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Rural Women on the Agenda...
Rural Women’s Agenda

Rural Women – A Gender Perspective

Rural women are instrumental to the European Union’s aims of zero hunger and the eradication of poverty

Gender equality and the empowerment of women is a core priority for the European Union (EU). In 2015, the EU adopted a new transformational framework for addressing gender equality in EU External Relations and its institutional culture, called the Gender Action Plan 2016–2020 (GAP II). The UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which forms the basis for the EU’s development cooperation agenda, has a transversal gender-mainstreaming policy while one specific goal (SDG 5) is dedicated to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. The GAP II responds to this goal.

Rural women, whose roles and responsibilities are multiple and complex, are key actors in the production, processing and marketing of food, as well as in preparing food for household consumption, and maintaining household nutrition security.

Furthermore, global food and nutrition security is high on the EU agenda. Rural women, whose roles and responsibilities are multiple and complex, are key actors in the production, processing and marketing of food, as well as in preparing food for household consumption, and maintaining household nutrition security. They carry the potential to increase productivity, thereby raising incomes, and the knowledge required to diversify their livelihoods in times of stress. In short, rural women are instrumental to the EU’s aim of zero hunger and the eradication of poverty. Despite their large untapped potential, rural women face many barriers to increasing agricultural productivity and achieving food and nutrition security for their families. They have less access than men to productive resources, less information, and are less able to make decisions on their own. Their reproductive role means that women and girls are more at risk from nutrition insecurity than men and boys.

Rural women account for the production of half of the world’s food, and up to 80% of production in most developing countries. Estimations show that 7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry people are women. Also, women own less than 15% of land worldwide, and less than 2% of property in the developing world; while they do two-thirds of the world’s work, they only receive 10% of the world’s income. That is why gender inequality is not just a problem of women, but it is a problem of agricultural productivity, of food security and rural development. Rural women are not a homogeneous group. Their roles and contributions to the society differ, as well as their needs and interests, depending on their age, origins, the size and composition of their family and age of their children. A constant feature is nevertheless discrimination, albeit varying in degree. Global policy put gender equity as a strategic objective, and the rural development policies of the EU put the gender mainstreaming into the directive which governs the European Common Agricultural Policy as well as the Rural Development Programme.

At the heart of these inequalities lie gender-discriminatory social norms – reflected in attitudes, behaviours, policies and laws that hold women and girls back. This is why the GAP II calls for a transformative approach, which seeks not only to improve women’s access to resources, but also to guarantee their equal rights. It goes without saying that a transformative approach towards improving the lives of rural women and girls in the agriculture, food and nutrition security sectors must be accompanied by efforts in other sectors to guarantee their rights, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In order to bring about this social transformation, we need evidence-based and systematic gender analysis through carefully collected sex-disaggregated date, in order to explore the discriminatory trends that disadvantage women. The roles of rural women in agriculture, food security and nutrition chains in the developing world are complex and vary depending on many different factors such as their socioeconomic status, geographic location, age, reproductive status, education, religion or ethnicity. Generalisations run the risk of oversimplifying the stories of rural women’s lives. In addition, past and emerging trends such as climate change, migration, disease outbreaks, commercialisation, and an increase in technologies, globalisation and conflict, can alter the behaviours of both men and women.

Where opportunities are available to them, rural women can be resourceful entrepreneurs, able to manage successful agri-businesses that provide an important income for household food and nutrition security.

Women are normally the main care-providers for children, the elderly and the sick. Many believe that this undervalued care work, within the reproductive economy, keeps women poor and that the value of this unpaid work needs to be assessed and properly recognised. However, it should be emphasised that rural women’s knowledge about the natural environment, their habitat and natural resources, means that they play an important role in household resilience and are critical in the drive towards increased climate-smart agriculture. Where opportunities are available to them, rural women can be resourceful entrepreneurs, able to manage successful agri-businesses that provide an important income for household food and nutrition security. Women’s agricultural and entrepreneurial roles complement their roles as food and nutrition providers. Their contribution to child nutrition begins during pregnancy, as undernutrition often starts in the womb, and continues through breastfeeding and throughout the child’s life. Their dominance in subsistence agriculture, as opposed to more male-dominated cash crops, means that they are guardians of household food security, and generally in charge of cooking and preparing family meals. In poor rural households, whose income and food security can be affected by shocks such as price volatility, droughts, floods, natural catastrophes or conflict, women may be forced to devise short-term measures to feed their families, such as local displacement, migration or the sale of livestock.

Rural women and girls are also the main collectors of fuelwood for cooking and water for drinking, domestic use and for animals. These may be heavy tasks involving frequent and unsafe journeys away from home, which may grow longer as natural resources become ever more depleted. As a result of their multiple roles as food providers and domestic carers, rural women often lack the time for more productive activities. This trend is commonly referred to as women’s ‘work burden’ or their ‘time poverty’. Rural women’s roles are affected both positively and negatively by the ongoing rural transformation that is happening in developing countries around the world. A process of social change is under way as rural economies diversify, reduce their reliance on agriculture, gain greater access to information through information and communications technology, strengthen their links to urban areas, and become more mobile – especially through the migration of young males. This change can empower rural women as they adopt greater on- and off-farm responsibilities whilst men move into non-farm employment or migrate away in search of alternative incomes. On the other hand, more responsibilities may also increase rural women’s heavy work burden and leave them with even less time for them and their families.

