IFAD Asset Request Portlet

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Economic empowerment of rural women - experiences from the field

Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentleman,

It gives me great pleasure to participate in this Round-Table on "Gender equality and Access to the Factors of Production" organized during the FAO General Conference.

I would like to extend my thanks to Mr. Jacques Diouf, the Director General of FAO, for inviting IFAD to present experiences from the field as they relate to gender equality in access to productive resources. 

Let me start by saying that in many people's mind, including policy-makers, the rural space is often still seen as an area of stagnation and backwardness.  While it is true that we find the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of all, the landless and powerless, in the remote rural areas where IFAD works, we also witness the richness of their traditional knowledge, the strengths of their communities, the innovation that comes from their striving for locally made solutions to improve living situations.  Wherever we look, we find women among the most resourceful, the most enthusiastic and most committed to new ways to improve their lives, that of their families and communities.  Rural poor women become powerful agents of change when opportunities arise.

During several decades of fighting poverty in rural areas, IFAD has learned three important lessons.  The first is that women are the backbone of the rural economy. In addition to caring for their families and their domestic chores, rural women are actively involved in producing food crops and look after livestock, especially in small holdings.  Poor women also tend to work on small income-generating activities or micro-enterprises whenever they can find time. A second lesson is that where women are able to earn an income, and control their earnings, their families will benefit. By directing their earnings to family needs, women become the key to ending hunger and poverty.  A third lesson is that while all rural poor suffer numerous constraints, women are particularly hampered in effectively carrying out their work activities. This is where IFAD sees its role in terms of providing support at both policy and programme levels to remove the constraints that affect women's status, their income generating activities and resulting income.  

Based on its Strategic Framework, IFAD considers three dimensions in its work to achieve gender equality: economic empowerment, participation in decision-making and improved well-being.  Economic empowerment means access to productive assets, land, water, markets, finances and technologies.  Education, training and capacity-building are necessary prerequisites.  Economic empowerment cannot stand alone but needs to be placed in the larger frameworks that define the way men and women live together, the vary fabric of our social and cultural environment.

IFAD's experience shows that improving women's economic opportunities and access to productive resources has a major impact on women's overall status – and not just on income, bringing lasting benefits to families and entire communities.  It is not just about addressing women's social needs. It is about enabling women to improve their economic status, about recognizing - in policies, programmes, and in the way that resources are directed - that women are key actors in the transformation of rural economies.  Women's access to resources is one element of women's empowerment and therefore critical for the attainment of Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality and empowerment of women. It is also critical to achieving Goal 1 on eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.  We argue that the MDG goals will not be achieved unless significant progress is made in addressing gender inequalities and empowering women.

I would like to illustrate this basic understanding with IFAD experiences from the field related to three pillars for women's economic empowerment.

First, access to economic resources. Micro-finance figures largely in IFAD's portfolio, with women forming about 80% of the borrowers.  In all regions in which IFAD operates – from Latin America to Asia - micro-finance programmes have increased women's independent income-earning capacity.  In Vietnam,  IFAD supported a Rural Income Diversification Project and established a Women's Livelihood Fund (WLF) in each of the beneficiary communes to assist women in carrying out activities that they have identified themselves. The fund is used for any activities that will benefit groups of village women, give support to destitute households, schools and short-term vocational training.

Second, access to land.  Giving women secure access to land can transform their lives both economically and socially. IFAD finances development projects in some of the poorest rural areas of the world. In these societies in transition, ways have to be found to improve access to land by poorer groups and women within prevailing – although changing - customary legal systems.   Increasing pressures on land threaten the loss of land rights by the rural poor, women and indigenous women in particular. IFAD has learned that defending and expanding women's rights requires comprehensive action at different levels: information and capacity-building; organisation and empowerment measures; legal assistance and advocacy.  Several IFAD funded projects have sought to promote women's access to land.

In Ghana, the Upper-East Region Land Conservation and Smallholder Rehabilitation Project (LACOSREP), promoted women's access to land and water, for both irrigation and domestic use.  This ran counter to traditional patterns of land use and ownership and posed a threat to the traditional power structure and shared culture.  The project staff therefore tried to win over the traditional chiefs, husbands and male leaders to support women's land rights.  The project achieved a notable change.  Through the support of local authorities and male leaders, women were able to increase their access to irrigated land by obtaining usufruct rights.  However, an analysis of water user association (WUA) members' land showed that women's plots were about a quarter of the size of those of the male farmers.

