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close this bookCERES No. 075 (FAO Ceres, 1980, 50 p.)
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Recommendations and realities: Women in rural development

Half of the decade that was dedicated to women by the United Nations in the cause of "equality, development and peace" has passed into history. To take stock of what has been achieved in the first five years since a global plan of action was endorsed at a conference in Mexico City in 1975, another conference will be held under UN auspices in Copenhagen in the latter part of July. Without attempting, apparently, to prejudge what the result of this stocktaking exercise will be, the organizers of this year's conference are urging the adoption of a new programme of action for the next five years to be concentrated on the areas of employment, health and education.

Since the majority of the world's women still live in a rural environment where conditions of life are more likely to be measured in concrete rather than abstract terms, a shift in emphasis from such relative concepts as equality, development and peace to more tangible targets like jobs, training and health services may be regarded as a step in the right direction.

Any attempt, however, to provide some global definition for the status of women and to identify specific universal means of enhancing that status is bound to encounter considerable frustration. The role of women in food and agricultural production is already so pervasive in most countries that exhortations to "integrate" women into rural development run the risk of sounding ridiculous. In the institutional sense, however, women very often are excluded from the process of local decision-making that affects their lives and conditions of work. This sense of exclusion creates a dilemma of sorts for those attempting to counteract existing inequalities. Does pleading a special case for women, however justified, imply a risk of further isolation from the mainstreams of social, economic and political activity in which a community's patterns of living are shaped? Many women leaders present at the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD) in Rome last July were alert to this possibility. While they welcomed the inclusion, within the proposed national programmes of action, of a special item on "the integration of women in rural development," they continued to press for recognition of the legitimate interest and involvement of women in all other sections of the proposed programmes.

The following pages should be read with that concern in mind. In somewhat truncated and condensed form, the major recommendations of WCARRD relating specifically to women are presented against a background of indicative trends and situations. No quantitative or qualitative evaluation of these indicators is attempted, or is even likely possible. For although the UN Decade for Women has undoubtedly inspired a spate of new research into the condition of women, including rural women, these very efforts have underlined the fact that even our basic concepts and methods for collecting and appraising data needed for new insights into the problems of women reveal an inherent male bias that tends to discount the female contribution.

Within the confines of a few magazine pages, all that is possible is to juxtapose some of the aspirations for the betterment of women's lot against flashes of the current actuality as an indication of the challenge that remains.

The research for this special ceres survey was conducted by Florence Sicoli



Governments should consider action to repeal laws and regulations that discriminate against women in regard to ownership, control and inheritance of properly and inhibit effective participation of women in economic transactions and in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of rural development programmes.


Many traditional women's rights in property and inheritance were eroded during the colonial period, and in many cases this phase has been forgotten. Now, a new threat to women's rights appears to arise from post-colonial land settlement schemes, especially in Africa. In Asia and Latin America, colonial rule and legislation along Western lines had already dispossessed women on a massive scale.

In India, where about 60 percent of the rural unemployed are women and 40 to 50 percent of the female labour force are unpaid family workers, the work of women is not recognized in either an economic or a legal sense. Property acquired during marriage is usually in the name of the husband. Inheritance rights of women are uniformly inferior to those of men.

In Latin America, women have virtually no claim to land on the basis of traditional rights, since from the beginning of the colonial conquest land was the focus of increasing demand by European settlers and commercial interests. Peruvian law prohibits a wife from carrying on commercial or professional activity without her husband's approval. Wealth gained from the women's personal property becomes common property under direction of the husband. In Brazil, property and possession of goods during marriage are common, but women are only able to administer these with the authorization of the husband. Under Chilean law, a women's property passes to the control of her husband on marriage, except in rare cases where expensive legal precautions are taken.

It is in resettlement schemes, however, where a completely new system of land tenure applies, that women lose out most drastically. Studies undertaken in such African countries as Kenya, Tanzania and Upper Volta have described situations in which women accustomed to having rights to land were suddenly deprived of them, and proceeds of land and labour were handed over to their husbands or fathers. In some cases, women have been so dissatisfied that they have abandoned the scheme completely. Sometimes their husbands, unable to manage the work alone, have followed.


Governments should consider action to promote ownership rights for women, including joint ownership and co-ownership of land in entirely, to give women producers with absentee husbands effective legal rights to take decisions on the land they manage.


In many countries where women's property and inheritance rights are inferior to those of men, a woman's traditional tenure rights recognized by virtue of her work on her husband's land are often jeopardized in the case of her husband's absence or death.

