Poverty hits hardest at the female half of humankind. If you are a woman living in a rural area of a developing country, you are likely to be poorer than a man, more vulnerable, own no land, be less educated and in poorer health. And you are unlikely to live as long.
Struggling to combine a double day of low-paid work with care for the home, rural women often have to cope with frequent pregnancies and child mortality. For women, perhaps the cruelest reality of all is that they have less chance than men to escape from poverty. A rural woman is likely to have little or no say in the way the family spends its income.
Discrimination in education is the start of the vicious spiral of poverty. A girl may be deprived of schooling and literacy for no other reason than that she is female. Seventy per cent of poor women in India cannot read or write. Illiteracy often excludes people from written knowledge and decision-making.
''The type of work they do is limited by their low education levels'', states the Rural Poverty Report 2001 on the subject of rural women. Cultural norms mean that in many countries women are excluded from participating in decisions affecting both their households and communities.
In countries where they have similar educational opportunities, Burkina Faso for example, women farm land more productively than men. But access to credit is seldom feasible, let alone affordable, for women farmers. And they may even have to pay men for access to water for irrigation.
Some rural women have been affected by trade liberalization They are unable to participate in the marketing of export crops as they lack land rights and access to essential farm inputs. On the other hand, some women have gained by securing jobs in new export activities.
Investment in rural women pays off. Female schooling can lead to a reduction in poverty by giving women the literacy skills and confidence they need to have a say about how things are run. A mother's education often leads to better health and nutrition for her children.
More investment in improving the lot of rural women could create a virtuous circle of better education, improved health and higher income. And women need to be given the right to have more control over productive assets land, water and credit, for example. Removing gender inequalities is not only morally right, it is good for economic growth and development.
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by the Communications and Public Affairs Unit