Although there is evidence that some gender gaps in rural areas are narrowing – for instance, in access to primary education and basic health care services – the overall progress in rural women’s empowerment has been piecemeal, wavering and uneven within and between countries, and therefore largely disappointing.
Gender disparities in agriculture are the outcome of women’s and men’s differential access to resources, opportunities, information, services, institutions and policy-making processes. Let’s take land ownership as an example. Because gender-discriminatory land tenure laws and practices persist in many developing regions, women constitute a small proportion of land owners in most countries for which sex-disaggregated data on land ownership exist. Only 15-16% of landowners in Honduras and Nigeria, for example, are women. Countries such as Ecuador and Malawi, where the share of female landowners is around 50%, still represent a small minority among developing countries. However, even in those countries female landowners tend to own fewer and smaller plots than men, and are vulnerable to losing their land in the case of divorce, separation or death of the spouse.
Persisting gaps in division of labour
Major gender gaps can also be observed in rural labour markets. Women make up an average of 45% of the total agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from under 10% in Latin America and Eastern Europe to 50% or more in parts of Africa and Asia. However, millions of rural women work solely as self-employed own-account workers or as contributing family workers. Such employment represents ‘vulnerable employment’ because it is often associated with small-scale activities, low earnings, informal work arrangements, difficult or dangerous working conditions, and inadequate access to social protection and social dialogue mechanisms. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as much as 79% of women’s total employment appears to be vulnerable employment, typically in agriculture.
In addition, many rural women bear a vastly disproportionate share of unpaid care work. Available data indicate that women work longer hours than men when work outside of employment activities is taken into account, such as fetching water and wood for household consumption. In Cambodia, Mozambique and Nepal, the resulting difference between women’s and men’s daily workload approaches or surpasses 2 hours. Furthermore, many rural women face socio-cultural restrictions on personal mobility and access to transport, which further undermines their capacity to access decent jobs.
Paving the way for gender equality
Gender inequalities strongly influence wellbeing outcomes. For instance, it is estimated that for every 100 men aged 25-34 years living below the extreme poverty line, there are 122 poor women. Furthermore, evidence based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) shows that women are more food insecure than men in every region of the world, and particularly in Africa. Thus, the human, social and economic costs of gender inequality and women’s disempowerment are huge.
Women’s empowerment is undoubtedly a major rural development issue. It also represents a key avenue for eliminating hunger, improving nutrition and reducing rural poverty. Governments, international agencies, NGOs and civil society organisations, the private sector, researchers and other relevant stakeholders need to act decisively and hand in hand to level the playing field for rural women and men. While many conventional approaches for closing the gender gaps in agriculture continue to be perfectly relevant (e.g. eliminating gender-based discrimination under the law, promoting equal access to resources and opportunities, and making agricultural policies and programmes more gender-aware), we also have to think creatively and be more daring in our actions. In particular, we must do more to address those social norms, practices, attitudes, beliefs and value systems that impede women’s empowerment. By promoting gender-transformative change, we can pave the way for gender equality within rural households and communities, in rural organisations, among service-providers, and ultimately in policy processes.
Maxmising impacts on women’s livelihoods
Gender-transformative approaches are sometimes regarded as too complicated for application in agricultural settings in developing regions, where gendered structures and habits tend to be complex, deep-rooted and enforced through law and culture. Our experience with the joint programme entitled “Accelerating progress towards the economic empowerment of rural women (JP RWEE)” provides an encouraging counter-example. The JP RWEE is implemented jointly by four UN agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP and UN Women) in seven countries (Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda), with financial support from the governments of Sweden and Norway. A key principle of the JP RWEE is that multiple interventions are targeted to the same group of beneficiaries to ensure maximum impact on women’s livelihoods. For example, interventions to advance women’s access to productive resources, technologies, information and services are complemented with measures to increase women’s skills, agency, and voice in decision-making at household and village levels.