The 1975 Land Reform Proclamation in Ethiopia, which allows for the allotment of defined parcels of land to families "without differentiation of the sexes" is in marked contrast to the country's civil code which indicates that the husband is the head of the family. While land is registered in the name of the family, wives are not given express and individual right of ownership to the family's land. The proclamation, which entitles the wife or husband to use the land in the event of death of the title holder, has created problems in the polygamous areas where men have been registering only one of their wives, leaving the others to fend for themselves when they become widows.

In Southeast Asia, where vigorous family traditions had always ensured women's land claims, colonial and post-colonial administrations have often transferred women's land rights to men. In Malaysia, men have developed cash crops in the rubber and fruit orchards, while women have managed to retain their subsistence rice and house plots. But in the event that women's plots acquire significant cash value, as happens with commercialization or development, no legal remedies are available to the women to enforce their traditional rights.

Even in some countries where women do have access to land, it is believed more proper for them to work the land only in partnership with male members of the family. In rural Niger, in the case of either divorce or widowhood, Hausa women are not encouraged to remain for long without a husband and only under exceptional circumstances are they left to operate a farm enterprise on their own account.

Shamila's day

Three years ago, the women's section of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (ARDP) in Bangladesh was requested by the Agricultural Development Agencies (ADAB) of that country to record observation studies of a full day of the activities of all the women in a farm family during boro harvest season and to ask the more experienced women in the family about seed care, poultry raising and animal care. The accompanying text, excerpted from the report of IRDP Project Officers Saleha Khatun and Gita Rani with the kind permission of the Ford Foundation, details the dogged, undramatic course of one woman's day, testifying in the description of every task the constant struggle to overcome the constraints of space and time and to reduce waste to the minimum.

Shamila wakes up before daybreak. She looks at the sky to see if it is cloudy. She takes the broom from beside the door and sweeps the courtyard. She spreads the paddy and arranges it on the ground for threshing.

Shamila goes to the cooking room, collects the ashes from the oven (chula) into a broken basket and with a little ash and mud she plasters the outside of the pot that is used to parboil paddy. She does this to protect the pot from high heat, and to keep it, from becoming darkened with smoke. She puts the pot in the oven. She takes dry dung-cakes, husks and jute sticks from where she stored them in the cooking room and puts them near the oven. She brings grain already threshed and cleaned in a basket, puts some straw at the bottom of the pot to keep the grains from burning, fills the pot with water and adds the grains. She starts the fire to heat the oven.

She cleans the dirty utensils and plates from last night's meal, picks up the water pitcher and an old basket and goes to clean the cowshed. She gathers the fresh dung, throws it outside the shed and spreads it to dry. She takes the pitcher to the pond. With her muddy hands she rubs the pitcher, rinses it in the pond and fills it with water.

Shamila returns and serves her husband and children last night's cold rice. She empties the parboiled grains from the pot onto a tom mat in the courtyard and puts a fresh supply of grains in the pot and pushes the jute sticks into the fire.

When her husband finishes eating she serves her mother-in-law and taking a plate of food for herself, she goes and sits near the oven. She puts her child at her breast, tends the fire and eats.

Still carrying the baby, she takes several baskets of grains (already parboiled and dried) to the husking paddle or dheki and pushes the pedal while her mother-in-law alternately stirs the grain in the dheki and winnows what has been husked. Once in a while, Shamila stops husking, goes to the threshing floor to turn the stalks over or to the oven to remove the parboiled grain, put a fresh batch on and rebuild the fire.

When it is time to cook the afternoon meal, she has her mother-in-law do it since she cannot spare the time. She measures out the rice and pulses needed for the meal, washes them and gives them to the mother-in-law to cook.

The stalks are threshed by now so she gathers the straw and stacks H, then collects the grains in a basket and takes them to another part d the courtyard to winnow them. She cleans the remaining grains from the court and puts them in a basket.

Now that the sun is strong she spreads me parboiled grains in the courtyard. She takes the straw and spreads it to dry in the outer courtyard.

Shamila goes to the oven, puts the food into a bowl from which she serves the children.

She winnows the threshed grains and from time to time turns the parboiled grains that are drying in the courtyard. She spreads the just windowed grains for further drying.

She picks up a broom and pitcher, goes to turn the straw that is drying in the outer courtyard and continues on to clean the cow-shed.

She takes the pitcher to the pond, fills it and takes it back for the cows' food bowl. She goes back to the pond, dips herself two or three times, fills the pitcher and carries it to the house.

