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The faces of empowerment

©WFP/Santosh Shani


Rural women are key agents in the effort to achieve the economic, environmental and social transformations required for sustainable development. Ensuring their empowerment is crucial not only to their own well-being, but that of their families and communities. Yet they face many challenges along the way – among them, limited access to credit, job opportunities and education. These challenges have only been exacerbated by recent economic and food crises as well as climate change. The joint programme “Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women” (JP RWEE) seeks to counteract that. A collaborative effort between all three Rome-based UN agencies (IFAD, FAO and WFP) and UN Women, the JP RWEE is committed to securing rural women’s livelihoods and rights in the context of sustainable development. Since 2014, it has partnered with local organizations in seven countries to deliver comprehensive, tailored interventions directly to the women who need them most. The programme has reached over 49,000 women to date. Here, we share just a few of their stories.

Social inclusion

Ramkali is a member of the Madheshi, a historically marginalized people of Indian descent living in Nepal. Thanks to the JP RWEE’s inclusion efforts, she can now interact freely with other women in her community and earn a livelihood.

In three of the seven implementing countries, the JP RWEE has specifically targeted rural women belonging to marginalized groups. As direct beneficiaries of a holistic set of interventions, these women have for the first time gained a voice – and a prominent role in overcoming disparities in the economic, social, cultural and political conditions they have faced for centuries.

Climate-smart agriculture

©UN Women/Fikerte Abebe

Like many women in rural Ethiopia, Tulule often struggled to cope with the harsh climate’s effects on her wheat fields. Now, with higher-quality seeds and improved harvesting methods shared by a JP RWEE-funded program, she has quadrupled her yield – and her crops are more climate-resilient.

Rural communities have already begun to deal with the effects of climate change, as unprecedented changes in weather conditions and depletion of natural resources threaten their food systems – and their entire livelihoods. In this context, climate-smart agriculture techniques have emerged as the approach of choice to mitigate the associated risks. The JP RWEE has supported activities that enhance rural women’s agricultural productivity while maintaining a sustainable climate-smart approach.

ICTs and innovation

©UN Women/Geno Tumaine

A Kyrgyzstani woman peers through her tool set while at work in her mobile phone repair shop. Before the advent of JP RWEE-funded training programs, job opportunities in information and communications technologies (ICTs) were almost entirely inaccessible to these women.

Facilitating rural women’s access to ICTs represents a huge opportunity to enhance their access to many different resources, services and networks. Recognizing this, the JP RWEE has used ICTs in a multitude of innovative ways, from developing digital platforms that connect farmers to local and regional supply chains, to providing accurate and effective weather information, to connecting rural women with mobile financial services.

Gender roles

©FAO/Julio Cesar Juárez Lopez

Despite cultural differences, rigid gender roles remain a universal social burden for rural women. Heavy demands are still placed on them to maintain certain social norms regarding their behaviour, responsibilities and decision-making power, and they often lack support from their families and societies.

To address these challenges, the JP RWEE has adopted the Gender Action Learning System (GALS), a community-led dialogue used to promote more equitable gender relations. Acknowledging that the kinds of structural barriers involved cannot be addressed without the engagement of the society as a whole, the GALS methodology actively includes men and boys in the discussion.

After participating in several GALS sessions, Zoila (pictured here) and her husband gained a new appreciation for her role as a leader in their rural Guatemalan community.

Women’s rights

©UN Women/Ranichur

Growing up in a society that prioritized marrying into a good family, Mina never got the opportunity to finish school – and her self-confidence suffered as a result. But after joining her local JP RWEE program, she became comfortable with speaking in front of community leaders and standing up for herself and other women.

Women’s rights issues remain a critical global challenge, and advocating for women’s rights is at the core of the JP RWEE’s activities. Across the seven implementing countries, efforts are underway to advocate for women’s rights, ranging from ending child marriage and fighting gender-based violence to securing equal access to education and sexual and reproductive health services. Thanks to these activities, participating rural women have gained significant knowledge and awareness of their rights and feel empowered to speak out against harmful practices and abuses that they face.

Land access

©WFP/Rein Skyulerud

Cecile’s tomato business has taken off. With just a few hectares of land secured through the JP RWEE, she and her farmers’ group were able to expand their activities – and their income.

Restricted access to land tenure is a major obstacle to rural women’s economic opportunities. Lack of land ownership not only affects their own ability to earn income and secure credit for their businesses; when women can’t fully participate in an agrarian society, the overall profitability of agriculture as a commercial activity suffers. Since its inception, the JP RWEE has promoted and supported rural women’s access to land at various levels, from advocating with local and national governments to providing loans for land acquisition.

Sustainable incomes and livelihoods

©UN Women/Winston Daryoue

Tina was able to make use of the skills she learned in the JP RWEE’s literacy and business classes right away. Her charcoal business has grown, and so has her income – improving her and her family’s quality of life.

Central to the JP RWEE methodology is the creation, support and development of rural-women-led enterprises that foster income opportunities. Across the seven participating countries, multiple projects with the aim of creating or strengthening savings and loan groups have been implemented. The amounts generated from these savings are then reinvested in education and health programmes or used to initiate and strengthen income-generating activities.

Women’s leadership

©UN Women/Narenda Shrestha

Around the world, rural women face many structural barriers to assuming leadership roles. From restricted access to schooling, to ubiquitous implicit messages that they are less competent and capable than men, women are often held back from acquiring both the education and the “soft skills” necessary to succeed in business and government.

In several participating countries, the JP RWEE has actively promoted and facilitated community dialogues that allow rural women to raise their voices and have a say on relevant issues. These dialogues help many women, such as this beneficiary from Nepal, understand their self-worth and finally put themselves in the driver’s seat.

Value chains

©UN Women/Ma Korpo Howard

Women continue to face barriers to full participation at all stages of the value chain, from acquiring capital and raw materials to earning equitable remuneration. Addressing these barriers can transform women’s roles in various sectors, catalyse their empowerment and foster local economic growth.

Across the seven participating countries, the JP RWEE has enhanced rural women’s value chain participation through the provision of productive capital and seed funding, coupled with the development of corresponding skills. As a consequence, rural women have been able to develop both traditional and non-traditional value-added products in economically, socially and environmentally sustainable ways, generating broad-based benefits for the community.

These Liberian women, for example, have revolutionized their cassava harvest. In addition to selling the raw crop, they now make cassava chips from some of the flour, diversifying their product lines and increasing their income.

Improved nutrition

Broad global consensus recognizes rural women’s empowerment as an important pathway to improving household nutritional status. Women are true mediators between food production and food consumption, playing a key role in production and consumption choices, intra-household resource allocation, maternal health and infant feeding practices. The JP RWEE is committed to improving the nutritional status of targeted women and their households through the promotion of diverse, healthy diets.