Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



15 October 2010

Rural women: powerful agents of change

As a young girl, Frida Wanjiri Mwai watched women in her village in central Kenya collaborate to replace traditional thatched roofs with waterproof corrugated iron. Later, as an adult farmer and mother of six, this memory prompted her to form a women’s group to buy water storage tanks that were too expensive to purchase individually. She and her friends pooled their money and bought the tanks for each member in rotation.

Since that time the group has shown what women can achieve with a little training and good organization. The success of the women’s group led her to join an 18-member agricultural development cooperative set up by an IFAD-supported project in her village. She is now respected as one of the key people involved in community development.

“When women come together, they are powerful,” she says.

In honour of the crucial role that women such as Mwai play in their communities, the United Nations declared 15 October the International Day of Rural Women. Since 2008, the day has recognized “the contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty”.

A multitude of roles, the potential to transform communities

“Rural women have the potential to propel their households and communities forward, to lift them out of poverty,” says Annina Lubbock, IFAD’s Senior Technical Adviser on Gender and Poverty Targeting. “When investments reach women, transformations begin to occur.”

In developing countries, rural women fulfil many different roles: they are farmers, caretakers of children and the elderly, wage labourers and small-scale-entrepreneurs. They often spend long hours fetching water and collecting firewood. But too often they are held back by lack of education, unequal property rights and limited control over resources. 

“To tap women’s potential, we need to first understand their challenges and their needs, and then direct our investments accordingly,” says Lubbock, “because when they overcome traditional barriers, the gains are huge.”

IFAD-supported projects demonstrate that investing in women can generate significant improvements in productivity and food security. Entire communities benefit socially and economically when women have access to water and land, education and training, and strong organizations.

IFAD’s experience shows that:

  • Women’s empowerment benefits not only women themselves, but also their families and communities.
  • Farm productivity increases when women have access to agricultural inputs and relevant knowledge.
  • Women are dynamic organizers and participants in grass-roots organizations, and are effective in promoting and sustaining local self-help initiatives.
  • Malnutrition and mortality among both boys and girls are reduced when girls obtain greater access to primary and secondary education.
  • There is a strong correlation between women’s literacy and lower HIV/AIDS infection rates.
  • Women have a strong track record as prudent savers and borrowers in microfinance programmes, using income to benefit the entire household.

“Investing in women is not just about achieving the third Millennium Development Goal, which is to promote gender equality and empower women,” says Lubbock. “Investing in women by promoting gender equality is vital to achieving all the other goals as well.”