With her son on her hip, she checks the drying parboiled grains by testing a few grains in her teeth and turns them to dry more.

It is nearing cooking time again. She puts rice on the oven to boil, goes out to pluck eggplant and green chili from the vegetable plot and puts them in the oven to bake.

Her child meanwhile is crawling around her and crying but she does not have time to pick him up and carry him. Her mother-in-law is too old to carry the child.

Shamila finishes cooking and sets out the food. She washes her son and picks him up. She suckles him while she is walking about and supervising the other.

The labourers have returned with the harvest and stack it in a comer. Her husband tells her to feed the labourers. She gives them rice, lentils, eggplant and sago. They eat on the veranda.

Shamila feeds the other children. When everyone has eaten, she and her mother-in-law sit and eat. By now it is 10 o'clock. She puts the cow and goat In the cowshed, takes some pan and lies on the bedding to rest.



Governments should consider action to ensure equal access to productive assets, such as land, livestock and existing social and economic services, and equal membership and voting rights in organizations such as tenants' associations, labour unions, cooperatives, credit unions, etc.


Even the best, most self-reliant cooperatives reflect sexual bias. Throughout the world, all but a few cooperatives are dominated by men. Although cooperative principles clearly forbid discrimination against women, the heavy weight of tradition has meant that many cooperatives do not really allow women to take leadership roles. Indeed, in many agricultural cooperatives women are not full members, because the by-laws specify that membership is open to the person who is the farm operator or owner. In most cases the husband is the legal landowner (in some countries women are not allowed to own land) and is considered the agricultural producer even though in many countries most of the farm work is done by women.

In rural Niger, the economic unit of production among the Hausa people is generally described as the household or gandu. All females and dependent males contribute five days' labour each week on the household farms that are under the direction of a male household head. This obligation takes precedence over work that women may do in their own fields. An increasing proportion of the produce of the gandus, mainly groundnuts for export, is sold on the market through cooperatives, yet women have no customary right to this cash income despite their contribution to household production.

Despite figures indicating that women are responsible for 40 to 80 percent of all agricultural production in developing countries and that about 30 percent of rural families in these countries are headed by women, women have often been overlooked as possible beneficiaries of development programmes and existing services.

In two villages of Bangladesh, development project officers have reported that although husbands have access to the new technology of improved seed, the women who process rice and care for animals and gardens are doing their work with traditional technology. In some cases improved technology does not exist, but in relation to products like insecticides, poultry vaccines and modern veterinary supplies which do exist, less than one quarter of the women surveyed had access to these products.

Another area of neglect is improvements of tools used by women in the production of household artifacts because they are not seen as contributing to the market economy. Since women frequently do house construction, the improvements related to water conservation, drainage, sanitation and building of methane tanks for fuel as well as improved food storage facilities do not lie outside their range of competence.

One of the aims of the Animation feminine programme, launched in Niger in 1976, was to provide greater access for women to such agricultural inputs as seeds and fertilizers. Village animatrices were given short training courses and charged with the responsibility of passing on information to and taking orders from their clientele. Most of the animatrices were widows or divorcees since married women were not permitted to attend training courses away from their village plots.

In Turkey, most women workers in agriculture, who comprise nearly 90 percent of the total female labour force, have fewer privileges, less security and lower wages than their urban counterparts. Many, in fact, are family labourers who receive no cash income at all. In spite of their work in the fields, they are economically dependent on men and have little direct influence in decision-making. They are forbidden to frequent many of the places where men go, such as coffee houses, or to become members of a cooperative.


Governments should consider action to strength en non-formal educational schemes for rural women in leader ship training, agricultural instruction as well as non-farm activities (health care, child-rearing, family planning, nutrition) and broaden extension programmes to support women's roles in agricultural production, processing, preservation and marketing.


Women play a vital role in producing, preparing and distributing food supplies, but few of the strategies developing countries are following call for the effective training and participation of women in agricultural production, storage, marketing and processing of food.

Policy-makers in some developing countries, with encouragement from aid agencies, have used Western traditions as a model for giving extension services and training primarily to men, thus reducing women's participation in the food cycle.

USAID, for example, finances education projects involving the training of teachers and nurses, as well as family planning projects, but the traditional projects on agricultural production or institution building have seldom paid specific attention to the role of women.

The need for a new approach to project design was acknowledged by one former USAID Administrator when he declared: "Unless and until women are given the education and technical training to increase food production, there is little hope of improving productivity levels of the whole society in developing countries."

