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Rural Women: High Productivity, Even Higher Poverty

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) there are 60 million women in Latin America and the Caribbean whose ethnic, linguistic, territorial, cultural and economic background defines them as rural women and/or workers. Scattered over a continent of widely-differing climates, geographies and histories, a significant number of rural women live in severe poverty.

Each year, October 15 celebrates International Rural Women's Day, and this year the activities unfold within the context of the Campaign for Women's Human Rights, "A Life Without Violence is Our Right," launched by the United Nations in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And in a parallel effort to draw attention to rural women's living conditions, this year the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) chose the motto "Women Feed the World" for World Food Day celebrated each October 16. This date is appropriately followed by the Day for the Elimination of Poverty established by the United Nations on October 17.

In 1994, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that 39% of all households in the region live in poverty. In the rural areas, this figure rises to 55%, and women are overwhelmingly the most severely affected. The concept of sustainable human development that guides the actions of the United Nations holds as fundamental the elimination of poverty as well as the establishment of equity and equality among men and women. In the Human Development Report 1995, the UNDP asserts forthrightly that if it does not incorporate the condition of the sexes, human development is in danger. This statement should be reiterated on occasion of these important commemorative celebrations, including October 24, United Nations Day, which this year emphasizes the UN's role in support of women's human rights.

More Responsibilities, Fewer RewardsTop of Page

An anthropologist Jeanine Anderson explains, "the link between women and poverty is age-old; there have always existed many women among the poor. The empirical discovery that women are exposed to poverty in ways in which men are not introduces some essential elements of the concept of the feminization of poverty" (Red Entre Mujeres. Diálogo Sur Norte, 1994). This concept stresses the disproportionate representation of women among the poor, especially as heads of household.

The Central American region stands out as the area with the highest levels of poverty, a phenomena further aggravated by armed conflicts in the 1980s. These conditions were even more severe for indigenous women who were forced to leave their lands and seek refuge in the urban areas. In Guatemala, for example, armed conflict left nearly 50,000 widows, the wide majority of Indian origin and mostly, young women with children (ECLAC, 1997).

In the past decade, the rural sector has also suffered the effects of the structural adjustment policies which encourage increases in food imports, to the detriment of local production, as well as the reduction of state spending in the areas of health and education.

This situation has had direct repercussions on the lives of thousands of rural women who have seen their family responsibilities increase due to the forced migration of men to the cities in search of jobs and the poor agricultural conditions of the land. According to the FAO, 26% of all rural homes in the region depend on female heads of household. In Central America, this figure varies between 29% and 48%; in the Andean region, between 29% and 55%; and in the Caribbean, from 40% to 50% of all rural households are headed by women.

This initial examination of the reality of rural women is a first step in understanding the link between poverty and gender discrimination as a form of violence. In this sense, the United Nations Campaign makes one fact clear. Rural women suffer a triple discrimination: as women, as indigenous peoples, and as rural inhabitants. In this threefold dimension, their human rights are constantly violated, an insidious expression of gender-based violence.

Women Feed the WorldTop of Page

In a striking contrast to their vulnerable position, rural women play a central role in agriculture and the economy of their communities. Recent statistics reveal that rural women around the world produce over 50% of all food. In the Andean region, rural women contribute 36% of income, a significant addition to the 51% put in by men, particularly because this figure does not include women's unremunerated contribution to the economy in food production and preparation for the family. In Peru, for example, 70% of the family income is generated by adult women and girls. In Guatemala, women are responsible for 25% of the work in traditional production and in the export economy.

According to the FAO, "it is clear today that without the participation and support of women it is impossible to escape from the cycle of poverty and guarantee better nourishment for the poorer, more vulnerable populations in the various regions of the world." Clearly, governments should implement policies to improve rural women's living conditions and, most importantly, to reduce gender-based inequities.

However, women's economic participation is still seen as marginal, neither quantifiable nor visible in statistics. The Interamerican Development Bank (IDB 1990) stresses that, in general in Latin America and the Caribbean, rural women participate in almost all activities involving agriculture and livestock. Practically 50% of all incomes in rural households are the result of women's work, efforts which have helped their families escape situations of poverty.

Some studies indicate that rural women spend 29% more time working than men. In many cases, the differences between the amount men and women work varies greatly, as in Nicaragua, where women perform nearly 57% of all work during the harvests (Agencia de Noticias Pulsar, 1998). However, these figures are not reflected in women's salaries, which in Central America are as much as 50% less than those of men. Women workers are also unlikely to have legal contracts and are generally only employed for a few months every year.

Basic Rights ViolatedTop of Page

Gender, ethnicity and geography present a triple challenge to indigenous, rural women who are perceived as socially inferior. This discrimination is first manifest in the absence of two basic human rights: the right to education and the right to health.

While many countries in the region have achieved equality for women and men in education, indigenous girls are still at a disadvantage when compared to indigenous boys and even other rural girls. Indigenous girls have the lowest literacy levels throughout Latin America (Office of Women in Development, Agency for International Development, 1997). According to this same study, indigenous girls in Guatemala complete an average of one year of schooling, while boys complete 1.8 years. In Peru, 65% of indigenous women are illiterate compared to only 26% of urban women. In Bolivia, 68.5% of women in the countryside are illiterate. In the Mexican countryside, 60% of illiterate adults over age 15 are women, and only 20% of all rural men are illiterate (Agencia de Noticias, Cimac, 1998).

