Rural Women in the Caribbean: Key Agents of Transformation for Genuine and Sustainable DevelopmentThere is still an urgent need to work towards achieving gender equality and autonomy within the framework of sustainable development
The story of Caribbean development cannot be told without the narrative of rural women. Throughout our evolution from plantation economies and agrarian societies to modern, independent nations, rural women have played and continue to play fundamental roles in the economic and social development of our countries, and indeed, in the very sustainability of the Region.
For centuries they have been responsible for producing, processing and marketing agricultural produce, and for the nutrition and well-being of their families and communities. As mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters, they have provided guidance and care on a daily basis for their families, as well as for the sick and the elderly in the community. Their use of natural herbs and traditional healing, combined with healthy lifestyles have been largely responsible for the record number of female centenarians in Barbados and Dominica.
In a region that is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and to the negative impacts of Climate Change, rural women have served as environmental stewards by protecting the rich biodiversity of our land.
The contribution of rural women to food and nutrition security and to the development of healthy societies, has been under-valued for far too long. Women now have an even greater role to play in leading the charge against the “tsunami” of Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs) currently affecting our Region, through the production, trade and promotion of locally grown foods that are healthy and nutritious. Moreover, their potential contribution to the development of the Health and Wellness sector, particularly in terms of niche tourism offerings, holds exciting possibilities for expansion of regional economies.
Their entrepreneurial spirit, born in many cases out of a sheer need for economic survival, has played a significant role not only in terms of the development of innovation and technology, but perhaps more importantly with respect to social and economic development through creating jobs and harnessing the productive capacity of other women, boosting per capita income growth, stabilising families, and reducing poverty.
In a region that is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and to the negative impacts of Climate Change, rural women have served as environmental stewards by protecting the rich biodiversity of our land, plant and animal species and marine resources, and engaging in what is now known as “Climate Smart Agriculture”. They are valuable repositories of traditional wisdom and knowledge for what is unique and authentic to our region, and represent the “intellectual property” that forms the basis for the innovative thinking required to transform our societies. Their potential contributions to the development of the “Blue” and “Green” bio-economies are enormous.
In addition to their productive and reproductive roles, rural women have evolved as community activists and leaders, rising from humble beginnings to top positions in public service at national, regional and international levels, raising the profile of gender and development in the arts and literature, politics, trade unionism and academia, advocating for the rights of women, positioning the region on global agenda issues through astute leadership, and charting development paths rooted in Caribbean culture, dignity and pride.
Despite these important advances made by women in several aspects of life across the Caribbean, there is still important and urgent work to be done towards achieving gender equality and autonomy for women in the context of sustainable development. Women and girls are among the people most likely to be poor, to lack access to assets, education, health care and other essential services, and to be hit hardest by the impacts of global food and economic crises and climate change. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are also very real and pressing issues for rural women.
Empowering them is therefore essential, not only for the well-being of individuals, families and rural communities, but also for overall economic productivity, and long-term sustainability of the Caribbean region.
Across the Region, women tend to be over-represented in the lowest sectors of the labour market – especially in the services sector – and under-represented in areas that require higher qualifications. Furthermore, the unemployment rate is higher among women, who also suffer lower levels of social protection and have lower salaries compared to men in similar positions. On almost every measure of development rural women, because of gender inequalities and discrimination, fare worse than rural men. Empowering them is therefore essential, not only for the well-being of individuals, families and rural communities, but also for overall economic productivity, and long-term sustainability of the Caribbean region.
Women entrepreneurs, particularly in rural areas, often experience difficulties accessing relevant financial products and services due to a lack of appropriate products, information, understanding of their needs and collateral. Business Development Services are not readily available in many rural areas and this affects the growth of rural women’s businesses. As a consequence, women are often left to rely on friends and family for finance, management capacity and other informal support for their businesses. Many women rely on personal funds for their investment needs.
Women’s economic empowerment also means having a voice, and strong business networks and representation in decision-making. The rigidities of some gender-blind policies, institutions, programmes and projects are perpetuated by the under-representation of women as policy makers, their limited participation in policy and institutional change processes and insufficient recognition of women’s agencies and networks.
The theme of International Women’s Day (IWD) 2018 “The Time is now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”, is reflective of the culmination to date of the sustained and significant efforts of several national, regional and international organisations that are working to address the challenges and to assist women in rightfully becoming the engines for transformational change.
This Paper focuses on the contributions of rural women to Food and Nutrition Security in the Caribbean, and describes how they are organising for success, embracing new technologies, becoming resilient in the face of Climate Change, and pioneering new ventures in community-based sustainable tourism. The Paper also gives some insights into the increasing participation of young women in the Agri-Food sector, and the positive signals that are on the horizon for a brighter future for our Region.
