Rural Women and their Policies – a Matter of EqualityLas mujeres rurales en Colombia, lo que se puede extrapolar a muchos países, han padecido una discriminación estructural, por ser rurales y por ser mujeres; una tercera discriminación está unida a su pertenencia a un grupo étnica y una cuarta por ser víctimas del conflicto armado.
The localized assessment of who they are and what they do can then inform the development of public policy actions that enable us to properly address their practical needs and strategic interests. Assessments, data, and analyses of rural women are valuable tools in highlighting the gaps between rural women in relation to urban women and rural men. Unfortunately, there is still a lack not only of gender disaggregated data, but also of rural/ urban specific data. This affects our ability to monitor progress and to design appropriate public policies. Therefore, it is imperative that we make an effort to reduce statistical discrimination, because data equips us to assist in improving the quality of life of vulnerable populations, such as rural women, in a targeted way, aware as we are that poverty is feminized, and even more so in rural areas.
Public policies should be based on data, in order to design relevant lines of action that focus on resolving specific problems that rural women in each region face. One of the major challenges for public policy is to ensure the financial independence and empowerment of rural women in areas such as community, political, and cultural participation. Nobre and Hora (2017) explain that access to health, education, welfare and social security, land ownership, and credit, are factors that determine women’s ability to consider themselves members of the community and to develop as citizens.
Why are public policies for rural women important?
The answer stems from the fact that gender equality is closely tied to development, as expressed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Economic development is the process by which a nation improves the economic, political, and social conditions of its people. Therefore, development is seen as an improvement in living conditions, by and for men and women, in equal measure.
As regards public policies for rural women, specifically, these will implicitly require us to drive processes to transform and change living conditions in rural society (for men and women). The transformation of this society is dependent on policies that are external to it and on internal plans proposed by local communities, which involve utilizing internal resources and negotiating for external resources to change these living conditions.
It is only through public policy that we will be able to design a plan of action to coordinate the efforts of all sectors tasked with strengthening rural areas, while incorporating a gender focus, and therefore promoting women. If efforts are not explicitly targeted toward benefitting rural women, we will never achieve equality, because we know that market forces by themselves will never create equality between men and women in the rural sector.
Given the factors that will be required to transform rural society, planning for development should not be strictly a technical process, but also a political process, in which the conflict of interests between men and women features in negotiations, and spurs structural social transformation, rather than one-off and temporary solutions to the practical needs of men or women.
Equality improves the quality of life of men as much as it does of women. Seeing themselves as equals reduces social pressures on men to be the providers for the family, as well as the levels of violence that are encouraged in them from childhood, allowing them to enjoy family life completely. Equality also allows women to develop in various occupations; to empower themselves financially; to have the power to negotiate within the home and to take decisions that benefit the family, such as improvements in education and nutrition; as well as to have more egalitarian and less violent relationships.
Who are rural women?
First of all, it must be said that the definition of who rural women are is still a subject of discussion and an ongoing construct, with a wide range of suggestions being offered, all very valid. However, to further enrich the analysis, in a bid to precisely determine the sphere of action for public policy, I would like to offer some considerations that will narrow down the scope of policy strategies for this population group.
A first attempt should be made, recognizing that this is a broad-based group, with similarities and differences. This diversity can be seen in the range of activities in which they are involved, as well as the territorial and cultural inter-relationships that define them.
What do we know about their activities?
As far as their activities are concerned, most definitions identify them as rural women, based on the premise that their production activity is directly related to the rural milieu, even if this activity is not recognized by the State’s information and measurement systems, or even if it is unpaid.
With this in mind, the term would apply to women who are farmers, reapers, fisherfolk, housewives, salaried employees in rural agribusinesses, even non-agricultural workers in agroindustry and micro-enterprises, as well as in other activities performed in the context of a much broader perspective of rurality, such as activities related to the integration of agro-production and trade chains in all types of organizations, rural tourism and ecology, the craft industry, the crafting of metals and precious stones, and other new avenues of opportunity, including marketing activities, transformation of products, and the provision of services that support these activities. (Congress of the Republic of Colombia, 2002.)
