Poverty and Productive Involvement of Rural WomenWomen smallholder farmers require incentives to become leaders in land concentration processes
There is broad consensus in our region of the critical role that women play in the development of rural territories in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). In addition to participating in production processes, they guarantee the stability and survival of their families. In fact, it is estimated that close to half of the food that rural families consume is directly produced by women. As we acknowledge rural women’s leading role, the diversity that characterizes their universe becomes increasingly evident; it is “manifested by their way of life, with women of all generations who live in the countryside, forests, jungles and areas close to bodies of water; and by their social organization, with peasants, indigenous women, and women of African descent. This diversity is also manifested in the activities that women carry out: they are farmers, collectors, fisherwomen or salaried workers, and they also carry out non-agricultural activities in rural areas” (Nobre et al. /FAO, 2017). In addition to these differential factors, it is worth mentioning that, over the past few decades, women have become professionally involved in highly productive entities related to agricultural development, as well as in decision-making bodies, although their presence in the latter field is still low.
Obstacles of varying magnitudes still persist, keeping rural Latin American women from fully reaping the benefits of agricultural and rural development.
However, despite this diversity and the evidence of changes that have taken place since the last century, obstacles of varying magnitudes still persist, keeping rural Latin American women from fully reaping the benefits of agricultural and rural development. Certainly, a large number of rural women live in poverty, especially when they are involved in the agriculture sector. Given this premise, this article will describe the relationship between rural women’s poverty level and their productive insertion.
Progress and stagnation in the sociodemographic context
The rural population in Latin America and the Caribbean continues to decrease, though at a slower pace than in recent decades. Today, 20% of the total population lives in rural areas, representing about 120 million people, nearly half of whom, or 58 million, are women. It is worth noting that the proportion of rural populations varies considerably from one country to another based on their specific conditions.
The universe of rural women has experienced varying degrees of sociodemographic changes. The increase in the number of female-headed rural households is one of the most significant changes; at the regional level, this increase is remarkable given the number of homes. This situation can be attributed to a number of factors, including changes in the agriculture sector (Srinivasan, S.; Rodríguez, A.; ECLAC, 2016). Another significant change is the decrease in the rural fertility rate, which, in turn, has led to a progressive reduction in the size of rural homes (PAHO, 2017). The considerable upswing in the educational level of rural women under the age of 35, which has now reached or surpassed that of their male counterparts, is also noteworthy. The number of rural women involved in non-agricultural rural employment (NARE) has also increased, boosting rural women’s productive diversity.
Other smaller changes that have taken place include a decrease in the levels of extreme poverty among rural women, due to the fact that they are the primary beneficiaries of conditional cash transfer programs. A relative increase in women’s participation in agricultural production compared to that of men has also taken place, due to the fact that men’s presence in this sector has decreased. The number of indigenous women and women of African descent who form part of the community of rural women has also increased slightly.
The overall work that rural women carry out is still considerable; in addition to doing productive work, women also look after their families and communities.
Conversely, other social aspects have experienced few changes, with many issues still persisting. The overall work that rural women carry out is still considerable; in addition to doing productive work, women also look after their families and communities. In agricultural employment in particular, the line that separates the two types of work tends to be blurred in the case of women. Similarly, rural women still face major disparities in terms of their access to public services and social protection. Only slight progress has been achieved with respect to women’s inclusion in social security. Rural women’s lack of access to social protection is the result of two main factors: weaknesses within the social security system at the national level, and gender-related aspects. Furthermore, there has been very little progress with respect to the division of work between men and women, given that women are usually responsible for producing food for their families. Regarding agricultural employment, the largest concentration of women is involved in family farming, particularly in subsistence-oriented smallholdings (minifundios), which have low productivity levels and little economic viability.
The possibility of reducing poverty primarily depends on two factors: on the one hand, the acquisition of income and supplies from productive participation, and, on the other hand, access to primarily public forms of support that are available to families and communities. With respect to the second factor, different programs aimed at reducing poverty have been promoted in the region, especially conditional cash transfer programs, which have played a role in reducing extreme poverty in rural areas. However, the coverage of these forms of public aid should not be overestimated; according to estimates by ECLAC, only 20% of rural households in the region receive some form of public transfer (ECLAC, 2018). This, in turn, makes the first factor all the more relevant; as a result, it becomes necessary to carefully examine women’s productive involvement in rural areas.
Rural women’s productive involvement
Statistical records show a considerable difference between women and men with respect to economic activity. It is important to emphasize, however, that this statistical information is influenced by difficulties experienced in collecting information on the productive activity of women who categorize themselves as inactive in terms of employment; as a result, a large part of this economically active population in agriculture is rendered invisible. According to estimates by FAO, at least half of the women who include themselves in that category actually carry out activities that can contribute to agricultural production (FAO, 2016). Moreover, formal records show that while 52% of rural women categorize themselves as inactive, only 15% of men do so. This difference is particularly evident in agricultural production: only a fifth of women, compared to 53% of men, are involved in this sector. These differences are not as apparent non-agricultural rural employment (NARE), where men’s rate of employment is only slightly higher than that of women.
This statistical information is influenced by difficulties experienced in collecting information on the productive activity of women who categorize themselves as inactive in terms of employment.
There are noticeable differences in rural women’s employment depending on their age group. Young women (aged 15 to 29) show a higher level of inactivity, due to the fact that a part of that group is still in the education system. Agricultural rural employment primarily involves women over the age of 30. On the other hand, the rate of migration to cities is higher among young rural women.
Rural women’s productive involvement is characterized by multi activity. In general, rural women are categorized as: a) half inactive, half active; b) of the latter group, half carries out agricultural work and the other half is involved in non-agricultural work; and c) the greatest difference between the latter two groups is that most women in the first group are non-wage earners, while the opposite is the case in non-agricultural rural employment.
