New (and old) stories about young rural women in Latin America

By Raúl H. Asensio
Over the  last two decades, young rural women have experienced many changes: not only in regard to the transformations originated in rural areas, but also due to changes in the gender and generational gaps. The objective of the Nuevas Trenzas program is to study these phenomena that affect young rural women in order to identify what opportunities may be seized and what problems must be solved by means of public policies or private initiatives so that this collective may develop integrally.

What inequality gaps do young rural women face?
Young rural women are a collective marked by “intertwined inequalities”, intersecting gaps that generate disadvantageous situations in relation to the others.

• Gender gap: separates young rural women from rural men belonging to the same generation.

• Area of residency gap: separates young rural women from their urban contemporaries.
• Generational gap: separates young rural women from their rural mothers and grandmothers.
• Poverty gap: within the group of young rural women, it distinguishes those who live in a poor household from those who live in a non-poor household.

These gaps directly affect young rural women’s “ability to do”. This ability to do may be broken into the following competencies: technical competence (managing the necessary skills to do something), legal competence (existence of a legal framework that allows doing something), and subjective competence (the subject’s capability for perceiving herself with the ability to do something). This, ultimately, affects young rural women’s possibilities of having an autonomous life strategy.

Which gaps affect young rural women?
Young rural women (between ages 14 and 35) represent between 9.7 percent and 4 percent of the total population, and between 15.5 percent and 19.1 percent of the analyzed countries’ (Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru) rural population. In every country where Nuevas Trenzas works, young rural women add up to a total of over 5.6 million.

Issues that affect young rural women
• Defeminization of rural areas: data shows that the percentage of women over the total rural population is fewer than 50 percent in almost every country analyzed. In rural areas, social and economic dynamics that expel rural women towards cities prevail, especially in the case of young women, due the persistence of institutions (mostly informal) that make it difficult for women to access key assets, as well as to the prevalence of family strategies with a strong gender bias.
• Increase of women’s practical competence: this change is most reflected in data regarding human capital, especially in relation to access to education. In rural areas, the gender gap is no longer a problem in terms of basic education. Even if to a lesser extent, the area of residency gap in education has also diminished. Another important aspect is the progress achieved regarding the relationship with the State and other actors of the rural world: we can observe, for example, an increase in the possession of identity documents (in general, it exceeds 90 percent in the studied countries), as well as a closer relationship with the healthcare system (the percentage of birth in healthcare facilities exceeds 60 percent in all countries).
• Decrease of the geographical gap and intensification of the generational gap: the gaps that determine the situation of young rural women are not static. An example of this is the impact of Information and Communication Technologies over the last few years: there has been a deep penetration of cellular telephones in rural households comprising young women, reaching, in some countries, near 80 percent.
• The break point: life stories gathered over the course of the program show that there is a breaking moment in the personal trajectories of young rural women, around the ages of 18 and 22. At this point, their lives change radically mostly due to the difficulties rural women face for developing autonomous life strategies. This limitation is caused by two main motives. On one side, we find that in almost every rural space in the continent, institutional frameworks with gender biases prevail. On the other side, it is difficult for them to access professional specialization.
• Persistence of family strategies with gender bias: interviews and life stories show that the step into couple life is often perceived by young rural women as a traumatic moment: a definitive rupture with their hopes of leading a life different than their mothers’ and grandmothers’. The result is a widespread perception of frustration. Decisions regarding couple life and family formation determine the life of rural women. In this sense, the persistence of very high rates of non-paid domestic work is a key issue.
• Poverty gap: We observe that in almost every country, the group with lower poverty percentages corresponds to households with women between the ages of 18 and 25. These households present two characteristics: (i) presumably, most of the time, young rural women are the head of the household, and (ii) they comprise women that have been able to take advantage of the past decades’ improvements in education.

Why is it important to focus in this collective?
Young rural women can be key actors in rural development processes due to the following reasons:

• Given their urban experience, their higher education and openness to new forms of communication, young rural women constitute a generation particularly sensitive to discrimination situations, for this reason they are fairly active in promoting their rights. This condition represents an exceptional opportunity to work in programs or initiatives that will help break the social legitimacy of gender discrimination practices that still exist in the rural world.

• They represent an under-utilized capital not being seized, neither by traditional mechanisms of human capital enhancement that apply in the rural world, nor by development programs.

• They constitute a group with great potential for building bridges between the rural world and the urban word, given that many Latin American young rural women have “urban experiences” from an early age: they go to school or to work in cities, and adopt in this process many urban patterns, habits, skills and aspirations.

• They constitute a group with a high potential for innovation. Many of the micro-innovation experiences in the rural world have young rural women as leaders. In the measure that they do not have easy access to key assets for carrying out traditional activities, they must manage to come up with opportunities for generating income in innovative ways.

Raúl H. Asensio is the Coordinator of the IFAD-supported Nuevas Trenzas Program. Learn more at

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