Why land/property rights matter for women
Generally speaking, if women can increase their access to, control over, and management and use of, land; this will have a positive impact on their lives and on the wellbeing of their families and communities. It will also provide a long-term benefit to their country and society at large.

Women’s equal access to land helps guarantee the respect of fundamental human rights, including the rights to adequate food, shelter, non-discrimination and equality; the right not to be evicted; and the right to effective remedy, etc.

Secure land/property rights contribute to the realisation of fundamental human rights. Women’s equal access to land helps guarantee the respect of fundamental human rights, including the rights to adequate food, shelter, non-discrimination and equality; the right not to be evicted; and the right to effective remedy, etc. Moreover, secure land/property rights can help protect women from violence.

Evidence suggests that women’s ownership of property, and their participation in land management, is associated with an increased ability to leave violent relationships; secure tenure provides economic security, particularly for vulnerable women, such as those who are widowed, elderly, divorced or affected by HIV/AIDS.


Secure land rights could contribute to increased farm investments and improved agricultural productivity. It is recognised that more empirical evidence is needed to measure the positive relation between secure land tenure and agricultural productivity. However, there is a high level of agreement that having secured rights is a critical factor favouring agricultural productivity, together with other elements that are often strictly linked to the availability of secured land, such as (among others) access to credit, input supplies, technology and extension services.

As women face more constraints than men to have secured land, they have more difficulties than men in making choices over its effective and productive use. Women for example are often constrained in their choice of crop, with men tending to use more productive land for the cultivation of higher-value cash crops.

Moreover, women might have more limited access to labour, lack of knowledge and availability of appropriate technologies, and a heavy workload resulting in time constraints that can further hamper their productivity. If women can effectively enjoy secure access to land and are given more say over which crops to grow, what inputs to use, what to sell, and how to spend or invest the revenues, their work could contribute to improved farm investments and agricultural productivity and, eventually, to increased gains from land.

Therefore, secure land/property rights are fundamental to improving food security and nutrition and can improve household food and nutrition security, as well as family investments. There is evidence that women with more secure land/property rights will reallocate family expenditure to better food consumption and other basic needs, for example by contributing to an improvement in the health and nutritional status of their children.

Secure land rights can improve women’s voices and participation. Women in rural areas, especially those living in more traditional societies, are often dependent on male decisions. They may lack the right to vote or to participate in community decisions because they are not considered as qualified community members. Even in communities that do include women in common decision-making, women’s right to vote can be undermined by procedural rules, such as those allowing only one vote per family (thus automatically going to the –usually male- household head). Removing barriers to participation and strengthening women’s voices is fundamental in helping them defend their rights, both within communities and also when external factors/actors challenge community lands.

Among these external factors, the phenomenon of (large- scale) land acquisition (land grabbing) by non-community actors – either domestic or international – claiming land for commercial purposes represents a particularly critical challenge especially for indigenous women, who struggle to have their rights recognised. Although the impact varies from one context to another, it is broadly agreed that women are more likely to be negatively affected than men by this phenomenon because they are generally more vulnerable as a group. In these circumstances, women are often excluded from consultations and negotiations regarding land deals. Moreover, in cases where community land is redistributed following the concession of a part of it, women are more likely than men to be excluded from this redistribution or to be given the less productive parcels of land.

Meaningful participation must, however, go beyond women’s simple presence at meetings: meaningful participation includes women having both the space and knowledge to speak safely and the confidence and capacity to defend their rights.

If women can enjoy a more secure right to land, they can improve their ability to exercise both ‘voice’ and ‘choice’ in decisions that affect the use and control of their own land and/or community land. Meaningful participation must, however, go beyond women’s simple presence at meetings: meaningful participation includes women having both the space and knowledge to speak safely and the confidence and capacity to defend their rights. The more women are informed of their rights, the more they are able to participate.

To conclude, the EU remains a strong partner and global leader for gender equality, women’s empowerment and sustainable development within, as well as outside of the EU, including women in rural areas in both spheres. This is a matter important not only for these women but for their families, communities and countries.

Addressing Gender-based Violence with the Spotlight Initiative
In September 2017, the EU and the UN launched jointly the Spotlight Initiative, with an initial investment of EUR 500 million. Its goal is to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls around the world. Rural women are sometimes disproportionally exposed to the risks of gender-based violence, from infanticide, to femicides, brutal rapes and killings as well as harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage as well as domestic and family violence, trafficking in human beings and sexual and economic (labour) exploitation.

The EU has already identified the regions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean where our targeted actions, projects, will be conducted, we have identified the most prevalent forms of violence that need to be tackled and now we are translating these policies into select country-related programs, working together with local government, civil society and other key stakeholders.

The Spotlight initiative is about taking violence out of the shadow and into the spotlight, addressing it in all its manifestations around the world. With a goal to create a world in which all women and girls can feel empowered to walk free and tall in safety and dignity.

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Ambassador Mara Marinaki • Rural Women – A Gender Perspective Ambassador Mara Marinaki

Principal Advisor on Gender and on the implementation of UNSCR1325 on Women, Peace and Security, European External Action Service (EEAS). Brussels, Belgium