In defense of rural women: a matter of justice and fundamental rightsThe sustainability of the rural environment is threatened by the same inequalities that continue to affect rural women
Women play an essential role in the rural economy and are also the backbone of life in rural societies. They are key players in the transfer of knowledge to upcoming generations, in preventing rural flight, and in achieving sustainable social, economic and environmental development in rural communities and in the wider society.
There are more than 8,000 municipalities in Spain, almost 72% of which have less than 2,000 inhabitants1. Women make up half of the rural population. Here are women who work the land each day… enterprising women… independent female entrepreneurs who spearhead innovative business initiatives to introduce previously unavailable products or services to their communities. They are powerful agents of change who will enable a more sustainable and ecological agriculture sector.
Women in Spain’s rural communities, particularly the youngest among them, are more educated than their male peers and are keenly aware of emerging opportunities to diversify the economy in their areas, through activities that complement agriculture and the livestock industry, such as rural tourism, ecotourism, agro-tourism, experience tourism, the craft industry, as well as in the transformation of indigenous products and in the agrifood sector, inter alia.
On the other hand, these women face roadblocks that are reducing their ability to access quality jobs. They endure excessively long work days, in jobs that often pay them less than men, and must also shoulder the major responsibility for caring for children, the elderly and dependents. These factors hamper and reduce their access to employment, social and political participation and forums for decision-making, in effect preventing them from enjoying genuine and effective equality of opportunities.
Structural barriers and entrenched stereotypes reinforce traditional gender roles, leaving the responsibility for invisible and unpaid tasks to women. The pervasive masculinization of agricultural and fishing activities restricts women’s participation and presence in decision-making forums, making it difficult for them to own land or to access services and infrastructure.
Not only should these barriers be removed and the women living in these communities be given support, as a matter of justice and fundamental rights, but we should do so recognizing that without women, rural life would dwindle, age and eventually disappear.
Valuing and acknowledging women’s work - both paid and unpaid –, empowering them and providing accessible and high-quality care services are essential if we are to fulfill the commitments of Agenda 2030, and specifically Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. Other closely related goals are Goal 1 – to end poverty in all its forms; Goal 2 – to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition; Goal 8 - to promote full and productive employment and decent work for all; and Goal 13 – to take action to combat climate change.
In Spain, we have restructured our legal system, incorporating new standards to lay the foundation for a more equitable society, with the approval of Law 3/2007 of 22 March. This focuses on the effective equality of women and men, and introduces the principle of equal treatment and opportunities for women and men in all policies. The law pays particular attention to the status of rural women, and includes measures to improve educational levels and training, and also to facilitate women’s access to the labor market and to leadership positions in companies and associations.
Of particular significance are legal changes that have taken place with respect to the joint ownership of agricultural holdings - Law 35/2011 of 4 October –, changes which have been long-demanded by women’s associations and collectives in rural areas. This signals some progress in reshaping agricultural structures, by recognizing the equal rights of women in the agriculture sector, acknowledging their work and providing them with Social Security protection. Pursuant to this Law, both owners share the responsibility for managing and representing the agricultural holding, are entitled to a 50/ 50 share of profits, and are both considered as direct beneficiaries of any assistance or subventions that they receive as owners of the land. It also establishes a specific social security contribution rate that applies to everyone. Although the gains under this Law have been considerable, it has not resolved all of the problems that it set out to tackle. Therefore, legislators should continue to work assiduously on the matter.
Furthermore, introducing new information and communication technologies to rural settlements is a matter of urgency, as they hold the key to the development of women and children. By guaranteeing them access to ICT tools, promoting their participation in Information Society, boosting their confidence and comfort in using these new technologies, providing the necessary skills, information and knowledge and delivering improved internet connectivity to rural communities, women’s entry into the work force will be facilitated.
We continue to work towards this end, through programs that offer training, mentoring and coaching for rural women who want to be self-employed or to start their own business project. We have developed an electronic trade platform (http://desafiomujerrural.es/ecommerce/) that provides an accessible web portal through which female entrepreneurs in rural areas can promote and sell their products - locally, nationally and regionally. The platform is complemented by a personalized tutoring service to assist entrepreneurs in using the system, in promoting their products and in ensuring safe financial transactions.
In partnership with the agrifood sector, in particular with cooperatives - which are the hub of economic activity in most Spanish rural communities -, we are promoting cultural changes in women and men to enable women to rise to senior positions, including on Executive Boards where they currently have a very limited presence.
Another critical matter is how to assist rural women to network: a powerful tool that will allow them to increase their presence in public forums and to deploy strategies for collective action. It also promotes their active participation in social and work life, enabling them to exercise their rights as citizens.
Moreover, the fact that rural women are particularly vulnerable to gender violence is a reality that cannot be overlooked. Spain’s State Pact against Gender Violence, which was unanimously approved by all levels of Parliament, contains specific measures to combat gender violence against this group. The measures address issues such as prevention and sensitization; institutional responses, coordination and networking; assistance, aid and protection for victims; healthcare; and knowledge-building, to name a few.
Undoubtedly, the sustainability of the rural environment is threatened by the same inequalities that continue to affect rural women. They are still fighting to improve their status and employment opportunities, and to increase their presence and active participation in the leadership bodies of companies, agricultural and trade associations, trade unions, professional organizations, and in political and social institutions.
We must break down the barriers that still prevent women from participating in our society at the same level as men, and multiply our efforts to overcome the stumbling blocks that are obstacles to equal opportunities in the rural world.
1 Rural area, as defined by the Explotación Estadística del Padrón - INE (Statistical Analysis of the Census), is a group of municipalities with 2,000 or less inhabitants.