ROME, Italy – People around the world have celebrated International Women's Day on 8 March every year since 1975. This year, the United Nations observance highlights the urgent need for action to end violence against women. For IFAD and its partners, that means empowering rural women and girls through, improved livelihoods, access to education and opportunities for safer, more dignified lives. It also means addressing gender-based violence as both a fundamental human rights issue and a serious impediment to food and nutrition security.
IFAD’s own policy on gender equality and women’s empowerment states that strengthening gender equality makes a major contribution to improving food security, reducing child malnutrition and promoting inclusive economic growth that can lift rural people out of poverty. However, it is clear that gender-based violence in a rural context hinders agricultural development and food security. Injuries and illnesses caused by violence and abuse limit the livelihood options of women in their most productive years. At the same time, stigma may deprive them of access to technical knowledge, training, basic services and other essentials.
Patterns of violence
Violence against poor rural women often involves conflicts over access to land for cultivation. During the ‘lean season’ before the harvest, such violence can result from family disagreements about how to survive on tight resources. After the harvest, violence against women may arise from discord over how to spend the income earned from selling crops. Moreover, some rural women facing desperate poverty, insecurity or conflict are compelled to adopt risky coping strategies such as commercial sex that make them even more vulnerable.
Faced with these daunting challenges, IFAD and its partners at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) are taking steps towards positive change. The three Rome-based United Nations agencies are holding a joint event on 8 March at WFP headquarters. Their aim is to highlight the critical importance of preventing violence against poor rural women and thereby enhancing food security for small-scale farming households.
The event is the fourth combined observance of International Women’s Day by FAO, IFAD and WFP, joined this year by the International Development Law Organization. The agenda focuses on the connections between gender-based violence and food and nutrition security – from refugee women trading sex for food to widows being persecuted over ownership of inherited land, poor families marrying off their under-age daughters during times of famine, and other patterns of violence associated with the agricultural cycle.
Respect and collaboration
But besides making these connections, the event will highlight solutions, emphasizing that women comprise more than 40 per cent of the agricultural labour force in the developing world. As such, enabling rural women and girls to gain equitable access to education and legal protection, along with agricultural inputs and training, will go a long way toward improving nutrition for all.
To achieve this goal, IFAD and many other UN agencies, governments and non-governmental partners are building upon a simple idea: that mutual respect and collaboration between women and men in rural households leads to better agricultural output and more equitable food distribution. A number of IFAD-financed projects are promoting the adoption of household methodologies based on this concept. The projects encourage all the members of smallholder farming families to agree on common livelihood strategies benefiting them all. IFAD’s experience with such methodologies in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria has shown that they are powerful tools for improving productivity, strengthening food security and reducing violence.
In addition, IFAD supports projects designed to make women more aware of their land rights and help them avoid violence and intimidation. Against a backdrop of vulnerability in rural areas of Burundi, for example, one such project has sponsored legal clinics with the country’s Ministry of Justice. The clinics provide women with information about their rights and encourage them to fight discrimination in land cases involving family relations and inheritance.
Meanwhile, IFAD and the other Rome-based agencies have also joined forces with UN Women in a joint programme to accelerate the economic empowerment of rural women. Empowerment, in turn, can make women less vulnerable to violence. Launched in late 2012, the five-year programme will be implemented initially in seven countries to increase women’s incomes, strengthen their leadership position in rural institutions, and foster a more responsive policy environment for them at the national and international levels.
As UN Women Executive Director Michele Bachelet noted at the launch of the joint initiative last September, rural women provide sustenance not only in the household but far beyond. “When women are empowered and can claim their rights and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices,” she said, “economies grow, food security is enhanced and prospects are improved for current and future generations.” Without question, those improved prospects must include an end to violence against current and future generations of women.