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Accelerating advancement of rural women in Asia and the Pacific region

A review of the situation of rural women and the regional trends relevant to agriculture and the rural economy that affect their situation across Asia and the Pacific region highlights a few realities. Although the contribution of agriculture as a proportion of national economies has declined, the role of rural women in farm and family economies has increased significantly. Yet despite this substantial increase in their responsibilities and workload, the enormous contribution of rural women to agriculture and rural economies is neither widely nor formally recognized at the local or national level. Because of this lack of awareness and appreciation of their contribution and roles, efforts to support agricultural development and food security tend to ignore women’s resource needs, as well as the barriers and constraints they face in fulfilling their productive roles both on farm and at home. At the same time, new regional trends and external forces are fundamentally changing the context in which rural women operate, and presenting opportunities and threats to their livelihoods. Across Asia and the Pacific region the development community has embraced an agenda for the advancement of women and there also are emerging opportunities for the integration of rural women to improve agriculture productivity. The social and economic progress of rural women, however, is still inequitable. In the current milieu it is important to identify strategies to refocus attention on the situation of rural women in agricultural development and food security and their rights for resources and to strengthen policy and programme interventions that accelerate the advancement of rural women.

Information on rural women

Efforts should be made to collect sex-disaggregated data and gender-differentiated information for all aspects of agriculture and rural development in the region. Such information would a) enable a fact based understanding of regional rural women’s contributions, resource deprivations and powerlessness, b) advance the development of gender-specific rural human assets and labour resource and activity databases, which could be analysed and compared within and across countries and c) provide reliable information to guide policies and programme formulation for the advancement of rural women. There is an urgent need to improve awareness among national governments of the importance of sector specific sex-disaggregated data, and of building the capacity of national agencies to collect, manage and analyse such data. In countries where national sample surveys or other periodic surveys already collect sex-disaggregated information, action should be taken to systematically analyse the data in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the situation of rural women. Advances in information technology and sophisticated data management systems should be exploited in order to compile relevant, needs-based and user-friendly information resources about the situation of rural women, and this should be made available to policy makers, programme managers and advocacy groups.

It is important to develop strategies to improve the national census and agricultural census data to include sex-disaggregated information. Such macro data sets are an important basis for international comparison required by UN agencies. In the long run, a standardized data base would be most helpful to asses the progress made on the status of rural women.

It is also absolutely essential to develop country specific special studies that address women’s and men’s situations in agriculture and the rural economies. These studies should have household level data disaggregated by sex and should be all inclusive, that is they should go beyond activity analysis to include information on access, ownership and control of assets and resources and also gender specific constraints and limitations. Such databases should be maintained at the decentralized governance level. The decentralized governance officers should be trained to understand and use the sex-disaggregated information in local development planning.

With the assistance of donors and international agencies in many countries in the region, living levels data, including sex-disaggregated data on time use, have been collected. But these have not been analysed in depth to create sex-disaggregated information and a rural profile of the status of women. It would be helpful to mobilise external financial and technical assistance to analyse and utilize the existing data sets to create useful information for gender responsive planning and programme interventions to assist rural women.

Gender Empowerment Measures that really measure rural gender inequality should be developed. Though they can be modelled on the UN GEM, the indicators should reflect the realities of rural women. An example would be instead of women’s participation in parliament, it could measure women’s participation in local governance and leadership in community based organizations. Furthermore, the per capita income share indicator could be substituted with income value for time use data for unpaid family work in farm and home production. Such RURAL GEM (RGEM) would focus on rural women’s advances or lack thereof compared to men in the respective countries and help monitor gaps in achieving rural gender equality. As a monitoring and evaluation tool RGEM could provide information for guiding policy directives and resource allocation for the advancement of rural women. The local governance authorities could use the RGEM information in local planning for gender responsive development.

Gender planning in agricultural and rural development

In Asia and the Pacific region the processes and benefits of using available sex-disaggregated data and gender-differentiated information in agricultural and rural development planning are still not widely understood. Inadequate efforts to use available data in planning processes highlight the necessity for capacity building within agencies that are involved in the formulation of agricultural and rural development policies and programmes. Organization wide efforts should focus on the integration of gender considerations and gender-differentiated indicators throughout the sequential phases of the policy formulation process as well as of the programme and project cycle. In part, the prevailing confusion can be attributed to a situation where the planners are not effectively linking gender analysis outcomes to gender planning processes. It is also suggested that gender mainstreaming has come to represent a narrow set of analytical tools and training in applying these tools for gender analysis rather than the process of designing strategies to improve opportunities for rural women.

