Let’s remember world’s invisible workers

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Updated: Oct 14, 2007, 00:00 AM IST

Deepak Nagpal

Every year, October 15 is marked as the World Rural Women’s Day (WRWD) across the globe. The purpose behind devoting a day to rural women is to help them earn recognition and support for the multiple roles they perform, including of being farmers and small entrepreneurs.

The idea to have a day for rural women was mooted at a UN Conference for Women in the Chinese capital, Beijing in September 1995. The proponents of the idea were International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), Network of African Rural Women Associations (NARWA), and the Women's World Summit Foundation (WWSF). These NGOs believed it was important to have a World Rural Women's Day to honour rural women.

According to estimates, rural women constitute over 25% of the world’s total population. They play a crucial role in the well-being of their families and help in the advancement of rural economies.

Considering the key role rural women play in food production and food security, a decision was taken at the same UN Conference to name October 15 as the World Rural Women's Day, which falls just a day before the World Food Day.

Rural Women

The Geneva Declaration for rural women, 1992 states:

“…Rural women the world over are an integral and vital force in the development processes that are the key to socio-economic progress. Rural women from the backbone of the agricultural labour force across much of the developing world and produce 35-45% of Gross Domestic Product and well over 50% of the developing world's food. Yet, half a billion rural women are poor and lack access to resources and markets…"

Around 500 million women live below the poverty line in rural areas, suggest estimates.
In sub-Sahara Africa and the Caribbean, almost 80% of basic foodstuffs are produced by women. In Asia, more than half of the work involved in intensive rice cultivation is done by women. And in developed nations, 30% of the agricultural work is taken care of by women.

Purpose of WRWD

According to the official website (www.rural-womens-day.org), the day provides rural women and their organisations with a focal point to:

  • Raise the profile of rural women
  • Sensitise both government and public to their crucial, yet largely unrecognised roles
  • Promote action in their support

    Individual organisations and communities decide on their own how to celebrate this day and what new initiatives to take, while keeping in mind traditions and requirements. The aim of organising such activities or events by rural and farming women around the world on the very same day, in a spirit of solidarity and co-operation, is to strengthen the impact of the WRWD.

    WRWD 2007

    The World Rural Women’s Day will be marked this year with the theme, “The right to food: Rural women produce and provide”. On previous occasions, the day has been marked with themes like "Rural Women: Leaders of Tomorrow" (2006), "What rights for women as rural citizens?" (2005), "Biodiversity for food security: Women farmers are ready!" (2004) etc.

    FAO on rural women

    The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes rural women as the world's invisible workers. Citing recent gender-specific statistics, FAO states that most of the poor people in the world are women, and it is they who are earning bread and butter for their men and children, as well as themselves. Their daily household chores include growing, gathering and catching the family meals, arranging for home water and wood, and preparing and cooking the food.

    In most of the cases where the rural poor get enough to eat, it is largely due to the efforts, skills and knowledge of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, says the UN agency. However, these women rarely get credit for what they do and more often than not are the last one to gain access to resources, training and financial loans.

    It is not a hidden fact that an average rural woman’s life is becoming more and more difficult day by day, because young and healthy men are heading for the cities in search of work. What they leave behind are helpless women who struggle to raise families and manage farms alone. Well-documented statistics show in several regions of Africa, nearly 60% of households are headed by women.

    International organisations working for women, including the FAO, are of the view that by investing in rural women, the world is actually investing in food security.

    The World Bank has conducted a cost-benefit analysis which shows that by investing in the education of women and girls, the developing nations earn the highest rate of return of any possible type of investment in their respective countries. The benefits of this investment include higher productivity, slower population growth, reduced child mortality rates, and increased awareness and use of environmental protection measures. A study conducted in Kenya found that women farmers who had completed their primary education were earning 24% more than those who had not.

    Status of rural women

    A woman living in a rural area of a developing country is often poorer than a man – in terms of wealth as well as health. Moreover, rural women owning land and being educated are somethings that can be put in the category of rare happenings. With rural girl child being deprived of education since childhood for no other reason than that she is a female, it is no surprise that 70% of poor women in India cannot read or write.

    Every new day brings with it a ‘double day’ of low-paid work and care for the home for almost every rural woman. She has very little or no say in how the money she has earned is spent at home, just because cultural norms don’t allow that. And frequent pregnancies and child mortality is something every women in the countryside deals with in her life.

    However, studies have shown that investment in rural women triggers a chain reaction of positive developments - of better education, improved health and higher income. Female schooling helps bring down poverty levels by giving women the literacy skills and confidence they require to demand decision-making role in family matters, especially financial. Also, an educated mother is able to ensure better health and nutrition for her children.

    The ‘Human Development Report 1995’ made a startling statement: "If women's work were accurately reflected in national statistics, it would shatter the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world."

    Some facts about women

  • Rural women, mainly farmers, are at least 1.6 billion and represent more than a quarter of the total world population.
  • Women produce on average more than half of all the food that is grown: up to 80% in Africa, 60 in Asia, between 30-40% in Latin America and Western countries.
  • Women own only 2% of the land, and receive only 1% of all agricultural credit.
  • Only 5% of all agricultural extension resources are directed to women.
  • Women represent two third of all illiterate people.
  • Two-thirds of the 130 million children worldwide who are not in school are girls.
  • The number of rural women living in poverty has doubled since 1970.
  • Of the total burden of paid and unpaid work, women bear an average of 53% in developing countries and 51% in industrial countries.
  • Women in rural areas spend an average of 20% more time than men working, while in urban areas they spend 6% more time.
  • Women have not achieved equality with men in any country.
  • Between 75-80% of the world's 27 million refugees are women and children.
  • Only 24 women were elected heads of state or government in the 20th century.

    Women in India - Key facts

  • Indian population is 48.1% women and 51.9% men.
  • Female illiteracy is 62% whereas the male illiteracy rate is 34%.
  • The labour force participation rate of women is 22.7%, less than half of the men's rate of 51.6%.
  • In rural India, agriculture and allied industrial sectors employ as much as 89.5% of the total female labour.
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