Rural women’s empowerment: A long road ahead

Advancing rural women’s economic empowerment and access to decent rural employment, supporting associations in giving them a stronger voice in decision-making, and fostering their better access to land are three priority areas in enabling rural women to realize their full potential for food and nutrition security.

© FAO/G. Napolitano

The UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Rural Women (IANWGE) recently estimated that rural women and girls still fare worse than rural men and urban women in relation to every Millennium Development Goal indicator.

The fight against hunger and poverty is most pressing in rural areas where most of the world’s poor live. Women play an important role in rural economies, particularly in agriculture, where they make up 43 percent of the agricultural labour force of developing countries. However, they face a range of constraints, particularly in accessing productive resources such a land, inputs, training and credit that prevent them from realizing their full potential, creating better lives for themselves and their families, and fully contributing to the growth of their communities

An untapped motor of growth and food security

As the UN organizations most directly responsible for achieving a world without hunger, the Rome-based UN agencies (RBAs)—FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP)--actively work towards rural women’s social and economic empowerment as a motor of poverty reduction and better food security.

As such, the RBAs played a major role in the 56th session of The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the principal global policy-making body committed to gender equality and the advancement of women, which was held earlier this month and focused on rural women and their role in development, poverty reduction and food security.

Ann Tutwiler, FAO Deputy Director-General, spoke on behalf of the RBAs at CSW’s opening session, explaining that the findings of the last edition of FAO’s flagship report—The State of Food and Agriculture 2011 (SOFA) -- had set two concrete goals in the fight against hunger: improve the agricultural sector in developing countries to feed a rapidly growing global population, and generate more and better rural employment to give people the means to acquire this food--neither achievable without rural women’s empowerment.

“The SOFA shows that by giving women equal access to productive agricultural resources—land, inputs, training, credit—women’s farm productivity would increase by 20-30%, countries’ total agricultural output would increase by 2.5-4.0% and 100-150 million fewer would be hungry,” Ms. Tutwiler explained. “Essentially, the SOFA says that because rural women’s economic potential is squandered, 100 to 150 million people are still hungry and a significant share of agricultural production is ‘missing.’ “

She explained that while the international community’s work has made inroads, particularly in filling critical knowledge gaps on gender and land rights, rural employment and agriculture, progress is still needed with regards to policies for agriculture and rural development that benefit rural men and women more equally, legal frameworks that grant women full economic rights, better access to education, training, information and technologies, health care and nutrition, and a stronger and more meaningful participation of women in decision making processes.

The RBAs focused their participation on three priority themes: improving rural women’s economic empowerment and access to decent rural employment, supporting associations in giving them a stronger voice in decision-making, and fostering their better access to land rights.

A need for greater economic empowerment and better access to decent work

In partnership with IFAD, WFP, UN Women and The International Labor Organization (ILO), FAO organized two side events to discuss the urgency of improving rural women’s economic empowerment and of supporting their better access to decent employment to fight poverty and hunger.

Women fulfill many crucial roles in rural economies, as farmers--they comprise 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries—and as workers and small-scale entrepreneurs, but their productivity is persistently limited by gender inequalities. They are more likely than men to hold low-wage, part-time, seasonal employment and tend to be paid less even when their qualifications are higher than men’s. They are also disproportionately responsible for taking care of the household, raising children and caring for the sick and elderly, unpaid work most often performed without the support of infrastructure and technologies.

Improved gender equality in rural farm and non-farm employment has a long lasting impact on economic growth and poverty reduction by enabling rural women to contribute to their families' livelihoods, improve their households' resilience to shocks and enhance the well-being of their children.

Participants discussed the type of policies needed for rural women’s economic empowerment. These include increased government investment in labour-saving technologies and public infrastructure such as roads, transport, electricity and water; supporting rural women and girls’ better access to human capital through education and training; the establishment of social safety nets like health care insurance and socials services such as child care; the creation of a better investment climate by strengthening property rights, including land rights; and supporting rural women’s greater voice in decision making.

Cooperatives: Giving women a greater voice in the community

This last item was the focus of the side event “Unleashing Rural Women’s Voice to End Hunger and Poverty” organized by FAO in partnership with IFAD, WFP, ILO, the World Bank and UN DESA.

Moderated by Cheryl Morden, Director of IFAD’s North America Liaison Office, the event brought together leaders and members from rural and agricultural organizations and ministries worldwide including Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Gender and Rural Employment Division, Ann Itto, Secretary General of the Southern Sector of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and former Minister of Agriculture of South Sudan, Dr. Muchena, Minister of Women’s Affairs of Zimbabwe, Filomena Delgado from the Ministry of Agriculture of Angola, Elizabeth Atangana, President of the Plateforme Regionale des Organisations Paysannes d’Afrique Centrale (PROPAC), Rehana Riyalawala, Secretary of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India (SEWA), Robert Carlson, President of the World Farmers’ Organization, and Rose Cunningham-Kain Director of the indigenous women’s organization Wangki Tangni in Nicaragua.

All participants underlined the central role organizations and cooperatives play in supporting rural women’s participation and decision making in rural societies and enterprises by encouraging the facilitation and sharing of knowledge, and by reducing costs and barriers to accessing productive resources through collective bargaining. Mr. Carlson added that these organizations were unique in their provision of much-needed spaces for women to speak freely. Ms. Itto discussed women’s increased chances of attracting investors when organized in cooperatives and gave the example of Colombia, where 91% of microcredit is given through cooperatives.

Ms. Riyalawala presented the model of SEWA, which, with over 1.4 million poor, self employed women members, is the largest union of informal sector workers in India and has been highly instrumental in bettering its members’ lives and improving their productivity by giving them the means to organize and to gain access to social security services, training, technology, information and financial services.

Securing better land rights for women improves life for everyone
Land is one of the most important assets for small agricultural producers. Women farmers are disadvantaged by the worldwide prevalence of land tenure regimes that allocate primary land rights to men through gender-biased marital and inheritance laws, family and community norms, their limited capacity to participate in community decision-making processes, and their unequal access to land markets. The land that women do own also tends to be of lesser quality. This considerably limits women farmer’s ability to invest in their land and improve their productivity, exacerbates their exposure to food insecurity and leaves them disproportionately vulnerable to economic hardships.

A vast body of research shows that improving women’s land rights strengthens their bargaining power within the household, leading to better health and education outcomes for their children and significant benefits for households and communities in terms of production and wealth distribution.

FAO, IFAD and the International Land Coalition (ILC) organized a side event to discuss interventions to reduce the gap in land rights. These include supporting legal reforms and joint titling and land certification programmes, supporting the increased representation of women in land administration bodies and facilitating legal literacy programmes for rural women.

Participants insisted on the fact that strengthening women’s land rights is a matter of not just reforming land laws but that gender equity in land rights need to be upheld consistently across the entire legal framework, from the Constitution to family and civil laws, and supported by legal trainings enabling women to understand and claim their rights. They also underlined the importance of addressing customary norms and practices in parallel to official legal frameworks, and cited the state, civil society and the international community as key actors.