Women Food Producers
In the Caribbean, rural women account for the greater proportion of the agricultural labour force and produce the majority of food grown, through both subsistence and commercial farming, and as part-time and full-time farmers. They are present in all aspects of Crop and Livestock Production, Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquaponics; and in Apiculture.
In terms of marketing, rural women are responsible for moving tons of agricultural produce across the parishes and communities within our countries. From Coronation Market in Jamaica to Stabroek Market in Georgetown, women farmers, hucksters, higglers, and vendors supply our region with an array of food, servicing both local and tourist populations. Their labour and sacrifice have provided many of them with the income to provide access for their children and grandchildren to a good education, and a decent standard of living.
Women in AgroProcessing
Rural women have traditionally dominated the SME agro-processing sector, transforming fresh produce and livestock commodities into a multiplicity of products. Although there are thousands of MSMEs (Micro and Small and Medium Enterprises) and SMEs led by women in the Caribbean, very limited sex-disaggregated data exist on entrepreneurship in agriculture. There is a need to improve the collection and analysis of reliable data on rural women’s enterprises to understand their needs and realities and inform policies, including generating better indicators, programme/project evaluations, lessons on what does or does not work and why, feedback mechanisms, and to identify where opportunities lie to scale up successes.
There is a need to improve the collection and analysis of reliable data on rural women’s enterprises to understand their needs and realities and inform policies.
Training and skills upgrading are also needed to strengthen women entrepreneurs’ business management, marketing and technical skills. Access to finance is one of the more critical constraints facing rural women. It is worth noting that traditional modalities such as “meeting turn” or “sousou” still represent valid and sustainable forms of financing for women in rural communities.
Organising for Success
Rural women and their organizations are on the move to claim their rights and improve their livelihoods and well-being. They are setting up successful businesses and acquiring new skills, pursuing their legal entitlements, shaping laws, policies and programmes on all issues that affect their lives, including improved food and nutrition security, and better rural livelihoods, using innovative agricultural methods and taking advantage of ICT, social media and new technologies.
The Caribbean Network of Rural Women Producers, CANROP, was established (as one of the constituent members of the regional Agricultural Alliance for Agriculture and the Rural Milieu) some 15 years ago to improve the standard of living of rural women producers through training, cultural exchange, networking and the promotion of regional and international trade.
The objectives of CANROP are:
To provide a forum for the exchange of information, ideas and concerns affecting the development of businesses managed by rural women; To create a brand that identifies the goods and services of members with quality products produced by rural women; To pool resources for the marketing of products produced by members of the organization; To create training programs to maintain and develop the interpersonal, technical, financial and business skills of its members; To access external funding from national and multinational donor agencies to support national work programs; and To provide a forum that facilitates the discussion of gender equality and equity within the country, and across the Region.
Women in Fisheries
Compared to other areas of the world, the gender dynamics and gendered characteristics of Caribbean small-scale fisheries are poorly documented. Rural women work primarily in the processing of fish and seafood species. Thousands of rural women work in fish markets and fish processing plants across the region. There are also rural women groups involved in conservation efforts for sea turtle conservation.
Rural women and Sustainable Tourism
For many countries in the Region, tourism has become one of the most important industries, as persistent turbulence in other economic sectors has served to enhance the relative importance of tourism as an economic development strategy, making the industry increasingly crucial for the survival of local economies. There are several notable examples of rural women being involved in the development of sites, attractions and events in the rural sector.
Towards a more sustainable future
The ageing of the agricultural sector in the Caribbean is cause for concern. In most cases, upwards of seventy percent of female farmers are 45 years and older. In response to this situation, there has been a concerted effort to interest youth in the business of agriculture by governments through their Ministries of Agriculture, Education, Labour and Youth and Departments of Justice, and by other technical assistance and donor agencies. Several young women are also now setting their sights on careers as chefs and culinary professionals.
Rural Women Building Resilience through Climate Smart Agriculture
Rural women are building resilience and practising Climate Smart Agriculture in many Caribbean countries, through the installation of photovoltaic systems, as well as water harvesting and distribution systems.
Rural women are building resilience and practising Climate Smart Agriculture in many Caribbean countries.
The economies of the colonial powers which ruled over the Caribbean owe much of their wealth to the work of farm labourers, largely represented by rural women. Since then, our economies have become less dependent on agriculture, and more on financial services and tourism, to the extent that the Caribbean region has been officially declared as “the most tourism-dependent region in the world”.
This distortion in the selection of economic drivers has brought about several negative impacts that must now be reversed if we are to have sustainable economies. We need to come “full circle” and make the Agri-Food sector the engine of growth for our economies once more. This transformation cannot take place without creating space for a conversation with rural women to ensure their full and effective participation in economic, social and political decision-making.