In many regions, this situation is compounded by the fact that indigenous women often do not speak Spanish or speak only very little. While there are some government initiatives to introduce bilingual education in primary schools (in Bolivia and Guatemala, for example), most rural girls do not have an opportunity to benefit from these programs.

The situation of extreme poverty endured by rural women, and by indigenous women in particular, is also reflected in high rates of fertility, malnutrition, and maternal and infant mortality. Rural women lack adequate health-care services. In Mexico, rural women, who represent 49.8% of the rural population, have a life expectancy of 69.5 years, three years less than women in urban areas. Nearly half of all children born to rural women in Bolivia suffer chronic malnutrition. One out of every three indigenous women in the rural areas of Ecuador prefers to not seek professional care for health problems because of the abusive treatment in the public health care services.

Another aspect of rural life and labor is directly related to certain types of work that often involve the use of chemical products which have been proven to be extremely toxic. In Chile, a number of cases of poisoning have involved women employed as seasonal workers harvesting and packing fruit and other agricultural products for export. Recent research has shown that the use of these chemicals causes vomiting, fainting, stomach pain, chronic headaches, and respiratory illnesses. Other studies have indicated that contact with these toxic substances causes congenital malformations in the workers' unborn children, as well as miscarriages (ECLAC, 1997).

The situation of child labor throughout the world is one of the primary concerns of UNICEF this year, and in this effort, this international organization has also emphasized the analysis of girls' working conditions. According to figures from Mexico's Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales (Social Research Institute) and the Programa Nacional de Solidaridad con Jornaleros Agrícolas (National Program of Solidarity with Agricultural Workers) nearly 2,000 children under 14 years of age, most of whom are indigenous, work in exploitative conditions in different agricultural centers throughout Mexico. Of these children, 57.3% are girls and 42.7% are boys.

Finally, UNDP has estimated that 1.3 billion people in the developing world are poor. Women represent approximately 70% of this figure, yet, as a group, they work longer hours relative to men and produce more.

Working the Land, But Not Owning ItTop of Page

As we have seen, rural women produce most of the food in developing countries. However, they do not reap the rewards of the land that they cultivate. This is a clear example of gender inequity reinforced by beliefs, laws and prejudices rooted in ideology and culture which are manifested in land ownership and in the difficulties women face in acquiring property.

A study carried out by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs observes that Central America could enjoy increased economic growth if women were able to purchase land and obtain loans. Although agrarian laws in Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil accept rural women as beneficiaries, in practice most women are involved indirectly, through their spouses. In Brazil, the Constitution recognizes women as well as men as beneficiaries of land grants and loans, regardless of their marital status, but regulations to implement this measure have not been established.

In celebration of International Rural Women's Day, the Red Mujer Rural (Rural Women's Network) of the Peruvian women's organization, Flora Tristán has launch the campaign "For the Award of Land Titles with Gender Equity." This campaign seeks to improve rural women's access to the award and clearing of land titles. And on occasion of World Food Day, the General Director of the FAO, Jacques Diouf reminded the governments of their commitments during the World Food Summit (1996) when they pledged to improve the situation of rural women.

In this same vein, the FAO's Plan of Action for Women in Development (from 1996 to 2001), strives "to give women equal access to land and other productive resources, as well as the control of these resources, to increase women's participation in decision-making and policy-making, [and] to reduce their workload and increase their opportunities for paid employment and income."

In conclusion, the unequal burden women bear in coping with the effects of poverty, and the structures that perpetuate gender inequality and violate women’s human rights must be transformed by facilitating partnerships between governments, markets and civil society to engender poverty eradication.


Isis International Documentation and Information Center

E-mail: isis@reuna.cl

Rural Women in FiguresTop of Page

The 1998 UNDP Human Development Report emphasizes that gender equality and the advancement of women are important goals to achieve poverty reduction and sustainable human development.

27% of the indigenous rural women in Ecuador don't receive professional care during childbirth, while 47% of non-indigenous rural women do (Retrato de Mujeres. Indicadores Sociales de las Campesinas e Indígenas del Ecuador Rural. Quito: Secretaría Técnica del Frente Social, UNIFEM and PMA, 1998).

In developing countries, women perform 51% of all work in the urban areas, while men shoulder the remaining 49%. In the rural areas, women are responsible for 53% of all work (Report on Human Development UNDP, 1995).

In Colombia, women comprise 70% of all floriculture workers and 40% of coffee bean pickers (FAO).

In Bolivia and Guatemala, less than 50% of rural women receive state medical coverage during childbirth (UNFPA).

In Jamaica, rural women receive only 5% of all loans made by the Agricultural Credit Bank (FAO).

In Suriname, women have no right to receive credit directly but must go through their husband or a male relative (FAO).

In Honduras, only 4% of women are beneficiaries of agrarian reform.Top of Page

UNDP Against Violence Home Page

For more information, please contact Aparna Mehrotra, Focal Point for Women, Tel: (212)963-6828 Fax: (212) 963-9545, e-mail: mehrotra@un.org

Management and direction: Aparna Mehrotra
Website  design
: Lola Salas
Writing, editing& proofing: Aparna Mehrotra, Dana Burde, Rini Banerjee and Tanaz Pardiwala
Graphic: Joan Miró
(detail) from folder by Isis International