Section 1

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

The Rural Women and Agenda 2030
in Latin America and the Caribbean:
A Labor Market Perspective

Many rural women can only find precarious and low-paid jobs

Throughout this decade, ECLAC has positioned equality as a fundamental value of development and an inalienable ethical principle. Inequality is not only unjust but also inefficient, since it creates and sustains institutions that fail to promote productivity and innovation. On the other hand, discrimination is an impediment to opportunities for improved learning and innovation to enhance productivity. Gender inequality, a defining structural feature of Latin America, provides the clearest example of this. It implies an unequal division of power, resources, time and wealth between men and women and is one of the root causes of the unsustainability of the predominant development system. The challenge is to effect progressive structural changes that help to transform the gender power balance from an economic, social, environmental and sustainable development perspective and to take action that addresses short and long-term challenges.

At the global level, the objective of Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 (SDG 5) of the 2030 Development Agenda is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. There are a series of proposed targets that must be met in order to realize this goal: the implementation of measures to enhance the economic empowerment of women (5.a) the use of new technologies (5.b), and the development of legal and policy frameworks to promote gender equality and empowerment at all levels (5.c).

Unravelling the essential knots of gender inequality is a matter of justice and a prerequisite to dismantling the culture of privilege and replacing it with a culture of rights and equality.

At the regional level, the Montevideo Strategy for Implementation of the Regional Gender Agenda, which was approved in 2016 during the XIII Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, proposes a roadmap that closely aligns with the approach suggested by SDG 5. Unravelling the essential knots of gender inequality is a matter of justice and a prerequisite to dismantling the culture of privilege and replacing it with a culture of rights and equality. The culture of privileges ranks and values men as superior to women and reinforces, reproduces and perpetuates the power imbalance between the sexes.

Available data on the employment status of women in rural areas indicates that the disparities between their participation and employment rates, as compared to their male counterparts, is much more pronounced than in urban areas. This is because it is more difficult for women to find employment than men, and it is also an indication of the invisibility of female rural workers who engage in unpaid domestic or farming activities for their own consumption, but which surveys fail to recognize as employed. Traditionally, rigid gender roles confine women to domains and tasks related to reproduction. Similarly, many rural women are considered secondary workers who merely complement household income, as seen in women’s greater participation in seasonal agricultural employment. Consequently, many of the rural women can only find precarious and low-paid jobs, making them part of the “working poor”, that is, workers whose salaries do not satisfy their basic needs, despite long working hours. This situation further compounds the precariousness of the current labor conditions of these women and also makes it more difficult for them to access social security in the future.1

This article examines regional trends with respect to the empowerment of rural women, on the basis of their participation in the labor market2, which is a mechanism for economic empowerment. The evidence is inconclusive.

The first trend, which is the increase in the percentage of rural households headed by women, can be observed in almost all the countries for which comparable information is available. If we view this as an indicator of economic empowerment, the trend is positive, especially in rural areas in the region, which recorded a 40% increase in the share of female-headed households between 2002 and 2014. (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2017). However, households headed by women may be more vulnerable to economic shock and at risk for poverty, especially when the woman is the sole breadwinner in the home or when these funds are from non-labor sources (for example, transfers, including remittances). Information available on the distribution of rural employment bears this out. More than half of female-headed households are classified as inactive, whereas between 25 – 30 percent of these women are not paid for their labor (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2017). Furthermore, the proportion of female headship is still low - less than 25% in most of the countries (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2017). This is probably a reflection of the region’s social norms in terms of gender roles, since the man is usually designated as the head of the family, even in cases when both partners contribute to the overall financial welfare of the home.

The second relevant trend is the increase in rates of rural female employment.

The trend of increasing female-headed households appears to have no correlation with declining poverty levels observed since the start of the century. Evidence suggests that it may more likely be a factor of structural changes in the rural environment, as seen in the contraction of the agriculture sector and the subsequent expansion of non-agriculture sectors. Estimates based on available information (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2015) indicate that as employment in the agriculture sector declines, female headship of rural households increases. Furthermore, the average age of female rural household heads has fallen, with a spike in the share of rural homes headed by females younger than 35 (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2015). This trend is more pronounced in rural than in urban areas. This is relevant, since this age group is less saddled by gender roles in relation to family care responsibilities and therefore the woman has the freedom to establish her own home.

The second relevant trend is the increase in rates of rural female employment. In recent decades, LAC has made significant strides in achieving SDG 5, demonstrating considerable progress in gender parity in education, health and participation in the labor force. The increase in the participation rate of females in the labor force was the largest in the world, more markedly so in the rural areas (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2015). These increases surpassed national employment rate increases, and with few exceptions, were seen in all age groups3. However, employment profiles for rural women, by age group, differed considerably (depending on how they were remunerated, whether as self-employed individuals, employers or as unpaid family workers), which is also an indication of the influence of gender roles.

In the youngest group, the largest category of employment in most countries was wage-earning non-agricultural workers and a significant number were engaged in unpaid family work (more than 20% in several countries). In the middle-aged group (35 – 60 years), there was a transition to own-account employment, particularly in non-agriculture sectors. In the older age groups there was a further decline in non-agricultural paid employment, as well as greater increases in own-account employment, whether agricultural or non-agricultural.

