Rural women and girls are far from the public or media spotlight, but their struggles deserve urgent attention

The 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), held in March 2018, focused on the empowerment of women and girls in rural areas, signifying international commitment to fight some of the biggest challenges of our time: poverty, inequality, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and an end to violence against women and girls, no matter where they live, or how they live, so that we leave no one behind. Rural communities and the women and girls who live and work in them are often far from the public or media spotlight, but their struggles deserve urgent attention. 

Addressing the specific challenges faced by rural women and girls in all their diversity, and opening their lives to the opportunities before them, means first and foremost making their needs and priorities more visible. Only then can they fully realize their human rights – to an adequate standard of living, to a life free of violence and harmful practices, to education and health, inclusive of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to food security, nutrition, productive assets and to land.

Land rights are key to gender equality and women’s empowerment across an array of development issues.

In fact, land rights are key to gender equality and women’s empowerment across an array of development issues. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their strong interlinkages, reaffirm this connection, with multiple goals explicitly referencing the importance of secure access to land for both men and women, including Goal 1 on eliminating poverty, Goal 2 on food security and Goal 5 on gender equality. Land rights and gender equality also relate to Goal 11 on sustainable cities and Goal 16 on peace and justice, and to Goal 15 on life on land, which is especially relevant to the rights of rural women who often depend on communal resources like forests for fuel, water and food to provide for their families. 

When it comes to land rights, gender inequality is often at its starkest. Globally, women represent only 13% of agricultural land holders, according to the FAO Gender and Land Rights Database. In turn, the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index showed that in only 37% of 161 countries worldwide do women and men have equal rights to own, use and control land. In 59% of those countries, while the law guarantees women and men the same rights, customary and religious practices often discriminate against women and undermine the full implementation of national legal codes. In the remaining 4% of those countries, women explicitly have no legal right to own, use or control land. 

Rural women in many contexts depend on common resources like forests, water and community pastures for the elements needed for household subsistence –– food, firewood and fodder for livestock, for example. The use of these resources is often governed by a gendered division of labor, in which women and girls are primarily responsible for fuel and water collection, food processing, cooking and ensuring household nutrition –– unpaid care work that goes unrecognized and uncounted. 

When women are kept behind to help with the collection of firewood, water and food they also lose critical opportunities to pursue education, paid work, leadership and leisure activities. In the case of girls, research from UNICEF shows that, globally, girls aged 5–14 spend 550 million hours every day on household chores ––160 million more hours than boys their age spend –– which can compromise their school attendance and time for other activities. And when public or common land is privatized –– legally or illegally –– or as resources become scarce due to climate change, this time and effort dedicated to unpaid care work increases. So does the risk of violence. The longer the journey to find scarce resources, the greater the chance of exposure to sexual violence as well as physical exhaustion. 

To understand the challenges to the rights of women in rural areas, it is worth looking in detail at smallholder farmers. Most of the one billion people worldwide who continue to live in poverty are heavily concentrated in rural areas. They are predominantly smallholder farmers or agricultural workers who work in the informal economy and have little social protection. This is especially true for women farmers who, lacking pensions, health insurance or paid sick leave, are left exposed to unsafe working conditions, precarious income security and a greater likelihood of an impoverished old age. Women farmers face many of the same challenges as their male counterparts, like barriers to accessing information, technology, financing and markets, but are even less likely to have the necessary land, credit, tools, weather and climate information and other resources. So, while they work just as hard as their male counterparts, they tend to be less productive. 

As climate change brings droughts, flood and land degradation to their regions, the risks to food security and agricultural productivity are all the more acute. Women’s knowledge of farming practices and land use, together with natural resource management techniques, are critical for confronting looming climate and environmental degradation challenges.

When women are kept behind to help with the collection of firewood, water and food they also lose critical opportunities to pursue education, paid work, leadership and leisure activities.

In order to support women farmers, we need to know more about the challenges they face. That means collecting data that is disaggregated by sex and other distinguishing characteristics on a range of issues and activities, including men’s and women’s activities and household responsibilities and land and resource management and governance. We need to have the numbers to understand and make visible the scope of the problem and the women and girls involved. For example, across the world’s developing countries, as much as 70% of land is unregistered. This leaves those who make a living on the land, especially women, vulnerable to dispossession or displacement through expropriation and land grabs –– with little or no compensation. At UN Women, we are committed to collecting data on and talking about barriers like this in order to advocate for rural women’s land registration and land title certification, regardless of their marital status. 

It is vital to promote women’s and girls’ access to justice and legal support. Without this, rural women face not only the challenge of unequal access to land but lack of knowledge of their rights or the means to fight against having the land they depend on taken from them should they become divorced or widowed. Indeed, in one in five countries with available data, female surviving spouses do not have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts. Even where the laws are responsive to women’s rights, greater effort is often needed to ensure that women are aware of their rights and able to enforce them. 

