Gender and Development

Marginalized Yet Powerful, Rural Women and Girls Cannot Be Overlooked

As the Commission on the Status of Women kicks off in New York City this week, the theme surrounding rural women and girls begs reflection. Ines Boussebaa analyzes the challenges that rural women constantly strive to overcome in the face of conflict, food security, climate change, and economic empowerment, among various others.


On March 12, the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will begin. This event, held annually at the United Nations in New York, is dedicated to promoting women’s rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women. Each year, thousands of women descend upon the UN, bringing awareness to the realities women face around the world. This year, the theme of the session is “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.” This theme emphasizes the need to acknowledge what rural women contribute to their communities, as well as the specific struggles they face compared to other women or rural men.

While it is important to understand the specific struggles rural women face, it is first necessary to remember that they are strong actors within their communities. As custodians of traditional knowledge, they can offer specific, successful solutions to many of the issues they and their communities face. For example, putting rural women in charge of income often results in improved child nutrition. A UNDP report titled “Human Development Report. Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All” explains that in general, rural women express more concern than rural men for the environment, support policies beneficial to the environment and vote for leaders who share these concerns. With climate change, women’s inclusion in discussions has led to improved outcomes and policies. In Colombia, rural women were instrumental in building peace and assuring their representation in the peace agreements to end the 50-year conflict. Rural women across Europe and Central Asia are working to empower their communities economically. In rural Serbia, a Women Councilors Network is teaching women organic farming skills and advancing gender equality. In Armenia, rural women are learning sustainable farming techniques and developing business plans. In rural El Salvador and Nicaragua, women’s cooperatives help women gain income, and access to public and legal services. Indigenous women in Peru are growing gardens and increasing women’s leadership. In the United States, rural women are doing all sorts of activities to benefit their communities. Rural women around the world are adapting to changes and challenges. People working with these communities must remember that these women have essential knowledge and agency, and must always consult with them when attempting to figure out solutions to various problems. Without them, development efforts may fail.

When looking at economic, environmental or social problems in a community, gender equality is an indispensable tool for success. Gender issues intersect much of the development goals governments strive to reach. However, rural women are left behind when we attempt to achieve these targets. Multiple forms of discrimination, ranging from sex, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and race, can work together to create “pockets of discrimination.” We should do all we can to make sure no group of women is left behind, as full gender equality results in advantages for everyone. For example, a UN Women report titled “Turning Promises Into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” explained that when women have decent work and regular income, they contribute to poverty reduction, as well as better education, health and nutrition for those who depend on them.

Poverty is one of the main problems rural women face, and this affects all other aspects of their lives. For example, poverty causes differences in education outcomes, child marriage, healthcare and autonomy. While specific numbers change from country to country, the trends for rural women remain similar. For example, the UN Women report explains that in Colombia, less than 5% of women from rich urban households are “education poor”, while indigenous and rural women are 61.4% education poor. Poverty goes further than education, spreading into healthcare and access to income. In India, according to the same report, “…a young woman aged 20–24 from a poor, rural household is 5.1 times as likely as one from a rich urban household to marry before the age of 18, 21.8 times as likely to have never attended school, 5.8 times as likely to become an adolescent mother, 1.3 times as likely to have no access to money for her own use and 2.3 times as likely to report she has no say in how money is spent.”

On top of facing poverty, rural women also face discriminatory laws that restrict their ability to inherit or own land, property and credit. This discrimination exacerbates poverty, keeping women locked in their current positions. With no ability to own land, property or credit, their ability to have an income remains greatly limited. Even when these restrictions no longer exist, women face other barriers blocking them from moving out of poverty, including larger shares of unpaid care work, occupational segregation, harsh social norms, gender wage gaps, and a lack of social protection. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, married women need authorisation from their husbands for any legal act. This results in very real restrictions, as less than 10% of women are landowners in the DRC and only 2% of women have access to credit, effectively rendering women minors.

Poverty, the environment and land rights are also linked together. The environment and climate change play a heavy role in rural women’s lives, as they rely on natural resources to live. Poor rural women use “common pool resources,” including forests, water and fish. Many women are responsible for cattle care and collecting household food and fuel from forests, impacting women negatively by deforestation. The UN Women report states, “A study in Malawi found deforestation was forcing elderly women to walk more than 10 kilometres a day to collect fuelwood.” Climate changes are resulting in more frequent and intense storms and natural disasters, also affecting rural women, who are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster. Women migrate during disasters and conflicts, but when they return, they have no rights to claim the land they left behind. In the Philippines, poverty, climate and conflict have intertwined: extreme weather changes and conflict in certain areas has led rural young women, wives and widows to migrate to urban areas, where they can find seasonal employment more easily than men. The migration is a coping mechanism for climate change, stabilising rural women’s family income and mitigating poverty.

To build peaceful, inclusive societies, the rights of marginalized women cannot be ignored. We must acknowledge the importance of rural women’s agency and leadership, and ensure their full participation at all levels. We must also develop policies and programmes that address the needs, interests and constraints of rural women, including barriers to education, health and economic resources. By giving women strong roles and equal rights in their communities, benefits will reverberate throughout society and our environment. We can look forward to seeing these issues addressed at this year’s CSW, as the United Nations and Member States share information and good practices on these many relevant issues.

Ines Boussebaa is currently working as a Communications and Research Fellow at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Her academic interests include the MENA region, the environment, human rights and gender in international relations.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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