Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

AGRICULTURE-BRAZIL: Rural Poverty Has a Female Face

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 20 2000 (IPS) - Some 4.3 million women work without pay in the Brazilian countryside, and most of them do not even define themselves as workers, which means they effectively renounce rights to which they are entitled by law.

Of the 5.34 million women working in agriculture in 1998, 80.13 percent were not paid, said Hildete Pereira de Melo, an economics professor at the Fluminense Federal University.

That is one of the symptoms as well as the causes of rural poverty, which is so widespread throughout Latin America’s giant, and especially among women.

By contrast, only 27.38 percent of males working in the countryside are unpaid, mainly children and teenagers still living at home.

The proportion of unpaid women workers is also high in sectors like mining and construction, 27.45 and 20.48, respectively. Nevertheless, it is a far cry from the situation of rural women.

Although the countryside’s “invisible” female workers produce food for the family and carry out many other tasks, they report working only a few hours a week, and are thus excluded from the category of “employed”, which is based on a weekly minimum of 15 hours of work, said Pereira de Melo.

That “ideological submission, which reduces them to simple homemakers, contributes to perpetuating the poverty and vulnerable situation” of rural women, she said.

As they are not recognised as workers, the women have no right to retire at the age of 55, and receive a pension — a right that plays an important role in easing rural poverty, experts in the area point out.

Pensions are the chief source of income in many municipalities in North-eastern Brazil, where nearly half of the country’s rural population and most of the rural poverty is concentrated, and farmers face serious difficulties like the scarcity of water, which is aggravated by frequent severe drought.

A women’s movement led by the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), the “March of the Margaridas”, demanded and obtained from the government a resolution helping women farmers secure their right to social security, even though they do not figure as formally employed wage-earners.

Documents and other requirements, including in-person interviews with social security authorities, were replaced by a letter from CONTAG certifying that the woman in question was a rural worker — one of the conquests of the March, which drew 20,000 women to Brasilia on Aug. 10.

The march also won the right for women to own the land they are settled on through the agrarian reform programme, either in their own name or jointly with their husbands. Up to now, a mere 12.6 percent of the title deeds extended were in the names of women.

Over 400,000 families have been granted a plot of land as part of Brazil’s agrarian reform process, launched 32 years ago, according to official data.

As property owners, rural women will gain access to the credit they have traditionally been denied, which will “begin to change their lives and those of their families,” with positive effects for the entire countryside, said Raimunda de Mascena, the women’s co-ordinator of CONTAG and the March.

Rural poverty is highlighted by the numerous camps set up along highways, occupations of land and public buildings, and the thousands of peasant farmers and rural workers mobilised in the struggle for land and living in precarious conditions, often for years.

The Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST) or Landless Movement claims it has 150,000 families camped throughout the country along roadsides or on occupied land. With that grassroots power base and the settlements the movement controls, the MST is exercising heavy pressure for broader, faster land reform, and for more readily available credit for those who are settled in the framework of the programme.

In addition, CONTAG claims to control camps with another 40,000 families, while there are a few smaller organisations that use similar tactics.

Rural illiteracy stands at over 30 percent, double the national rate, while schooling levels are equally low among men and women, unlike in urban areas where in the past 10 years, women have surpassed men in terms of years of schooling.

That means just one more difficulty for development in an economy increasingly demanding technological skills and competitiveness even in agriculture.

The incorporation of new technologies has become more difficult due to the ageing of Brazil’s rural population, which is more accentuated than in urban areas because young people tend to migrate to cities, drawn by the wider variety of opportunities, or driven out by an increasingly mechanised agricultural sector.

The rural censuses carried out in 1985 and 1996 found that the total number of rural workers dropped from 23.39 to 17.93 million. Meanwhile, production levels rose.

The Brazilian countryside has been undergoing major changes. Farming activity now takes less and less time, and accounts for a shrinking share of family income, according to José Graziano da Silva, an agricultural economics professor and researcher at the University of Campinas, in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo.

One of the studies indicates that by 1998, non-agricultural activities, like “agro-tourism” and other services, or crafts and home industries brought rural workers more income than agriculture — a global tendency accelerated in Brazil by the combined effects of the devaluation of the real and the collapse of agricultural commodity prices.

For those reasons, policies fomenting those new sources of income and broadening social security benefits among rural women will be decisive in combating poverty and promoting rural development, according to Pereira de Melo.

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