Yet, despite these challenges, women and girls in rural areas are far from passive victims of injustice. Many have fought back against structural inequalities and generations of deeply entrenched patriarchy to play an important role in improving livelihoods and wellbeing, as well as sustainably conserving and using resources. Research shows that having 25-30% women’s representation in community forestry institutions has a positive impact on forest conditions and regeneration. The participation of women in natural resource decision-making raises awareness of the need for conservation among a wider cross-section of people, including children, demonstrating the transformative possibilities when women fully and equally participate in the decisions and issues that directly affect them, their families and their communities. 

The opportunities for transformation similarly open up when women have increased land rights, contributing to improved food and income security for women and their families, which in turn bolsters economic independence and sustainable livelihoods. When women have greater access to the tools and resources they need to feed and support their families, this can have effects for generations to come: reduced infant mortality, greater levels of education and maternal health, and stronger and more resilient communities. 

In Pakistan, UN Women collaborated with local partners Baanhn Beli and Gorakh Foundation to support over a thousand women farmers in vulnerable situations to acquire land tenancy rights from their feudal landlords. Land tenure security is a critical asset for landless women. Before becoming tenants with some tenure security, they were unable to make long-term plans and invest in farming, protect themselves from natural disasters or improve their standard of living. In many cases these women were forced to leave their lands during the harvest and, in the absence of formal written agreements, suffered heavy losses and trauma. Training and mentoring allowed these women farmers to prepare tenancy agreements and landholding maps and negotiate with male landlords. 

The UN Women – Maasai Women’s Development Organization partnership in Tanzania has empowered hundreds of Maasai women to acquire land, find additional employment and diversify their economic activities to supplement their families’ incomes. Mama Neema Olenriya, 42, chairperson of the village council, spoke of her 20-year struggle to acquire land: “For generations, only men were allowed to own and inherit land, so they question whether women are fit to be land owners. But I am also Maasai—I can also fight for my rights.” Along with other village women, she received training on land and property rights and acquired the confidence and knowledge to demand that village authorities allocate land to women.

The opportunities for transformation similarly open up when women have increased land rights.

Land ownership also remains a key issue for rural women in El Salvador. Over the last four decades, land reforms have tried to reverse historically unequal land distribution, but progress has been slow, and reforms targeted mainly male heads of households. Women – over 50% of the population – were only 11% of agricultural holders in El Salvador. The Mujeres en Acción cooperative is one of 26 rural women’s groups in El Salvador that UN Women supported with IFAD and Ciudad Mujer, a government initiative, to bolster women’s entrepreneurship. Since none of the Mujeres en Acción members own land, they found a plot and lawyers at Ciudad Mujer helped them to secure a free long-term lease. Mujeres en Acción grows tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, enough for their own use and to sell. The cooperative hopes to earn enough to secure the future of their families. As cooperative member Mercedes Garcia said, “I will save to support my daughter so she can finish high school and go to the university—something I wasn’t able to do.” 

Thus, change is happening, but not nearly fast or comprehensively enough. 

It is vital that governments address discriminatory laws that prevent women from enjoying equal and secure access to land ownership and use. Globally, 102 countries have laws or customary practices that deny women’s equal access to land. 

In the CSW62 agreed conclusions on the 2018 priority theme of “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” Member States recommended that countries enact legislation and undertake reforms to realize the equal rights of women and men, and where applicable girls and boys, to natural resources, including access to, use of, ownership of and control over land, property and inheritance rights, taking into account diverse types of land tenure and enabling equal access to justice and legal assistance to realize these rights. In addition, countries should promote women’s land registration and land title certification, regardless of their marital status, and address practices and stereotypes that undermine their land rights, including in the context of customary and traditional systems, which often govern land management, administration and transfer in rural areas. 

UN Women’s recent joint publication with UN Habitat on women’s land rights, Pathways for Secure & Equal Land Tenure for Women, could serve as a valuable tool to support the efforts of development organizations, governments, civil society and academic and research institutions in tackling the barriers to rural women’s realization of equal land rights and full participation in society. It consolidates global research and knowledge and builds a framework for analysis by creating land tenure profiles that are gender-sensitive and take into account women’s multiple and intersecting identities. This can be used to develop robust and innovative land tools that provide responses tailored to women’s and girls’ needs.

The time to stand with rural women and girls and to take action is now.

There is just over a decade left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Every country in the world has committed itself to the 2030 Agenda. But we know that achieving its aims and realizing rural women and girls’ human rights requires renewed commitment to the task, and the increased financing that goes hand-in-hand with that commitment. 

Just as a successful harvest depends on the favorable outcome of multiple, interdependent factors –– soil quality, seeds, water, weather and tools, so achieving gender equality relies on ensuring that women’s rights are equal to those of men in every sphere. The time to stand with rural women and girls and to take action is now. Seeds sown today can bear fruit for generations to come.

Share this page