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Rural Women in Latin America Face Myriad Hurdles

CARACAS, Feb 25 2012 (IPS) - “Sometimes I think of giving it all up,” Aura Canache, a small farmer in Venezuela, told IPS. “My neighbours get loans and aid, but I never have. The farm assistance plans are for men, although there are many women living off the countryside too.”

Aura Canache, in front of one of her sheep enclosures on her small farm. Credit: Estrella Gutiérrez/IPS

Millions of women farmers in Latin America have similar reasons to feel discouraged, because while women farmers and rural workers become more and more numerous, there is a lack of public policies recognising them and addressing the change.

“There is no doubt that there has been a feminisation of the rural labour market in Latin America,” Fernando Soto, senior policy officer at the FAO regional office in the Chilean capital, told IPS.

But that feminisation is taking place in a sector marked by deep-rooted inequality, which Soto illustrated by citing a few examples taken from studies that amply reflect this situation.

In Mexico, “women in rural areas work an average of 89 hours a week, while men work only 58,” he said, adding that the situation is similar in many other countries throughout the region.

Nevertheless, “nearly 40 percent of these women do not have their own incomes, while only 14 percent of the men are in that situation,” said the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) officer.

“A good part of the work of rural women is invisible, and it is an enormous amount of work,” he said.

This situation will be discussed by the delegations attending the 56th session of the
Commission on the Status of Women
(CSW) to be held at United Nations headquarters in New York Feb. 27 to Mar. 9.

The priority theme at the meeting will be “The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges.”

International Women’s Day, celebrated Mar. 8, has a similar slogan this year: “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”.

The executive director of U.N. Women, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, said the agency she heads “looks forward to continued and greater collaboration with the U.N. system and other partners to remove the obstacles that exclude rural women and to advance laws and policies that promote their rights, opportunities and participation.”

Canache, on her farm that is less than one hectare in size, located 130 km east of Caracas in the farming region of Barlovento, knows nothing about the meeting in New York. But she is very familiar with the realities that will be described and discussed there.

The Venezuelan farmer, who has 50 head of cattle, 50 sheep and 40 horses, as well as rabbits and two fish farming ponds, has to plough everything she earns into running her farm near the Capaya river, which flooded her land in 2010. On that occasion, a number of her animals drowned, and she had to rebuild some of her farm buildings and clear her dirt roads.

“The climate is getting crazier and crazier, but the last two years the weather was horrible, and that drives up costs and losses,” she says.

Canache, a youthful-looking 73-year-old who employs three farmhands, became a farmer when she was widowed a quarter century ago, after her four children had completed their university studies in Caracas.

“I live for my animals and my farm. But it is too hard to see that for those who give out the (public and private) loans and assistance for agriculture, I don’t exist, while the men who are my neighbours were given huge loans after the flood, and tractors as well,” she says.

“Just imagine what I could do with a tractor!” she says.

“With financing, better roads and some technical support, I could produce a lot more, hire more people and things would not be such a struggle. They discriminate against us, even though we women farmers are more responsible and more reliable in paying off our debts than men. I would give up food from my table to meet my payments,” she says.

Bachelet said that if women had equal access to resources like credits, seeds and fertilisers, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, which would boost agricultural output in the developing South by four percent and would lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.

Soto explained that a recent study by FAO on conditions among women working in fruit production, one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors in Latin America, found that that they suffered from increasingly precarious labour conditions and growing social vulnerability.

The study, carried out in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, but whose findings are considered representative of the region as a whole, concludes that this is due to three main reasons: the informal nature of the work; the fact that the women earn minimum wage or less, despite an increased workload; and the lack of health coverage and labour security.

FAO studies on the link between the rural labour market and poverty, conducted in 13 Latin American countries, show “a lack of public policies, institutions, and oversight of compliance with existing standards and laws,” Soto said.

“A greater state presence is needed, so that distributive mechanisms can function,” because “while agriculture in Latin America is modernising, growing and generating income, it is not being distributed, but is increasingly concentrated,” the FAO expert added.

If the rural labour markets “worked better for women, without a doubt that would reduce poverty among them and improve their living conditions,” he said.

Figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) indicate that rural poverty represents more than half of all poverty in most countries in the region, and in some countries the proportion is much higher: 72 percent in Guatemala, 69 percent in Costa Rica, 67 percent in El Salvador and 59 percent in Paraguay.

Like in other developing regions, family farms are the main providers of food in Latin America, supplying nearly half of what the region’s 600 million people eat.

The work of women on family farms in Latin America tends to be unpaid, Soto said. The women occasionally engage in paid non-agricultural work as well, and they also are responsible for raising the children and “other caregiver tasks that fall to women because of the patriarchal values that prevail” in the rural world, he added.

Among the specific challenges facing women in the rural sector is the problem of access to land, FAO and other organisations point out. Only 11 percent of rural women hold land titles in Brazil, 22 percent in Mexico and 27 percent in Peru, according to studies.

But there are reasons for optimism, because efforts to promote women’s inclusion in rural production are sprouting up, in areas like microcredit, “which has specific products aimed at the inclusion of women,” Soto said.

The growing incorporation of women in agricultural production is key to pulling rural households out of poverty, and it depends on a set of public policies working in a coordinated manner in the labour market, production, and access to credit and resources – “and on greater shared responsibility in child care,” Soto said.

At the 56the session of the CSW, the Latin American government delegations will have two weeks to demonstrate that they are listening to voices like that of Canache and millions of other women who constantly run up against hurdles in the countryside.

* With reporting by Marianela Jarroud in Santiago.

 
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