On the other hand, it is important to consider that one of the characteristics common to the lives of rural women throughout Latin America and the Caribbean is that they are overworked, due to a sexual division of labour that shoulders them with the responsibility of caring for children, the elderly and the sick, while the work that they do in the reproductive and production spheres, as well as for the consumption of their families, is disregarded.
The production work that rural women do is considered as helping in the home, rather than as work in and of itself. The challenge is to make the work that women are already doing visible, as well as the knowledge associated with it, and to increase their ability to choose what they do, how they do it, and how the rewards are used.
Where are they located?
With respect to territorial interrelationships, a longitudinal perspective is necessary, spanning the life cycle of these women and successive generations. There are times when they migrate to the city, or even to other countries, but do not sever their connection to the countryside. For example, they may invest money in the production unit where they hope to return, whenever possible. Moreover, generation after generation, there are young daughters or granddaughters of farmers who return or wish to return to the countryside.
Additionally, the new dynamics arising from how communities are made up, compel us to take a look at the increasingly closer relationship between, and the inter-dependence of, the rural and urban, specifically the linkages that are established as a result of the location where people live, and the place and purpose of their work.
The composition of rurban territories and urban agricultural practices are concrete examples of this dynamic. Rurban territories are spaces adjacent to cities with agricultural activities that are industrial in nature and tertiary activities, such as accommodation, rest, and recreation services. These areas feature neighbourhoods or condominiums with people originally from the city, who have extensive purchasing power and place a high value on rural environmental conditions, and they also offer all the public services that are available in a city.
On the other hand, urban agriculture is a practice that arises when people from rural areas migrate to the city, for different reasons, bringing their knowledge of agricultural practices to these large cities. Currently, this is a widespread practice among the population, given the need to produce healthy food, to improve food security, and to satisfy personal needs. This method of production characteristically take place in reduced spaces and also employs re-used and recycled material, available in homes. (Jardín Botánico de Medellín, 2013).
It must be mentioned that these new territorial arrangements and production practices, which involve an extensive number of women, often take place outside of public policy guidelines. However, they influence cultural processes, such as the preservation of rural culture in the cities and the transfer of urban lifestyles to the countryside.
What affects them?
From the perspective of social interaction, rural women in Colombia—an example that can be extrapolated to many countries—have historically experienced structural discrimination, given that they are rural dwellers and are also women. In some instances, a third type of discrimination comes into play, if they are members of a particular ethnic group, as does a fourth, when they are victims of armed conflict. Thus, it may be possible for them to experience four types of discrimination simultaneously. (UNDP, 2011, p. 15).
The first type of discrimination is related to their status as rural residents, a situation which affects rural men and women equally. There is a wide gulf between inhabitants from rural and urban areas, in terms of access to goods and social services, such as health, education, drinking water and basic sanitary conveniences, electricity, road infrastructure, recreation areas, caregiving services, availability of technological tools, the justice system, inter alia.
The fact that they are women makes them subject to another type of discrimination. Historically, the cultural and socioeconomic treatment that has been meted out to them has placed them at a disadvantage in comparison to men. Consequently, they experience greater levels of poverty, limited opportunities for participation, much lower wages, fewer opportunities to enter the labor market and educational system, barriers to accessing justice, limited opportunities to participate in programs for adjudication and formalization of land ownership. In general, they continue to experience conditions that limit their independence and their ability to develop as citizens. The gender gap is even more pronounced in rural than in urban areas.
A third scenario involves discrimination based on ethnicity and race, which are factors that determine living conditions, opportunities and the social acceptance of women of African descent, indigenous women, and women from the Rrom community in political, economic, and cultural spheres.
