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The Missing Workers: Women in the Rural Economies in LAC
By Mayra Buvinic


Three features of rural economies in LAC in the nineties are a shift to non-farm employment, increased exposure to natural shocks, and continued poverty and exclusion. Rural workers in LAC depend less on farm income than workers anywhere else in the world. More than 50% of the employment is off-farm and this percentage is growing. The proportion of per capita rural income from off-farm activities varies between 9% and 59% (López and Valdés 1998). Public policies, however, continue to direct most public expenditures to agriculture, with scant resources directed to the off-farm sector. Hurricane Mitch, which late last year devastated Central America, was a sober reminder of the vulnerability of these rural economies to shocks and their growing frequency-- as changes in world climate forecast cyclical El Niño type disruptions in the region (Vosti 1999). Economic growth in the nineties did nothing to reduce rural poverty. The proportion of rural poor remained the same as it had in the eighties: 54% of rural households fell below the poverty line (set at twice the budget for minimum nutritional food requirements), 30% were recorded as severely poor. The comparative figures for urban areas were 34% and 13%. Rural poverty continued to be greater and more severe than urban poverty (Valdés and Wiens 1996), and public policies did little to increase the productivity and income of the rural poor. These features help to define women's contributions to the rural economy as well as their vulnerabilities and the constraints they face in the rural sector.

Women's Contributions

To agriculture and off-farm production

Two decades ago, when the official statistics were recording a decline in women's participation in the agricultural sector, which was especially sharp for Central America (from 6.3% in 1960 to 3.6% in 1970), field work that I conducted in the western region of Honduras showed that these statistics grossly undercounted women workers. Counting hired female farm labor in tobacco plantations and coffee farms, I obtained a sizable discrepancy with the agricultural census for the region. In one district, I counted 11,640 women hired laborers. The census had recorded 642 women working in agriculture; 10,998 women workers were missing (Buvinic 1983).

The reasons included problems with census definitions of principal economic activity, the inclusion of the category of unpaid family labor, the short time frame used for census questions, the concept of work that excludes informal sector activities, and the perception of both women and census takers that women are not economically productive. Progress is slow in changing the way we measure work. Two decades later, official statistics still undercount women's productive work in agriculture and off the farm, as is reported in an IDB/IICA sponsored study that did more than 2,000 interviews with rural women in 18 countries in 1991-93. While official statistics had recorded an increase in women's presence in the rural labor force from 13% in 1970 to 20% in 1990, this study raised the latter percentage to 37%-- or 16 million women working in the agricultural sector. The 1990 census had missed counting 7 million women workers (Chiriboga 1995, Kleysen 1996).

Following the changing nature of the rural economy, a substantial number of these women undertake non-agricultural work. In El Salvador and Ecuador, more than half of them work in off-farm activities (54% and 59% respectively). In Colombia a full 75% do so, and only in Uruguay slightly fewer than half of the women (48%) work off the farm. And the presence or absence of off-farm income spells the difference between poverty and extreme poverty (Valdés and Wiens 1996).

Women's work, then, contributes significantly to rural production (48% of the tobacco production and 91% of the coffee harvests in Honduras in 1974) and poverty alleviation. The problem is that their contribution is largely invisible because a sizable number of women remain missing in the rural labor force statistics.

To household well-being

Evidence is accumulating both on women's rising economic responsibilities for family welfare and their preference to invest (meager) earnings on child well-being, increasing the social returns on public expenditures in the rural sector and the chances to contain the transmission of poverty in the next generation.

The percentage of households headed or maintained by women is rising worldwide, as a result of porous borders and increased migration; economic and social dislocations; natural shocks and civil strife. In the region, this trend is reasonably documented in urban areas but poorly documented in rural households. FAO (1998) gives estimates of female headship in the nineties for eleven countries that range between 29% (Panama) to a high of 55% (Venezuela) of all rural households (the only exception is Uruguay with a low estimate of 9%). In these households, women are most often the primary or sole income earners and family economic welfare depends on them. Even if they are not household heads, however, women's earnings are increasingly important for family well-being. The IDB/IICA work found that economically active rural women contributed with between 37% (Ecuador) and 47% (Bolivia and Colombia) of household income.

Additional evidence for poor households in the region and elsewhere in developing countries show that, because of women's preference to invest in child well-being, income in the hands of women has a larger positive social impact than similar income in the hands of men. In the case of Brazil, for instance, the survival probabilities of a child increase by about 20 percent when income is in the hands of the mother versus the father (Thomas 1990). Poor women invest more "wisely" or invest more than poor men in child welfare, increasing the attractiveness of channeling investments to increase women's productivity and earnings in rural areas if the objective is to contain the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

While we have evidence that income in the hands of women can halt the transmission of poverty, we also have evidence of the opposite effect. Especially among the poor, child well-being is closely dependent on mothers' well-being, and mothers can transmit the disadvantage and poverty they face to their children, perpetuating rural poverty. A case in point are the growing numbers of teenage mothers among the poor, often without stable partners, who perpetuate their disadvantage and raise children with lower levels of well-being (Buvinic 1998).

