When we celebrate the International Women’s Day (IWD) this year we shine the brightest light on the vast majority of women – especially in developing countries that live and work in rural areas and whose empowerment is about bringing the farthest left behind to the forefront of being the prime beneficiaries and drivers of sustainable development, peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action.
For are not the rural woman and girl the poorest, most discriminated against in a boy-preferred and girl- averse patriarchal society ? Are not rural areas, where sex selection including through female foeticide and infanticide, led to skewed sex ratios in many countries.
Are they not the ones who bear the biggest burden of care and domestic work and time-poverty as they juggle fetching water and firewood from long distances, cooking and cleaning , child bearing and caring for children and the aged with back breaking work in the farms and fields ?
All this while trying to cope with the deprivation of education and decent work opportunities, deficits in healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), electricity , clean cookstoves, transport, finance and other basic infrastructure and services their urban sisters have a better chance of getting .
Rural women and girls face the brunt of the feminization of poverty and its inter-generational consequences, the impacts of climate change, desertification, extreme weather events and natural disasters. They are also the most vulnerable in conflict situations, as migrants and refugees and in humanitarian crisis. Disability rates are higher among rural women and girls , support systems weak or non existent and they are stigmatized to boot .
Indigenous women , ethnic and racial and other minorities , young women and elderly women included – face further marginalization and human rights challenges in most rural settings- what we call multiples forms of compounded discrimination and intersectionalities.
They are the most targeted for all forms of violence in domestic life, workplaces and in public spaces. Rural areas are also fertile grounds for harmful traditions and practices like child marriage and child maternity, female genital mutilation (FGM) and cutting, witch hunting, dowry and bride price, honor killings etc .
Rural women and girls rarely have any consciousness about their human rights especially their right to have control over their bodies, their sexuality and reproductive function or their right to choose who and when they marry or when to have children . These decisions are most often imposed on them to the detriment of their health, economic and social well-being and happiness .
Their voices are often disregarded in governance at all levels and their participation and leadership more an exception than the rule. They have little access to justice and redress of their grievances. Gender equal Laws of the land are controverted by parallel / personal / religious laws / norms and custom to disempower them. They seldom have equal access, ownership and control over land, property and other productive assets like finance entrepreneurship and other skills and capacity building.
That is not to say progress has not been made in many parts of the world including in developing countries. This gives hope that rural women’s empowerment is possible and yields rich dividends for all women and girls as well as for the economy , society and democratic governance, peace and sustainable development for all .
Rural women and girls therefore have to be prioritized if we are to implement fully, effectively and in an accelerated way the Beijing Platform For Action for Women , the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG), and the unprecedented and historic Gender Equality Compact that the international community has adopted, especially in the last 7 years .
Take SDG 5 on achieving Gender Equality and empowering all women and girls and its nine targets . For this: – We need to get all governments at all levels – federal , state and local – in Parliament , executive and judiciary and law enforcement- to ensure SDG 5.1 is implemented.
– That means to ensure that there is no discrimination against rural women and girls in law and practice in any way .
– In fact they should enact special laws , policies and measures , programs and schemes to take affirmative action in all areas .
Equally social norms and customary laws that perpetuate discrimination must be firmly opposed and outlawed and a public movement launched with support from all stakeholders especially a vibrant civil society and citizens engagement.
Similarly all our efforts need to be made to prevent violence and harmful practices against rural women and girls their sexual exploitation and to provide for multisectoral, critical services to them. Perpetrators must be prosecuted and victims and survivors must have access to justice.
Rural women’s participation and leadership in local government is progressing but needs to pushed further as much as in national government so that rural women’s interests and needs get reflected in governance and budgeting. They must participate equally with men in public, political and economic life at all levels.
Equal Land and water rights, inheritance and property rights are especially to be targeted as must technology and ICT along with other aspects and attributes of economic empowerment and autonomy. They must have access to both physical and social infrastructure and essential services. Their access to comprehensive sexuality education along with their male counterparts, to contraceptives and to SRHR services and rights is vital.
Overall progress in sustainable agriculture and rural development will contribute to transformation for gender equality and rural women and girl’s empowerment. Finally never before have I felt so strongly about education of rural girls and women and of their families as one major enabler of a big leap to their empowerment.
On my return to India last month, one of my first engagements was to visit a women’s college in the heart of patriarchal rural Haryana as a chief guest at the convocation. As I spoke there to brilliant young rural women graduates and postgraduates in commerce, business administration, science and arts I could feel their confidence and the audacity of their ambition to forge ahead in life and career as empowered individuals.
As my friend and amazing champion of rural women Shamim joined me in exhorting them poetically to throw away their shackles and soar high they retorted with equal gusto and said “We will. We have got wings now ! “. I also leant that education – primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational must be taken to rural areas. As Shamim said “We have to take the torch to where there is darkness !”