In the Philippines, the literacy rate of rural women is fairly high (77 percent). Yet women are not taught the rudiments of agricultural production techniques, nor permitted contact with agricultural extension workers, despite the fact that they are heavily involved in agricultural production and decision-making.

Some development programmes geared to women's activities have been underutilized because they do not fit with daily work patterns. New patterns of water availability, for example, are imposed on women rather than developed in consultation with them.

I his means that women frequently do not make use of new facilities and continue burdensome and often harmful practices to meet their needs.

In other cases, approaches to health care tend to undermine women's traditional self-reliance. Researchers in rural Indonesia have reported that medical professionals were providing services but not relaying knowledge with the result that women undervalued the programme because it was believed to promote dependency.

The training of local women to work in the rural areas surrounding a family planning clinic is seen as a solution to the crisis that many rural clinics are experiencing because of the lack of trained personnel willing to work in remote areas. Serious constraints also are faced by some World Bank projects in Africa where male extension workers are not permitted to communicate directly with the women working in the fields. This problem could be resolved if women were trained in agricultural extension work.



Governments should consider action to promote collective action by rural women to facilitate their participation in economic, political, social and educational activities, and to establish systems with the involvement of women's organizations that will identify obstacles to women's participation in these activities.


Governments and development projects are predominantly male staffed and are often less able to relate to the needs and goals of individual female farmers and groups, and less able to take into account women's co-equal role in the rural family and productive activities.

Yet women in most traditional societies have already displayed a capacity for self-organization, whether in the form of the relatively visible women's councils of Africa or the women's bathhouse networks in purdah-keeping Muslim societies. African women's groups have already identified more needs, including training in food preservation, simple drip irrigation techniques, animal diseases and access to wells and two-wheeled carts for transporting water and firewood.

In contrast to the active African women's groups, the 60 000 village women's clubs in rural India have suffered from a lack of clear objectives and of attention to women's multiple roles within and outside the home. The programme which created the clubs as part of its rural development aim has viewed rural women as a homogeneous group whose primary role is homemaking. It has emphasized the training of better-off women in home management, while the needy or weaker groups, particularly the workers, have been served only through feeding and similar programmes.


Governments should consider action to revise procedures for the collection of statistical data for the identification of women's participation in productive activities.


Statistics on women and agriculture in developing countries show that in most of sub-Saharan Africa, much of Southeast Asia and some parts of Latin America, women make up 50 to 60 percent of the agricultural labour force. They not only till, sow, weed, and harvest in these countries, but also prepare and cook food in all countries of the world. Yet this involvement does not mean that women control food production. On the contrary, they have been invisible, because in many parts of the world they are involved primarily in subsistence farming, in providing the actual food that the family eats, while men tend to be involved in cash-crop production. It is men who make up the statistics on paid agricultural labour and it is their production that figures in the gross national product. The social sciences have not developed adequate concepts concerning the role of women. The research gap has been aggravated by the near invisibility of most rural women and the lack of women researchers. Under these conditions, it is difficult to determine women's points of view about their situation.

South Asia, for instance, has been considered an area where women are traditionally non-participants in economic life, secluded and oppressed within the home. In these circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that reports on their economic activity would involve substantial under-counting and that there would be much hidden employment in the form of unpaid family labour. Yet Nepal, India and Sri Lanka report that women comprise 42, 36 and 25 percent respectively of all persons employed in agriculture. In Pakistan, the figure is 14 percent. In Nepal and India, women represent 78 and 66 percent respectively of all self-employed persons. This suggests that there is already available a very large pool of women with the kind of experience useful for community development and increasing rural productivity.


Governments should consider action to strengthen and establish programmes, such as day-care centres, that will ease the burden of women's household work in order to permit their greater participation in economic, educational and political activities, as well as promote understanding of men's responsibilities to share household duties.


Women in developing countries contribute long hours of work on their husbands' farms, in addition to their self-employment (in agriculture, trade and crafts) and their domestic duties. And it is normal in traditional African marriages for women to support themselves and their children and to cook for the husband, often using food they produce themselves.

Yet there are few, if any, instances of organized day-care centres for rural women, and it is an infrequent practice on the part of farming husbands to care for children or sharehousehold duties to allow women time to engage in activities outside the home.

In a study of rural Kenyan market women, the women most frequently said that their older children tend to household, garden, animal and childraising duties when they are away from home on market business. The contribution of children is quite high even for a task like livestock tending, which is ordinarily regarded as a man's responsibility.

