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New UN report says rural women face increasing inequality

Calls for policies enabling women to drive rural economic growth and poverty reduction

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
A heavy burden to carry.
21 January 2011, Rome/Geneva - A new United Nations interagency report on the gender dimension of agricultural work says women still benefit less than men from rural employment and face new challenges due to the current economic and food crises.

The report — "Gender dimensions of agricultural and rural employment: Differentiated pathways out of poverty" — says that "although gender inequality varies considerably across regions and sectors, there is evidence that, globally, women benefit less from rural employment, whether in self- or wage-employment, than men do".

At the same time, the report says that besides other challenges regarding gender disparities in rural employment, "the recent financial and food crises have slowed down progress towards greater gender equity" and decent work for women in agricultural and rural areas over the past few years.

"With job losses and cuts in spending on social services and infrastructure, women's care burdens and unpaid work have intensified, and their financial contribution to household food security is likely to decrease," the report says. "This is particularly dramatic for female-headed households".

The report also cites migration and the feminization of rural activities, international trade and the diversification of the rural economy, and child labour as other issues and trends affecting women employed in agricultural work.

The report by FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) brings together the latest thinking on the gender dimension of rural and agricultural work and seeks to promote the debate about the importance of women for rural economic growth and poverty reduction.

The report says some of the factors that may push women into a disadvantaged economic position are: employment (occupation and task), segmentation (women are disproportionately employed in low-quality jobs), the gender gap in earnings, and fewer hours of paid work but overall larger work burdens.

Gender discrimination

As an example, the report says "it is interesting to observe that 90 percent of the wage gap between men and women in developed or developing counties is unexplained: in other words, it is attributed to gender discrimination".

The report shows that women face discrimination that limits both their economic productivity and their personal development. Women need access to education, training, credit, markets, technical assistance and labour protection. They need equal, secure access to land and other assets. And they need ‘social capital', including the ability to participate equally with men in farmers' organizations.

With these advantages (long available to men), women can increase their contribution to national development and poverty reduction. Seventy per cent of the developing world's 1.4 billion extremely poor people live in rural areas, so raising rural women's economic participation is crucial to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Among the report's conclusions are:

  • The enormous economic contribution of unpaid work must be recognized, and measures must be implemented to reduce and redistribute the burden of housework.
  • Public works programmes can support gender equality in rural employment, especially if beneficiaries are genuinely involved in designing them.
  • Promoting quality female education in rural areas and reducing gender gaps in primary and secondary schooling will improve women's access to decent employment.
  • Non-traditional agricultural exports can generate quality employment for women and men, but women in particular are vulnerable to lax enforcement of labour standards.
  • A package of complementary policy measures is needed to address the many gender differences in rural employment. The measures should include legal reforms that promote gender equality; social safety nets; assistance to organizations supporting farmers, women and youth; child care programmes; education; and better access to information and labour markets.


The cornerstone of the report's analysis is the United Nation's Decent Work Agenda, which focuses on better jobs, social protection, universal application of labour standards and promotion of equitable rural institutions.

The agencies also launched a set of seven action-oriented policy briefs for practitioners on key aspects of rural employment and decent work that identify specific challenges, and successful approaches to tackle them.