Finally, certain violent situations, such as forced displacement, sexual violence, and forced recruitment have a differentiated and disproportionate impact on rural women.
Let us not forget young people
According to FAO (2017), there is a high incidence of migration to urban areas among young people between 15 and 29 years of age, particularly women between 15 and 19. The amount of formal education and exposure to information technologies has increased for those young people remaining in the countryside, which may help to improve their outlook on life.
The FAO (2017) indicated that in Latin America and the Caribbean 51.3% of young women and 29.9% of young men who work in agriculture are unpaid. Young salaried employees doing the same jobs as older employees receive lower salaries, work longer hours and endure harder working conditions. Young women tend to work more hours overall, but fewer hours for which they are paid. Their responsibilities in the home prevent many of them from studying or working, since domestic work is not considered to be an economic activity in official statistics (Nobre & Hora, 2017).
Having no income of their own causes many young women to be heavily dependent on a parent or partner, which in many instances leads to situations of control and abuse of power, in which they become the victims of violence.
A study on rural youth and decent employment in Latin America (FAO, 2016) states that, “Young people who work in the household are one of the most vulnerable groups among the poor, since they are not paid employees, they do not study, their contribution to the home is not recognized, and they have limited opportunities for personal growth or for participation in social organizations or leisure activities”. This condition also limits their ability to acquire production factors, such as land, labor, and working capital. Thus, their participation in production activities is low, which is a motivating factor in their abandonment of the countryside.
Now we can formulate policies
In order to have access to information on the variables described above, in an attempt to define rural women in reference to what they do, where they are located, what affects them, and the conditions peculiar to young rural women, governments must make a greater investment to fill in the gaps in data and to monitor advances in the implementation of policy actions.
Data collection is a major challenge when we are attempting to measure social norms that discriminate against rural women, mostly due to the widespread belief that social norms are not quantifiable. A valuable tool that our States should use is the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) of the OECD that shows that formal and informal laws, and norms and social practices that restrict the access of women and girls to resources and opportunities for empowerment, which are termed as discriminatory social institutions, exacerbate gender disparities in the agriculture sector (Ramos, 2018).
Measuring laws (formal and informal), attitudes, norms and discriminatory practices in all regions of the country, not only highlights the effects of discrimination and gender inequality, poverty, and the marginalization of women, but also demonstrates how discrimination against them interacts with a series of factors, such as rural/urban differences or levels of education.
Consequently, it would be advisable to use the information that has been collected to create a national-regional balance of the number of institutions geared towards rural women, the institutional capacity to offer these services and to implement new programs or expand existing ones.
In order to align the available institutional infrastructure with the realities of rural women, it is imperative that we promote greater participation of rural women’s organizations in monitoring, modifying, and formulating rural development programs that target women.
Finally, proposing that equal opportunities for rural women be one of the criteria that the central government uses to determine the level of resources allocated to local governments, and that a percentage of investments be earmarked for social infrastructure, would ensure a high level of implementation of public policies for rural women.
1 Congress of the Republic of Colombia. (2002). Law on Rural Women. Law 731 of 2002. Bogotá, Colombia: Congress of the Republic of Colombia.
2 Jardín Botánico de Medellín. (2013). Jardín Botánico de Medellín (Medellín Botanical Gardens). Accessed on 09 April 2019, at https://www.botanicomedellin.org/servicios/educacion-y-cultura/agricultura-urbana. (in Spanish only)
3 Nobre, M., & Hora, K. (2017). Atlas de las Mujeres Rurales de América Latina y el Caribe: Al Tiempo de la Vida, Los Hechos. (Atlas of Rural Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: at Life’s Rhythm, the Facts). Santiago de Chile: FAO.
4 Ramos, G. (2018). Rural Women: making the visible invisible. In IICA, “Warriors. Rural Women around the World”. IICA.
5 UNDP. (2011). Mujeres Rurales Gestoras de Esperanza (Rural Women – Faith Keepers). Bogotá: UNDP.