These profiles are consistent with the growth in employment opportunities for younger women, as a result of the expansion of the non-agriculture sector. They also suggest that as women get older and assume more traditional roles, for example, in taking care of the family, they are more likely to abandon the formal labor market and to participate in more informal activities or to develop their own ventures, which they are able to balance with their role as caregivers.

Although detailed data is still not available, there is a clear tendency for rural women to enter the labor force by working in their own ventures. According to agricultural census figures from some countries, the proportion of female farm managers is in the region of 25%. This means that they are the ones making the technical and commercial decisions, and in many instances shouldering the weight of most of the production labor. As far as informal self-employment is concerned, women run various types of operations, while still undertaking their family care activities, for example, vegetable greenhouses, processed food preparation, craftwork, selling at local fairs, tourist ventures, among others. They operate a wide range of businesses, but with one overall feature in common: these enterprises succeed thanks to the drive, attention to detail and discipline of their proprietors. This is why women are attracting increased interest from development banks and public programs that foster production entrepreneurship.

The global and regional challenge for 2030 will be to unravel the knots of gender inequality, by moving away from socioeconomic inequality and exclusionary growth to embrace the kind of development that guarantees substantive equality between men and women. It will mean evolving from rigid sexual divisions of labor and unjust social organization of care work, by redistributing time, work and opportunities. It will call on us to abandon patriarchal, discriminatory and violent cultural patterns and the dominance of a culture of privileges, replacing it with a culture of rights and equality; and substituting concentration of power for parity democracy.

These distinct trends suggest the need for policies to support female-headed households, thereby bolstering the empowerment of women and gender parity. Governments will need to ensure that women acquire the same skills and earn comparable salaries to men in equivalent work conditions.

The global and regional challenge for 2030 will be to unravel the knots of gender inequality.

Increased education, access to financial resources and knowledge (goal 5.a) will increase the empowerment and independence of women, especially in the households that they head. However, although many countries, in theory, provide for the legal equality of women, the application of these protective measures is often ineffective. Ensuring that women have equal rights and more importantly, that they are aware of them, will increase the empowerment of women and will improve short and long-term gender parity. With greater legal protection, women will have more control of financial resources. This will benefit the next generation of girls, since once women have more control of household resources, they will channel more money into the education and health of their girls.

Improving equality in the work place (goal 5.c) will also be important. This will include equal pay and labor reconciliation mechanisms, for example with respect to maternity and paternity leave. The first will increase the incentive for women to enter the work force, as the opportunity cost of their time increases. The second will reduce the tendency of businesses to employ men over women, since all employees will receive the same parental benefits.

Fostering female employment will mean implementing policies that ensure that rural women consistently engage in and complete their education as a means of increasing their productiveness, and policies that promote the visibility of women as workers (formalizing labor relations through work contracts). It will also require the strengthening of policies and care services in rural areas and a more equitable distribution of unpaid domestic labor between men and women.

In view of the structural changes taking place in the rural environment, training programs should also be developed to allow women to take advantage of opportunities that may arise due to the growth of the non-agriculture sectors. Skills acquisition through formal education or capacity-building programs will enable them to adopt new technologies and innovations and to access higher paying jobs, within and outside of agriculture, and will facilitate production modernization. Ultimately, new skills contribute to reducing poverty and rural inequality in the long-term.

The introduction of new technologies (goal 5.b) is one way of encouraging women and younger and more educated individuals to establish new businesses, since they are more open to adopting new technologies than men and the older population (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2011). An important feature of these new technologies – in particular new information and communications technologies – is that they allow users to leapfrog certain stages of technological development, which opens windows of opportunity for rural economies, and in particular for women.

The situation also calls for further action in many other spheres (goal 5.c), beyond economic empowerment. For example, activities should be geared towards improving self-esteem; reducing intra-family violence; recognizing women’s role as the custodians of indigenous seeds; ensuring that their contributions are clearly reflected in the statistics of public programs; promoting their participation in civil society organizations, and in general, their representation in managerial positions, both in agribusinesses and in State entities. Furthermore, the high level of inactivity of female heads of rural households over 60 years of age underscores the importance of social protection policies in the rural environment, in particular for the protection of women (goal 5.c).

Rural women in the region are making strides, but the task is immense and much more is required. The objective of SDG 5, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls in the rural environment, is an ethical imperative, a matter of justice and a prerequisite to abandoning a culture of privilege in favor of a culture of rights and equality, in the rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.

1 The Employment Situation in Latin America and the Caribbean, No 14, ECLAC/ ILO, May 2016.
2 The data that was presented was collected in special household surveys conducted by ECLAC for use in the chapters on rural welfare for the last two ECLAC-FAO-IICA joint reports on the Outlook for Agriculture and Rural Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC-FAO-IICA, 2015 and 2017).
3 There were three age groups that were identified and that could be characterized as the young and economically active population (under 35), the adult labor force (25 – 60 years) and the retirement age population (older than 60).

  • Share this article
Alicia Bárcena • The Rural Women and Agenda 2030 in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Labor Market Perspective Alicia Bárcena

Executive Secretary Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)