Empowering Rural Women and Improving Livelihoods

Written by  Robynne Anderson

Rio+20: Taking a Step Forward
23 April 2012

Rural women globally face persistent gaps in access to resources, knowledge and services, all underpinned by persistent inequalities in rights. So, despite repeated public commitments to gender equality, governments have by and large failed to meet even the most fundamental targets. Women lag behind on every Millennium Development Goal, except for the fourth goal of reducing the mortality of children under 5.

About 79% of women in developing countries consider agriculture as their primary source of livelihood, and, on average, comprise 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. Yet, because of cultural attitudes, discrimination and a lack of recognition for their role in food production, women have a reduced access to productive resources. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 15% of landholders are women and they receive less than 10% of credit and 7% of extension services. As a result, their productivity lags behind, negatively affecting their livelihoods and that of their families.

Lack of access to services and infrastructures takes away time from education and other opportunities and this gap in access disproportionately affects women and girls. According to FAO, for example, in Malawi women spend over eight times as much time fetching wood and water per week than men, while in rural areas of Guinea, women spend more than twice what men do on the same tasks.
Governments have missed an important opportunity to support rural women. The failure of the negotiations at the Commission on the Status of Women to reach an outcome is a disappointing signal sent to women farmers around the world about their governments’ level of commitment to address gender inequalities.

Governments cannot afford to miss the next opportunity to set in motion concrete actions and programmes to truly address rural women’s needs. The outcomes of the Rio+20 conference in June should make explicit the primary importance of gender equality and contain specific commitments to support women’s access to resources, knowledge, services, education, training and markets.

To pull together the key strands of what is needed, you need to consider the many roles a woman plays.  For a start, she is a farmer, and she needs to be good at what she does.

So please consider what she needs when she is GROWING a crop:

  • Develop a registration process for land tenure that is local, cheap, rapid, transparent and accessible for women.
  • Support women smallholder farmers by providing them with agricultural extension services, grain storage, infrastructure, information and technologies.
  • Encourage and co-ordinate multiple local actors to ensure information and supplies get into farmers’ hands, including a focus on women-to-women training and extension services.

Once she grows a crop, there is a need to be successful at MARKETING it:

  • Cut post-harvest losses by building local storage facilities and transportation mechanisms.
  • Provide remote access to up-to-date market pricing information.
  • Develop well-functioning markets through transparent information and fair prices.
  • Make sure there is a road to get to market through sound infrastructure.
  • Encourage co-operative approaches to marketing.
  • Improve smallholder farmers’ marketing skills through entrepreneurship training.

Then we must increase women’s resilience by furthering her skill at ADAPTING

  • Provide early warning systems such as community-based disaster preparedness and management and early weather forecasting systems to help them make decisions relating to sustainability and productivity.
  • Support programs that help women farmers to manage watersheds and water use more efficiently.
  • Protect wildlife habitat and biodiversity through an integrated ecosystems approach that incorporates women’s knowledge and leadership.

But even then a woman gives us more.  She is CARING and needs key infrastructure to look after her family.

  • Increase food security by investing in infrastructure, which includes roads, hospitals, clean water facilities, warehouses, schools and other initiatives to keep rural families together.
  • Require mandatory school programs for girls and boys along with social protection programs and available childcare.
  • Ensure access to proper maternal health services for women and focus particularly on nutrition for the first 1000 days of mother and child.

Women do so many things, we need to be better at CONNECTING them.

  •  Increase the number of women extension agents and train male extension agents to become more gender sensitive.
  • Prioritize women’s access to mobile phones and other technologies.
  • Establish open and transparent two-way exchanges that capture the ‘voice of the farmer’ in the process of policy formulation and implementation.

And in my own organisation, I see it all the time – the power of women.  They should be LEADING!

  • Enhance capacity for leadership and alliances among rural women to build confidence, strengthen mutual support.
  • Develop advocacy and public speaking skills for influencing decisions that affect their lives.
  • Facilitate meaningful participation of women farmers in decision-making processes through mandatory quotas, benchmarks and indicators.

Growing, Marketing, Adapting, Caring, Connecting, Leading – these are the areas where we need to empower women smallholder farmers.

National governments need to do more. Donors need to do more. And the programming that exists should be assessed to identify the gaps, and to further the connections between those actually delivering services.

The failure to address the persistent inequalities that undermine rural women’s status and well-being should be the priority area of focus for governments leading into the Rio+20 conference in June.

Quite simply, we will not achieve sustainable development if we do not achieve gender equality.