Third, women need access to markets and trade.  In Bangladesh, women used to be harassed by male traders, clients and intermediaries when they were trying to sell their products in the market.  The Government in partnership with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and IFAD recently introduced a policy of setting up women's sections in major markets.  Separate sections were created for women sellers and clean and safe public facilities were established. Interestingly, this has led to changes in local attitudes against women sellers.  

As these examples show, access is not enough for women unless secure and safe from harassment and violence.  Women also need to be aware of their rights and possibilities to fully enjoy the benefits of access, including time.  Several conditions need to be created to this end.

The first and most important is alleviating women's workload.  Women need time saving tools, opportunities and support in their reproductive responsibilities to be able to make full use of their access to economic resources. The strategy in IFAD supported projects emphasizes the importance of finding ways to reduce the time spent by women on the drudgery of household tasks like fetching water and firewood or preparing meals so that they will have more time for education, economic activities, responsibilities in the community, including at decision-making level and leisure.   Mobile day care centres have been introduced in IFAD supported projects to enable women to attend literacy classes and enhanced their participation in community activities.

Working in and with groups is an effective means to reach out to women.  Natural resource management groups and self-help groups are used both to generate meaningful participation by women, promote and reinforce solidarity and to provide them with a chance to rise out of their traditionally subordinate role.  In Nepal, degraded forestlands were leased to groups of women, willing to undertake their rehabilitation in exchange for secure access to the products thereof.  Under a 40-year lease agreement, the leasehold groups have exclusive user rights over the products of the rehabilitated forest in the framework of an agreed management plan. Striking results were achieved by the women leaseholders: an impressive rehabilitation of the forest; increase in bio-diversity; increase in availability of fodder, also increase in school attendance of children due to higher family incomes.

Cultural factors such as prejudice based on stereotypes and male resistance are obstacles to women's economic empowerment.  The IFAD supported projects are involving both men and women to achieve change from within.   In Mauritania, for example, extension worker couples from Morocco were sent across the border to provide training to men and women in the Oasis Development Project.  The sending of extension worker couples enabled a culturally sensitive exchange of knowledge between women and men farmers coming from similar ecological and socio-economical environments.  It also became a good example of South-South exchange.

In many IFAD supported projects, efforts are made to promote more women into decision-making positions.  In Guatemala,  Municipal Women's Offices were established and these gender-specific "spaces" increased women's participation both at municipal and departmental levels.  In El Salvador, IFAD is supporting a gender unit within the Strategic and Policy Division of the Ministry of Agriculture to provide support to IFAD operations and a venue for policy dialogue.

In my brief presentation, I have tried to show that access to resources and factors of production is one element in the process of empowerment of women and can be of different kind - physical resources, space and legal instrument, education and training, income and health services.  Using the full potential of these resources is only possible if women's work load is reduced and men are supportive. Empowerment of women has to do with awareness and consciousness, with having a voice in the public and the political arena, individually or collectively.  It also includes the existence of alternatives and choices. 

For IFAD, the support of projects in the field with and for the rural poor is the backbone of our work and the platform for learning and advocacy.  We try to feed our experiences from the field into policy dialogue and advocacy and in building up our partnerships. 

When building broader external partnerships and coalitions, IFAD is working with partners to address issues that perpetuate women's poverty and unequal status.  FAO is an essential partner for IFAD in working for the advancement of rural women.  Given IFAD's and FAO's specific mandate on rural development and food security, we are joining hands to mainstream a gender perspective into efforts to preserve biodiversity, sustainable development and in other areas related to rural development and food security. 

At the UN level, joint FAO-IFAD efforts at the interagency level have produced tangible results concerning rural women in preparation for and follow-up to the Fourth World Conference on Women.  Our cooperation is strong on women's access to land and property, where we work closely with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  We are planning further activities in this respect to deepen our knowledge and our action on how to ensure women's rights and equal access to land.   We are also coordinating efforts on food security, HIV/AIDS and the situation of women in drylands, a topic which deserves special attention during the International Year of Deserts and Desertification in 2006.

The Millennium Development Goals are our road map for the future.  If we want to achieve the MDG goals, we need to give greater attention and invest more resources into improving the status of women and rural women in particular. 

It is my hope that in preparing for the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development which will take place next March in Porto Alegre, we will be able to build on the premise of gender equality and empowerment of women, which is a prerequisite for equitable development in the rural areas and among the rural poor.

Thank you for your attention.