In short, rural women’s employment is divided into the following categories:
a) Family farming
Nearly two-thirds of women involved in rural agricultural employment do family farming, although two specific subsectors can be distinguished. The first is subsidiary work in family farming, which comprises the large group of women who are registered as unpaid family workers, as well as those who categorize themselves as inactive but who carry out some type of production activity. The most distinctive characteristic of this type of work is the fact that women do not receive their own income, which affects half of rural women in the region. The second subsector is made up of independent peasant women, who manage farms that, for the most part, are categorized as subsistence-oriented smallholdings (minifundios). It is important to note that, while this type of productive involvement (subsistence-oriented smallholdings) is mentioned, the very small sector of female-led SMEs is disregarded in this report due to the fact that these women are either no longer involved in family farming or form part of the very small sector of family farming with access to markets, which represents only 12% of the total in LAC, and in which women’s involvement is limited.
b) Agricultural wage employment
Although it does not include a very large number of rural women, this segment is rapidly growing, especially in some countries as a result of the growing regulated production of certain products such as fruits and flowers (Ballara and Parada/FAO-ECLAC, 2009).
c) Non-agricultural rural employment (NARE)
Rural women’s presence in this sector is similar to that of women in agricultural employment, which is not the case for rural men, whose participation in agricultural employment almost doubles their involvement in NARE. The majority of these women are wage earners; a third of them are independent workers or owners, primarily in the fields of trade, and specific types of manufacturing (such as handicrafts).
The vast majority of female employment in rural areas is concentrated in these three sectors. In the case of agricultural or non-agricultural wage earners, wage levels and employment conditions are the main issues; they are generally lower than that of their male counterparts or of urban wage earners. Female independent workers in NARE primarily work in microenterprises within the informal sector of the economy.
The difficulties faced by women involved in family farming are even more complex. On the one hand, the large number of women who are unpaid family workers, or who categorize themselves as inactive, lack income of their own. Overcoming this situation through access to land ownership, which does not happen very often (only 16% of production units in LAC are led by women), does not enable them to pull themselves out of poverty, due to the fact that most of them work in subsistence-oriented smallholdings of very limited size: “the majority of female-led farms are of a small size (usually less than one hectare)” (Salcedo and Guzmán/FAO, 2014).
In those productive units, women obtain basic food for their families, but they do not generate sufficient income to pull themselves out of poverty, especially considering existing gaps in their access to other assets. According to FAO, “although the panorama between countries is heterogeneous, studies always detect unfavorable gaps for women in terms of technical assistance, training and access to credit” (FAO, 2016). The conclusion is that “rural women’s work is key to the subsistence of their homes; however, because of its precariousness, it cannot serve as a lever to lift them out of poverty” (Ballara and Parada/FAO-ECLAC, 2009).
For the vast majority of rural women, improving their living conditions and overcoming poverty will depend on substantial improvement in the performance of the two aforementioned factors. On the one hand, the coverage of social protection systems should improve, given that they are currently unavailable to three-quarters of the rural population; this involves expanding conditional cash transfer programs as well. On the other hand, women’s productive participation must generate sufficient income and resources to enable them to pull themselves out of poverty. Special attention is given here to the latter factor.
Public authorities, international cooperation agencies, and other socioeconomic stakeholders must offer incentives to women smallholder farmers to enable them to lead land concentration processes through the creation of productive associations, cooperatives, etc.
In the case of wage-earning women, both in agricultural and non-agricultural rural employment, the efficiency of this mechanism depends on the ability to achieve decent work; that is, work with wages and employment conditions that are in keeping with labor regulations. Within this context, public action plays a key role, primarily through the Ministries of Labor and their labor inspection departments in particular, more so than through rural development ministries or entities.
In the case of female family farmers, there has been a progressive transition toward registration as independent peasants, which is frequently regarded as the traditional strategy to improve the condition of rural women in agricultural rural employment. However, becoming involved in subsistence farming as producers may imply settling into structural poverty. Sufficient evidence demonstrates that while the low level of productivity, as well as the low economic viability of subsistence-oriented smallholdings may guarantee food for the family, it does not allow for overcoming poverty. To achieve progress in this regard, outweighing the structural limits of subsistence-oriented smallholdings is crucial.
The ability to achieve improvements in this regard is conditioned by age-related differences among rural women. In the case of young women, if they choose not to migrate to the city or participate in non-agricultural rural employment, and instead continue to be involved in agricultural production, their ability to break away from subsistence family farming will depend on their professional qualifications, especially given the technological advances that are currently taking place. Although women of all ages should be able to join the universe of human resources with sufficient technological skills, either in technical positions of dynamic sectors or in decision-making positions, it is reasonable to assume that young women will be better equipped in this regard; naturally, this will also require support from public policies and cooperation agencies.
In the case of older women, their ability to break free from the limits of subsistence family farming primarily depends on their ability to engage in more dynamic sectors of agriculture. Two instruments are proposed in this regard: the first is for women to enter into effective production chains, and the second is to work toward the restructuring of plots of land. This is the basic condition required to increase productivity and substantially increase the economic viability of production units, especially within the context of progressive smallholdings such as in Mexico and Central America; this, in turn, would allow for sustainably overcoming poverty. Public authorities, international cooperation agencies, and other socioeconomic stakeholders must offer incentives to women smallholder farmers to enable them to lead land concentration processes through the creation of productive associations, cooperatives, etc., as proposed by FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (2012). On this basis, policies should aim to provide women with access to other assets such as credit, technical training, market access, etc., generating a positive impact that will substantially increase the possibility of overcoming poverty for most rural women involved in agricultural production.
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