Rural Women Must Not Be “Left Behind”
PERSPECTIVE | International Day of Rural Women
As we seek to transform the status of rural women—from living in poverty to prosperity—we must support rural women’s leadership to effectively empower them and address rural poverty. As rural women are most affected by resource inequities, they must be centrally engaged in decision-making processes and the design of interventions to address those inequities. Despite being too often excluded from decisions that affect their daily lives, rural women’s work is foundational to economies around the world.
Celebrated annually on 15 October, the International Day of Rural Women (IDRW) honors women and girls living in rural areas, paying special tribute to the critical role rural women play in global food production and calling for an end to their disproportionate suffering from poverty.
IDRW both informs and reflects the global conversation about creating empowerment and prosperity for rural women. International leaders have repeatedly argued that "rural women are the backbone of sustainable livelihoods and provide food security for their families and communities.” This assertion has been made in global fora since the creation of the Millennium Development Goals to promote the empowerment of rural women. However, this approach of empowering rural women so they can feed the world is in fact disempowering. Why? It reinforces rigid gender roles, centering rural women in the domestic sphere. This approach makes them responsible for securing household resources, like food and water, and as primary caregivers. It fails to envision rural women in public roles and positions of power within communities, where they can make decisions and transform the structures that deny rural women control and access to productive resources. Envisioning a broader role for rural women can empower them and transform their status, changing the way they are perceived and enabling them to claim their rightful place as citizens, change agents, leaders, and stakeholders in development.
Globally, land is an enormously powerful asset, but it also has a social function. Both the economic and social aspects are central to advance gender equality and empower rural women and girls. It is widely recognized both that rural women and girls are sustained by agriculture and natural resources, and that the accumulation of assets is the way out of poverty. Legal control of land, and legal and social recognition of women’s uses of and their rights to land, can also have catalytic empowerment effects, increasing women’s influence and status in their homes and communities.
In more than a decade as a development practitioner, I have been fully committed to gender equality and rural women’s empowerment. I have seen that effective interventions promote structural transformation and require systems, collaboration and behavioral change. This approach is paramount not only at a global level, but across all scales. Empowerment exists on many different levels from the household to village, community, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
For each type of power and outcome, rural women need a supporting infrastructure that ties their individual lives to better conditions in rural areas. At Landesa, we are working to realize rural women’s legal empowerment through the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights and connecting local concerns with human rights norms and global development frameworks.
This work clarifies a critically important fact: rural women must not be “left behind.” Instead they must be supported to fully appropriate their rights through legal processes and to be fully empowered socially and politically.
Removing discriminatory obstacles helps them partake more fully in decision-making processes about their communities’ development and the direction of their own lives. These elements of empowerment are central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
As we seek to overcome numerous challenges to transform the status of rural women—from living in poverty to prosperity—we must carve out opportunities to elevate their contributions. Despite often being excluded from decisions that affect their daily lives, rural women’s work is foundational to economies around the world.
I am personally inspired by the force of the rural women’s movement in Africa. I have worked directly with them, and have been struck by their commitment to overcome persistent obstacles. Rural women’s networks are bringing women together, amplifying their voices. The African Union’s recent endorsement of the Pan African Women’s Charter on Land Rights demonstrates further momentum toward political will in the region. The Charter is the direct outcome from the Kilimanjaro Initiative, which mobilized rural women from 22 countries across Africa. The Charter includes 15 specific demands addressing women’s access to use, control, own, inherit and dispose of their land and natural resources, with the ultimate goal to empower women across the continent. This is a great opportunity for us all to leverage local action that makes meaningful participation and inclusion of rural women in the policy-making process a core element of progress, offering new opportunities to scale-up and accelerate securing rural women’s land rights.
Let’s envision rural women’s status differently from the way it is too often perceived.
If not now, when will we create the enabling environment and structural changes for rural women to claim public roles as drivers and agents of change? Rural women’s importance to feed the world has been recognized. Now it is time to move beyond this framework, actively engaging rural women and sustaining their efforts through mechanisms that guarantee their voice is central in the call to achieve their own prosperity.