Closing the gender gap in rural development

28 September 2011
ITC News

In rural areas of the developing world, women are the backbone of their communities. They are farmers, smallholders and farm labourers; they are the primary caregivers of the young, the elderly, the ill and the disabled. They are often entrepreneurial cash-earners supporting their families and creating opportunities for others. Despite these multiple responsibilities, women lack access to sufficient resources and services to increase their productivity and incomes, while easing their burden of household duties. That is why the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has made gender issues a central focus.

In many developing countries women typically work 12 more hours per week than men. However, they still have far less access to land, water, education, training, financial services and strong organizations. Particularly scarce are health and health-education services for women. The risk of a woman in a developing country dying from a pregnancy-related cause is about 36 times higher than in a developed country. Not only women, but everyone is held back by these resource constraints.

Women are dynamic organizers and can be very effective at promoting and sustaining local self-help initiatives and development projects. In drought- and famine-prone Niger, for example, a new type of food bank lending food to farmers to help them get through the ‘hungry season’ preceding the harvest is improving resilience and food security. Managed exclusively by women, these food banks help create new, dynamic women’s organizations in villages. The project is helping these organizations develop other activities related to health, child nutrition, HIV and other challenges.

In microfinance programmes, we have seen that women are prudent savers, using income to benefit the entire household – and their communities. Farm productivity increases when women have access to agricultural inputs and relevant knowledge. When girls have access to primary and secondary education, malnutrition and mortality among both boys and girls are reduced. Thus, closing the gender gap in rural development is important for equity, efficiency, food security and sustainable trade. 

A three-pronged approach

Women can be powerful change agents. Empowering poor rural women involves three critical and interrelated dimensions: expanding access to assets such as capital, land, knowledge and technologies; strengthening decision-making and their representation in community affairs; and improving women’s well-being and lessening their workloads.

IFAD-supported programmes have experimented with various devices and practices to ease women’s workloads and improve family and community well-being. For example, improved stoves and innovative rainwater harvesting devices decrease time spent collecting fuelwood and water; conservation agriculture can reduce time-consuming activities like weeding; and cassava graters, oil-seed presses and other food-processing equipment can deliver more income with less effort.

Once time is freed up women’s creative energies can be put to work in new and emerging markets, such as fair trade and organic value chains. In the coffee industry, women-only coffee cooperatives are supplying large coffee retailers eager to meet consumer interest in social responsibility. In Rwanda, an IFAD-backed project has helped women get involved in the coffee trade: after extensive training, women now occupy from 30%-60% of committee seats in the project-supported cooperatives. Coffee from women-run cooperatives brings US$ 4 to US$ 5 per kg compared to US$ 3.50 for coffee from other cooperatives.

Donors, policymakers, development practitioners and agri-businesses must shift their thinking about women, food security, agriculture and the global marketplace. Women should be recognized as a powerful force for social and economic development, not just of rural communities but for national development overall.


Women and rural development

Lightening the load

Gender and rural microfinance –
reaching and empowering women

Gender in agriculture sourcebook

Polishing the stone