Celebrating International Day of Rural Women

by John McIntire, Associate Vice-President, Programme Management Department

A farmer weighing turnips
in El-Ferech, Tunisia
©IFAD/ Susan Beccio 
In recognition of the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) in 2014, IFAD is dedicating the International Day of Rural Women on 15 October to the millions of rural women worldwide who live and work on family farms.

It is estimated that smallholder family farms are responsible for up to four fifths of food production in the developing world – thus making a significant contribution to global food security. They are also custodians of vital natural resources and biodiversity, and central to climate change adaptation.

Women carry out a substantial and growing part of the work on family farms and represent 43 per cent of the global agricultural workforce. Indeed, in many parts of the world, women are more likely to work in agriculture than in any other sector. Much of this work is unrecorded, undervalued and unpaid. In addition, the challenges that are common to all family farmers are often exacerbated for rural women, impeding their ability to improve their own livelihoods and those of their families.

For example, despite their crucial role, lack of land rights remains a serious challenge for women farmers. The percentage of farm holdings headed by women worldwide is less than 20 per cent. Control over productive assets and income also continue to be unequal. Rural women typically have less access than men to financial services, new technology and information, and improved agricultural inputs, including such basics as good seed.

Women in smallholder family farms also have greater overall burdens of labour, working an average 13 hours a week more than men. Women of all ages manage household responsibilities, care of children and the elderly, and combine these duties with farming and non-farm activities. Customary norms restrict their activities inside and outside the home, limiting their freedom to make decisions and to take advantage of opportunities. In some developing countries, surveys show that women have no say in how their earnings are spent.

Innovative work at household level
Pacifique Musabyimane stands in front of
her home in Kirehe district, Rwanda
©IFAD/Chris Neglia 
In recognition of the complexity and significance of rural women’s roles, IFAD has developed innovative approaches to engage with all members of poor rural families. Using so-called ‘household methodologies’, trained mentors work with women and men to help them determine common priorities. This includes making joint decisions about what is best for the family and the family business, and redistributing the workload.

Household methodologies produce important changes in family life. All members of the household can begin planning together, working towards family goals and holding each other accountable. The benefits include increased productivity, food security and incomes, together with greater happiness and greater resilience to external shocks.

The approach is being widely applied in Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda, where about 50,000 people are participating. IFAD is leading the drive to scale up household mentoring as a methodology and it has been included in the design of new projects in Ghana, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Mozambique.

The road to Beijing+20
For IFAD, the International Day of Rural Women 2014 is also the starting point for a year-long process to prepare for the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+20). This was a landmark agreement and policy framework for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Ndoumbe Mbaye (left), 20, and Faton Fiop, 22, attending
a literacy class in Thiourour village, Koki zone, Senegal
©IFAD/ Susan Beccio  
The status of rural women has been on the international agenda since the first World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975 and their rights are enshrined in international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Despite this, it is a shocking fact that rural women still generally fare worse than rural men, and worse than urban women and men, on all development indicators.

Beijing+20 provides a significant opportunity to focus on the elimination of discrimination against rural women. This must include narrowing the gaps that still exist, in particular with regard to access to education, health care and services, infrastructure, productive resources and assets.

IFAD is planning a series of events at global, national and local level to highlight the importance of economic empowerment for rural women and to showcase the results achieved by IFAD-supported programmes and projects. These events will lead up to the Global Leaders’ Commitment Forum on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, which will take place in September 2015 in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly.