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Paying Attention to the Hidden Strengths of Rural Women

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commission on status of women
Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, leads an opening-day debate on female genital mutilation at the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Feb. 27, 2012. RYAN BROWN/UN PHOTO

Rural women are worse off than their urban counterparts and their male neighbors. They are generally poorer, less educated, discriminated against and left with limited health care choices and jobs, yet they are classic behind-the scene doers, often performing most of the unpaid work at home and on farms, while producing a majority of the world’s crops to feed others.

The often-overlooked status and grit of rural women and their role in eradicating hunger and poverty is the theme of the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held at the UN from Feb. 27 to March 9. Rural women make up a quarter of the world’s 7 billion people, and though they are not a hugely vocal chorus, their grass-roots advocacy could influence local and national economies and politics in positive ways.

But the rights, contributions and priorities of rural women have far to go in policy making circles. Women have less access than men to land, property ownership, tools, technology, seeds, credit and the marketplace. If women had the same resources as men, they could increase farm yields and ultimately reduce the number of hungry people up to 17 percent worldwide, the UN says.

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What rural women need, says UN Women, the main agency in promoting women, is to be equally represented and more consistently involved in decision-making at all rungs of government and international institutions. Women’s participation strengthens democracy, equality and the economy, which together can direct the course of world peace. By concentrating on rural women, everyone wins.

Yet why are rural women ignored and underrepresented? The question came up at the conference’s high-level meetings and 90 side events as well as the 300 parallel debates, all together attracting about 1,300 people, mostly women. They converged from the hinterlands and cities, a small town in Oklahoma to the capital of Thailand, from Sri Lanka to Sweden.

From the official UN discourses to the more informal discussions across First Avenue at the Church Center for the United Nations, rural women finally got their due in New York. Panel topics covered wide turf, from national parliaments to worldwide migration; reproductive rights in Russia to the plight of Afghan women; body images in the media to decent work for the indigenous.

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“Everything that I have witnessed during the past year, with the uprisings in the Arab world and elsewhere, confirms my belief that we need to urgently and systematically open up participation, opportunity and choices for all human beings, women and men, young and old,” Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, said on opening day.

“We need to reduce inequality. And this is particularly important for rural women and girls who face such high disparities in access to education and other services and cannot reach their potential.”

The top priority for UN Women this year, Bachelet also said, will be a renewed push for women’s economic empowerment and political participation.

Rural women
At the conference, a rural women's speakout took the form of round-table talks. RYAN BROWN

Two UN Women projects

Early into the conference, UN Women, which began operating in 2011, announced the creation of a joint Women in Politics 2012 digital map with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global forum. The map details the number of elected women heads of state and government in the world, which has more than doubled, to 17 this year, since 2005.The number of women ministers has also increased, to 16.7 percent in 2012 from 14.2 percent in 2005. Temporary measures like quotas to ensure women’s place in politics have been useful, which is why Bachelet endorses them.

“I encourage countries to use quotas to expand women’s participation in parliament,” she said in a statement. “It is also good to open public debate about the right of women to take part in government and to hold public office.”

Bachelet’s office also called for grant proposals from groups promoting women’s economic and political strengthening to benefit from a $10.5 million fund. Nonprofits in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia are encouraged to apply for the direct grants, starting at $200,000 each, from the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality. The fund has already given money to women in Arab countries.

The conference’s back-to-back debates attracted women from every walk of life: African women in caftans; Western and Asian women in dress suits, casual pants and saris. One popular debate focused on the effects of climate change and extreme weather, to which everyone can relate.

Rural women need hoses

Women are often hurt more by natural disasters than men, it turns out, facing lowered life expectancies and less employability after catastrophes. Women are more likely than men to suffer more post-traumatic stress after a natural disaster, a Tulane University study found, since they not only have to pull themselves together but also their families.

But climate disasters have the wily effect of giving birth to new leaders in life-death situations; and rural women, often thrown to their own devices, end up demanding information on crops, schooling, health care and devices that will help them farm and care for their children and their community.

As one eastern Ugandan farmer, Constance Okollet, told the roomful of people, “we used to eat and live,” but climate change has brought floods, droughts and strong winds to her village, destroying homes, crops and livelihoods. People are starving and the strong ones, girls usually, must trek miles to get water. What is needed are hoes, contraception, food and agriculture information – “When to plant, plow, the temperature, the weather,” she said.

Gail Karlsson, a senior policy adviser for Energia, a New York-based network on gender and energy, spoke about the basics, too, and not just hoes but better fuel, motorized water pumps and cooking tools. She questioned the current rage for cook stoves because the stoves’ one-size-fits-all design does not work for everyone, she said, adding that rural women know what they need but are not heard in the zeal to help them.

Lack of modern communications can hinder country women from getting the responses they require. Self-help community groups provide the most important link for them, Karlsson said, adding that cellphones could be connected to energy sources to make them work.

Russia: little love

A sorry picture was painted of poverty and alcoholism in rural Russia at a nongovernmental organization meeting of three activists at the Church Center. One panelist, Irina Kosterina, works for Heinrich Boll Stiftung in Moscow; the others, Vera Akulova and Olga Burmakova, were independent. With a lively, at one point tense audience of young, middle-aged and older women and a few men, the debate centered on the panelists’ campaigns on reproductive health and the right to “reproductive justice,” even as two audience members spoke against abortion and questioned the women’s facts.

Panelists said that in Russia, a regressive trend toward curtailing reproductive rights and tightening gender roles has been under way since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church, they noted, was carrying more sway, chiming in with the government on the centrality of family amid low birth rates, which stand at 11 births for every 1,000 people. (In comparison, the world’s highest birth rate, in Niger, is 50 births for every 1,000 people.) But the panelists contended that Russia’s death rate (16 per 1,000 people, the second-highest after South Africa), is the crux of the population problem.

The hardships of rural life for one Russian mother, documented in a film partly financed by the Open Society Institute, revealed major social gaps. With at least six children in tow, the last of whom the mother admitted she would have aborted if she’d had the chance, she left her second husband, a drinker, for the hinterlands with her kids. There, she does the sweat work on a dairy farm while the men show up drunk. With her blunt manner and toothless grin, the mother presents resigned good humor, laced with curses, in Russia’s backwater.

Scandinavia: the good life

On the other extreme, a UN panel on the “Nordic way” generated a more sedate but enthusiastic crowd as the moderator, Morten Wetland, the Norwegian ambassador, said that the reason for the region’s model gender equality laws and policies was not rooted in the countries’ wealth (including Norway’s oil) or high taxes, but in the ability of men to see for themselves that when women have equal rights, life is good for everyone.

So went a clear moral lesson that could have been heeded down the hall in a Lichtenstein-sponsored debate on women, peace and security in Afghanistan, where women’s constitutional rights bear little weight against the Taliban’s manipulations to imprison them in their homes. Women may be “free” to get an education but they are attacked with acid in schools. Girls are pushed into marriages and women are laughed at, by the highest officials, when they demand their rights. They are stoned when accused of adultery and are refused food if they aren’t willing to have sex with their husbands.

As a Norwegian said at another event, “Afghanistan is rated the worst place for a woman to live, while Norway is the best.”

Meanwhile, at the Nordic debate, the panelists consisted of three men and four women (including Michelle Bachelet, a Chilean). One male panelist could not make it because he was on “family leave.” Much praise was heaped on Nordic strides on gender equality, despite qualifications that “our work is nowhere near completion,” said Manu Sareen, the Indian-born minister of gender equality in Denmark.

Providing universal social protection in Nordic countries has required strong education systems, redistribution of power, the political will by men and women to break old patterns and a focus on sustainable policies across family and labor lines. (Nordic nations have the highest percentage of women ministers, 48.4 percent, says the UN Women/Inter-Parliamentary Union’s new political map.)

“Parliaments need to be addressed more strongly,” but also “willing to legislate,” said Arni Hole, director-general of the Ministry of Children and Equality in Norway. She added, “Either/or is no real freedom.”

Panelists touched lightly on rural women, especially farmers, who can be disconnected from urban society, overworked and lack services. Hole, the most outspoken panelist, emphasized the value of providing technology to rural areas to increase telecommuting and long-distance learning. Some of Finland’s imbalances involve women migrating to cities for education and jobs, creating, as in Sweden, a loss of “social capital.”

Conference on women
UN Women and UN food agencies held a debate on speeding up progress in rural women's lives. Elisabeth Atangana, president of Propac, an African farmers' group, is speaking. RYAN BROWN

Social customs discriminate

A well-attended debate on how social institutions discriminate against rural women was organized by the Finnish and Kenyan governments with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group of rich nations that studies global economies.

Somali Cerise and Estelle Loiseau of the OECD Development Center outlined with visual aids its Social Institution and Gender Index (SIGI), illustrating how rural women have less control over politics, economics and their reproductive health because of biased social norms played out through family codes, early marriages, parental authority, inheritances, favoritism toward boys and domestic violence, among other factors.

Loiseau described a new Internet forum, Wikigender, created by OECD, where people can submit articles on gender, with an empirical emphasis, to counter the “lack of good-quality data on rural women’s issues.”

Emily Sikaswe, another panelist at the debate and chief executive of a human-rights group, Women for Change, in Zambia, bemoaned the “Oxfordization” of post-colonial Africa. These societies treat women as “minors,” even though, as in her country, she said, the cultures were once heavily matrilineal.

How to “best reinstate the dignity of women?” she asked. By retracing the cultures to look for good models and discard the bad ones.

Afghanistan: women and peace

Nothing conveyed the hardships of Afghan women better than a film, “Peace Unveiled,” shown midweek at the UN, depicting the long, dangerous struggle for women’s rights and a seat at the peace table among Taliban and government negotiators.

But the message that one panelist reinforced afterward reflected positively on the power of women as agents of change.

“If women were at decision-making tables in significant numbers, especially in developing countries, we’d have a better chance at preventing violence and war,” Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace and a longtime peace activist, clarified in an e-mail message later.

“And if we had peace and justice-loving women at decision-making tables in developed countries we’d also have a better country and better world.”

Additional resources

Assessing the Power of Farm Women: A New Approach

Land Rights for Women Transform an Indian Village

[This article was updated on March 12, 2012.]


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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