Hence, a progressive process is needed to improve generations (current and future) of planners and macro economists in various agencies in developing counties to gain a comprehensive knowledge of gender biases impeding the improvement in the status of rural women as associated with increasing productivity in agriculture and rural economies. A communication gap between gender advocates and the policy makers; the former presents the issues as part of the social equality agenda, whereas the latter views development as chiefly concerning economic productivity. Such a communication gap should be narrowed by cross learning on the value of gender equality in achieving economic development objectives, particularly poverty alleviation. It is crucial to support a gender responsive and women inclusive curriculum for agriculture and rural development students within the national agriculture education system. It would be most appropriate for such knowledge to be acquired as part of their formal learning so that it becomes internalized professional knowledge with the long term and sustainable impact of creating a professional commitment to considering women as farmers and producers in the national planning process. On the other hand, the advocates of gender equality and gender specialists should make an effort to contextualize gender concerns within the realities of agriculture and rural development.

Valuation of unpaid work

The importance of women’s unpaid work in the home and farm production systems should be clearly recognized by national governments, bilateral and multilateral development organizations and academic institutions so that an appropriate technique to value this work is found and agreed upon. The household production model for farm family production offers one approach to quantify unpaid work inputs in terms of food security. Concerted efforts will be required to convince different stakeholders, including rural women, to recognize and reward unpaid work in agricultural and rural production. Though there are UN discussions on including unpaid work in national accounting systems to systematically recognize women’s contribution, it is important to improve the social valuation of women’s work in household and community contexts. The local level development and governance agencies should be targeted to increase their awareness and skills to include women’s unpaid work in their planning processes. Local knowledge, needs and constraints assessments among both men and women in rural areas should become internalized and integral components of the process of local planning.

Empowering rural women with education and information

Many countries in the region have focused on girls’ education as an important process to equalize the gender gap and make investments in women’s futures. Such educational interventions are beginning to pay off with incremental gains in female educational attainment. Still, poor access to schools and learning centres and the relatively high cost of education continue to be barriers for poor rural families to support girls’ education. In addition, unrelenting social prejudice against female education continues to cause the gender gap in rural education. The generation of adults that were denied education contribute to high female illiteracy in rural areas and they are becoming the primary farmers. Rural girls continue to face economic and social barriers to formal education and thus may not achieve their full potential as adults. Hence, the situation calls for increased resources and intensified efforts at the national level to substantially improve formal education for rural girls as well as enhance female adult literacy in rural areas and empower rural women with technical information and knowledge to improve their health and participation in the increasingly complex world. The potential of new information and communication technologies to reduce the educational disadvantages faced by older rural women through the development and dissemination of needs-based information in appropriate formats and accessible mediums should be leveraged.

Reduction in household drudgery for productivity and empowerment

Persisting traditional perceptions on the worthlessness of women’s unpaid work must be challenged if drudgery is to be reduced. At the same time, efforts should be made to expand basic services in rural areas in order to ease women’s multitasking demands in the home and on the farm, and to develop appropriate technologies that reduce the amount of time women spend on daily household tasks. The time gained by reducing household drudgery could be invested in improving women’s health and productivity. But investment in interventions to reduce women’s drudgery is not seen as a productive investment by planners and considered as domestication and a home economics approach by the feminists. Hence, a change in approach is required, namely one based on the view that reducing women’s drudgery has health and time management outcomes that could be both empowering and productive. The provision of services and goods to reduce drudgery could directly improve rural women’s ability to participate in a diversified economic enterprise system and social and political activities in the community.

Technologies and training for rural women

Given their local knowledge and multiple roles, rural women should be fully involved throughout the development of women’s work oriented technologies. In-depth assessments of the roles and constraints faced by rural women in different circumstances should be undertaken in order to guide the development and application of appropriate technologies. Training should build the capacity of rural women according to their multisegment production tasks, and new information and communication technologies should be harnessed to improve rural women’s access to technical information and public sector support services. The existing models of farmer field school and farmer-to-farmer learning approaches may have ignored gender biases that prevent women from taking advantage of such technology transfer approaches. It is important to explore the concept of increasing rural women’s skills as technology trainers and knowledge providers in the rural areas. The technical experts in the extension, outreach and agriculture centres could ably support rural women’s local efforts if the traditions of ignoring women’s technology needs could be changed.

Systematic study of rural gender dimensions

A few recent case studies and empirical findings have assessed the rural impact of recent trends in globalization, technology advances, HIV/AIDS and the like in the region, but the overall effect of these developments on rural households and in particular on women has not yet been studied systematically. Hence, systematic studies should be carried out to identify and evaluate the effects of significant regional development trends and critical incidents on rural women’s roles, work, access to resources and livelihoods. The findings of these studies should be widely disseminated targeting the policy makers in the development sector who influence policies and programmes so that new opportunities available to rural women can be leveraged and potential negative effects minimized. It is essential that future analysis of gender in rural areas be anchored in the context of these macro trends in order to develop effective interventions that support rural women to effectively manage these forces of change.

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