A small number of the women said they rely on hired labour or help from relatives. The reported low contribution of the husband in housework reflects a customary pattern in this and other countries.

While traditional sex differentiation of household and farming tasks makes the easing of women's work a longterm social project, certain other time-consuming tasks for farm women could be resolved by improved technology. For example, a World Bank study on appropriate technology to relieve the burden of fetching water supplies revealed that rural women in Kenya spend from three to six hours per day to get water for the household, often carrying it by head load.


Governments should consider action to ensure equal education for both sexes and provide special incentives such as reduced fees for increased enrollment of females in schools and training programmes.


Fifty-four years ago, there were only 43 Egyptian girls attending secondary school; by 1971 there were half a million. Since 1950, the female share of university enrolments has doubled in Japan, tripled in Nigeria, quadrupled in Pakistan and quintupled in Thailand. Enrolment of females in primary and secondary schools has nearly caught up with that of males in many countries. Yet nearly two thirds of the world's illiterate population is female As the number of illiterate men rose by 8 million between 1960 and 1970, the number of illiterate women increased by 40 million, bringing the total number of women unable to read or write to 500 million. Although the absolute number of illiterate women is increasing, the percentage of all women who cannot read or write is decreasing - from 45 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 1970. In some countries the literacy differences between older and younger female age groups have become striking.

In an effort to raise the educational level of their populations, many countries have begun to shift away from sole reliance on formal schooling (to which women's access has always been limited by conflicting domestic responsibilities) toward informal mass literacy drives, in which women often form the majority of participants. Many countries - including China, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, Somalia, Indonesia and Bangladesh - have tried mass literacy campaigns with only mixed success. Equal education for women is hampered by a whole set of mutually dependent ideas and traditions that define and limit the female role. In developing countries, the acute shortage of educational facilities, in combination with a belief that boys should be educated first, effectively excludes many girls. Travel to a distant school is often necessary and girls' attendance is limited by beliefs that they should not travel alone or live apart from family supervision. Children's labour often contributes vitally to the economic viability of the poorer household.


Governments should consider action to guarantee equal pay for equal work and promote income-generating opportunities for women.


Four case studies covering different types of industry in India, Malaysia. Singapore and Mexico all produced evidence to support the conclusion that entry into the paid labour force was not necessarily a liberating factor for women. The pace of work was reported to be extremely intense in all four cases. The piece rate system of work in Calcutta was set so low that long hours of intensive work were necessary to secure sufficient income for family survival. Women in Malaysian electronics factories earned significantly more than local women in other industries such as textiles. In Singapore, the majority of the female workers in textile manufacturing are clustered at the bottom of the wage scale. The study of the Mexican border industries indicates that women textile workers are constituted as a separate, secondary category of the labour force and are not permitted the same rights as male workers. Women here were routinely assigned unskilled jobs. All three factory-based studies found that while the vast majority of employees were women, supervisors and management, except at the lowest level, were invariably men. One important factor common to all four cases was the absence of virtually any legislation protecting or guaranteeing workers' rights on such matters as health and safety, job security, minimum wages, fringe benefits, trade union organization.

In India, two government directives on employment apply to women - one for equal pay for equal work and one for humane work conditions - but these principles are not enforceable by any court. Both in pre- and post-independent India, women have received a lower rate of pay. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, for example, the rate prescribed for male sowers is Rs. 44.75; for female sowers doing the same job the Government fixed the rate at Rs. 31.25. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the rate for male sowers is Rs. 48.25 but Rs. 30 for the female sower.


Governments should consider action to minimize the possible negative effects on women's employment arising from changes in traditional economic patterns.


Mechanization and cash cropping introduced in some countries by governments and agencies' development projects have sometimes deprived women of their former rights to employment, since they are often the least-skilled of workers, and of their capability to produce food for family consumption and cash income.

A well-documented example is found in the village of Rio Hondo in the sugarcane district of the Yucatan Peninsula where women were formerly heavily engaged in gardening, animal husbandry and market trade of the produce and animals. Following the rapid rise of sugarcane production in 1973, land became critically in demand, thereby decreasing the crops cultivated by women and the amount of local produce for human and animal consumption.

Only the wealthy farmers made the transition to a market economy, the poorer ones earning insufficient cash to acquire goods and the women being relegated solely to domestic tasks.

Despite the economic boom for some, women lost their sources of income and with no money coming into the household and local produce reduced, child nutrition remained marginally low.