growth in demand for livestock products will also present challenges to rural women’s role in this sector. According to Delgado et al. (1999),

The Livestock Revolution is a structural phenomenon that is here to stay. As in the case of the green revolution, the stakes for the poor in developing countries are enormous. How good or bad the livestock revolution will be for the people of the developing countries, depends on how these countries choose to approach it. Lack of policy will not stop the Livestock Revolution, but will ensure that the form it takes is less favourable for growth, poverty alleviation and sustainability in developing countries.

Women play a crucial role in livestock production on homesteads or in backyards, but “[i]n rural areas, far from cities and markets, the predominant system is one of scavenging with very few inputs provided by the owner, who will typically be a woman” (Dolberg, 2005). Thus it would be important to identify strategies to improve rural women’s livestock based livelihood as the livestock revolution pervades the region. Asian lessons learnt from the green revolution in the cereal crops sector and the white revolution of the dairy sector should guide the planners in devising livelihood strategies for women in the livestock sector.

Farmer Field School

The Farmer Field School (FFS) approach is an innovative communication modality developed for effective transfer of IPM technology (FAO, not dated). Limited research information and anecdotal notes have begun to appear on women’s participation in FFS for IPM, especially in East Asia (Rola, 2003). In Indonesia it was observed that many development programmes have had an adverse effect on female farmers, including within the IPM work. In order to overcome this limitation, alternatives such as intensive participatory approaches and Gender Field School experiments have been encouraged (Fakih, 2003).

There was a difference in women’s participation in IPM FFS training programmes in Nepal because of cultural factors that supported or negated their participation. In one area where men were involved in non-farm activities to generate income there was not much competition for women from the local men to take part in IPM farmer field schools. But in another location, where the dominant ethnic group restricted women’s movement outside their home, their participation in IPM Farmer Field Schools was very limited (FAO, 2000). The study in Viet Nam presents the differential participation of women in IPM in FFS. Four years after the start of the programme female participation nationally was 19 percent or one in every five participants in a FFS is female. Between 1994 and 1996 female participation increased from 13 to 19 percent. However, it still does not reflect the importance of women in agriculture. Especially in the south and centre the participation of women is low, less than 10 percent. In the north, female participation is over 35 percent. For women it was more difficult to arrange their time to go to FFS since they have many responsibilities at home and work. If women want to attend a FFS they need to get support from their family to do so. For men whether to join the FFS or not is more an individual decision (FAO, 1996).

Additionally, women’s heavy workload and their responsibilities in on-farm, off-farm and household production deter their participation. Moreover, limited technical content or monocrop oriented training may not interest them. Thus, the current modality of Farmer Life School (FLS) for covering wide ranging topics may have greater potential to attract the women in rice based systems. The FLS is a tool that helps farmers to develop their critical thinking on their livelihood (Vuthang, 2003). Later FFS approaches have been applied to provide an integrated knowledge package to agriculture communities. But the content development in the FFS/FLS falls short in fulfilling the technology information needs of rural women who perform multiple roles in response to production demands of rural economies both on the farm and in the home.

Information and communication technologies

Recent debates on overcoming the digital divide are indicative of increasing interest among international agencies and investors in promoting the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in development (UNDP, 2001; IFPRI, 2000).

According to one report,

In the rural context, the ICTs usually provide very little employment or direct income unlike labour-intensive manufacturing and the Green Revolution, both of which created substantial employment. ICTs then need to be evaluated mainly in terms of their effect on productivity of other sectors (agriculture, farming or other rural, non-farm economic activities) and especially on agency development, including that resulting from sharing experiences of mobilization and innovations (IFAD, 2002).

Many countries in Asia and the Pacific region recognize the potential of Information and Communication Technologies to improve women’s access to information and knowledge, enhance education and learning, and accelerate technology transfer. Radio and television are used extensively in several countries to inform and educate rural women about topics such as health, nutrition and agriculture. The most often quoted cases found in websites on ICTs potential benefits for rural women’s rural livelihoods are: Bangladesh Grameen Communications’ venture of rural women’s cell phone enterprises; M.S. Swminathan Research Foundation supported Pondicherry Village Information Shops; e-Chaupal for market information; SEWA’s programme on skills development to support women’s work in the informal sector; Sri Lankan Kotmale project and information kiosks and telecentres in the region.

Despite the potential, however, the threat of an increased “digital divide” that would widen information, education and knowledge inequality between urban and rural communities is real. “Access to ICTs is still a distant reality for the vast majority of people. The countries in the South, particularly rural populations, have been left out of the information revolution. In many of these countries there is a lack of basic infrastructure, resulting in high costs for installing and running ICTs” (Gurumurthy, 2004). Indeed, already evident is the wide variations in Internet access and in the availability and quality of relevant language content both between and within countries in the region. In the Pacific Islands, for instance, women’s access to, and use of information technology, is largely confined to urban areas and generally limited compared to most Asian countries (Fairbairn-Dunlop, 2001). A number of barriers to the increased use of ICTs for the empowerment of rural women include inadequate infrastructure, high costs and limited capacity, all of which are more acute in rural areas (Aitkin, 1998). More importantly the content relevancy presents the greatest challenge to the use of ICTs for the advancement of rural women. Indeed, according to Green and Trevor-Deutsch (2002),

The major barrier to the use of ICTs for women is its lack of relevancy to their lives. Women encounter barriers to the use of ICTs when the learning content is not directly relevant to their livelihood, and when it does not value their knowledge, wisdom and experience.

Certainly, there are opportunities to use ICTs to educate and empower a large number of rural women and men provided that user-friendly and gender-responsive content and applications are developed, and the agents of development are well trained and gender-sensitive. One such application is on the education front. With appropriate and adequate investment in content and learning resources a distance education modality could reach women in the rural areas. ICT applications can be either directed to women as primary users of ICTs and/or for capacity building among service providers and social agents who serve the women’s programmes. In the rural context, women as primary users of ICTs are still a social curiosity rather than a common occurrence. The opportunities for using ICT applications for improving livelihood skills for rural clients are currently mediated through development service providers (government and non-government) and hence they must be trained in ICT applications to improve women’s livelihood. It would be important to distinguish the potential of ICTs to improve the livelihood of women to ensure economic empowerment and their prospects to improve access to information and knowledge to improve their quality of life and informed participation in various spheres of society.

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