Because of their growing responsibilities for the economic welfare of households, women, then, are effective vehicles for rural poverty alleviation or perpetuation. The problem is that the statistics poorly document these rising responsibilities.

To disaster preparedness and reconstruction

A few months after hurricane Mitch hit Central America, the IDB commissioned a study on the gender differentiated effects of the disaster. We found sizeable participation of women in disaster reconstruction, but much less visible than men's. Women organized food distribution and ran shelters, provided care to the wounded, and played a leading role in housing construction and reconstruction. We also found that women had assumed central roles in disaster preparedness in one rural municipality in Honduras; as a result, that municipality reported no deaths. Recognizing women's efforts, a sign in the mayor's office nowadays reads: "everything is easier with women's cooperation" (IDB 1999). Unfortunately, international and national emergency relief efforts did not include a gender perspective, and women's organizations were involved in relief efforts only in an ad hoc fashion. There was no demand to generate sex-disaggregated information in the relief phase. Gender criteria have been better incorporated in the post-emergency recovery phases, but these phases have suffered from the void in knowledge createdby the lack of sex-disaggregated information on the impacts of the disaster.

Women's Vulnerabilities and the Constraints they face

It is well accepted that poverty is more than inadequacy of income. It is also inadequacy of health and nutrition, education, and other components of well-being, which, in turn, affect people's economic opportunities. Rural women in the region are saddled with this non-income dimension of poverty, although, once again, the available information is sparse and misses adequate recording of women's deprivation.

The existing information (see Table 1) shows higher female illiteracy in rural than urban areas, lower educational levels, higher fertility and higher adolescent childbearing rates, all which negatively affect women's productivity and perpetuate rural poverty.

The differences in women's levels of well-being reveal the urban bias of public policy. Public policy has also neglected expanding the rural poor's access to productive resources. This has been especially so for women, negatively affecting their productivity. A majority of small scale rural producers lack access to formal credit, but the few who do have access are mostly men. For instance, the IDB/IICA study showed that in the Andean region 31% of the men but only 13% of the women producers had access to credit; in Central America this proportion was 5% and 3% respectively. Nevertheless, women's demand for credit is high, as revealed by their frequent use of informal credit sources. Something similar to credit happens with land markets, although the women's movement has had some impact in recent land tenure legislation. The agrarian reforms of the 1960s and 1970s benefited mostly men. Women were only between 4% and 15% of the beneficiaries. More recent legislation that goes back to individual land titling in some cases includes women's rights to land ownership (Deere and León 1998). It remains to be seen if this legal right will translate into effective access. Lastly, the percentage of women farmers in the region who have access to agricultural extension services is less than 5% (Chiriboga 1995, Kleysen 1996).

The Need to Count Women Workers

Because of their participation in rural production and their role in promoting family well-being, increasing women's productivity in agriculture and off the farm should be a preferred vehicle to increasing incomes and reducing poverty in rural LAC economies. But it is hard to see why public policy should increase rural women's access to credit, land and rural technologies, as well as health and education, if the statistics miss counting so many women workers and so poorly capture women's deprivation in rural areas. The plea for better, more reliable and valid, statistics is nothing new but needs to be made once again. It is important to underline that we need statistics that measure both rural women's work and well-being; that we need to be able to disaggregate indicators by sex, age and ethnicity; and that we need to measure family structure and conditions. We need these changes in agricultural censuses, household and labor force surveys, and opportunistic surveys that measure impacts of shocks, natural and man made. We need reliable demographic surveys that can be related to labor force instruments.

Table 1: Indicators of Women's Capabilities

  Female illiteracy
Total fertility rates
childbearing (% aged less than 20years)
1994 c)
Women aged 15-19 in education
1994 c)
  Year Rural Urban Year Rural Urban Rural Urban Rural Urban
Argentina                   65
Bolivia       1984-89 6.4 4.0        
Brazil 1988 34.7 13.6 1983-86 5.0 3.0 30 22 26 47
Chile 1989 17.5 4.4       28 20 47 71
Colombia       1981-86 4.9 2.8 28 22 45 67
Costa Rica 1984 11.0 3.8       29 25 32 60
Domi.Rep. 1991 31.4 10.8 1983-86 4.8 3.1        
Ecuador 1990 25.1 6.5              
Guatemala 1989 60.0 27.0 1983-87 6.5 4.1        
Honduras             35 29 25 52
Mexico       1984-86 5.2 3.1 24 19 25 52
Panama             33 23 50 67
Paraguay       1987-90 6.1 3.6 40 28   50
Peru 1991 45.6 6.3 1984-86 6.3 3.1        
Uruguay 1985 10.4 4.1             49
Venezuela             39 22 36 58


a) FAO 1998, on the basis of FLACSO 1993 and FAO 1995.
b) FAO 1995, based on National Reports of Demographic and Health Surveys.
c) ECLAC 1997, on the basis of household surveys conducted in the relevant countries.

Finally, it is also important to underline that we will not generate these better measures if public policy does not substantially raise the value it gives to promoting equality and reducing rural poverty, and does not recognize that changes in the behavior of individuals and families are at the root of economic development.


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