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Economic and Rights: Interconnections in the context of HIV/AIDS and feminised poverty

ECOSOC Preparatory Meeting: The Role of Rural Development in the Achievement and Implementation of Internationally Agreed Development Goals including those Contained in the UN Millennium Declaration

Feminisation of rural poverty in developing countries is widely recognised. Greatly inferior is the practical recognition of the need to feminise the strategies for poverty reduction.

Unless the gender dimensions of poverty are understood and addressed, rural development efforts will only marginally benefit women. Efforts to reduce poverty and achieve the Millennium Goals will, quite simply, fail. They will also fail if rural women are not enabled to exercise their potential as agents of change in driving the fight against poverty and hunger.

Despite some progress, much more needs to be done to ensure that women's empowerment and gender equality become central to every poverty reduction strategy and programme. It is not only a matter of human rights. It is mainly because one of the root causes of rural poverty lies precisely in the glaring – and often growing - imbalance between what women do and what they have. Despite rural women's essential economic, productive and care-giving roles, their access to services, assets and decision-making continues to be disproportionately low. This undermines women's ability to exercise those essential roles most effectively, to the benefit not only of themselves but also of their families and communities – as well as of the future generations. The HIV/AIDS crisis which is aggravating poverty and reversing economic and social gains made by women is fuelled by inequitable and culturally misconceived gender relations.

Therefore, empowering women and reducing gender inequalities represents both an essential condition, and a tremendous opportunity, for achieving the Millennium Goals. The question is whether we are on the right track to capture this opportunity. There are already signs that – without change - targets such as increased girls' education may be missed by a long way. Privatisation of water can undermine prospects of achieving the MDG target related to potable water, with particularly grave consequences for rural women. Increased conflict and insecurity, as well as rising fundamentalisms of different kinds have already - and may in the near future - lead to erosion of women's freedoms and acquired rights. Governments and the international community are called upon to monitor closely the evolving situation of women's rights across the developing world. Fulfilment of women's rights is an inseparable element of poverty reduction.

Addressing the gender dimensions of rural poverty reduction, is not so much an issue of increased resources. It is more a matter of how their use is planned and implemented. It is a matter of how rural women, and the movements representing them, can influence the allocation of those resources. It is also a matter of integrating action and investments to address three strongly correlated dimensions of women's empowerment:

  • The economic dimension - women's economic empowerment through increased access to income- earning opportunities and productive assets such as capital, land and water
  • The political dimension, increasing women's say in community affairs and at a higher political levels
  • The basic needs dimension, increasing access by rural people in general, and rural women in particular, to basic services and infrastructure – principally health, education (formal and informal) and water

An enabling macro-level policy and economic framework, as well as peace and stability, are the essential pre-conditions for success in advancing the status of poor rural women in these three areas.

The economic dimension

Advancing women's economic status through improved access to productive resources (such as capital & land) has long been IFAD's main entry-point to achieve impact on the overall status of women. We have seen that economic empowerment brings benefits that extend well beyond immediate results in terms of increased income or production. For example, micro-finance programmes (amounting to 30% of IFAD's total lending portfolio, with 70% women clients) have not only increased women's independent income-earning capacity: the formation of savings and credit groups have also given women confidence, provided a forum for discussion and mobilisation over common problems, given opportunities for learning. This greater self-confidence has often translated into women's more active participation in community life, which in turn determines spillover effects benefiting entire communities. It has even brought about more equitable gender relations in the private sphere. Similarly, even if the quantity and quality of land that women manage to acquire is low – as it often is – nevertheless, acquiring independent property rights over even a small piece of land can – in the words of women themselves - earn them "enormous respect" at community level.

Limitations to women's access to productive resources is not only a matter of legislation and constitutional rights. In some societies women forego legally defined rights to land in the name of culture and tradition. Thus, women's access to productive assets hinges also on changes in social perceptions of gender roles, on social recognition that women's ownership and control of productive assets is a right, but also an economic necessity in order to secure the livelihoods of poor rural households.

By itself, women's access to productive resources is not sufficient. Enabling conditions have to be created to allow women to use those resources productively. This means organisation; training and education; market information and access; and production support services such as extension.

The political dimension

The Millennium Goals identify women's political representation as one of the four indicators of gender equality and women's empowerment. Although the indicator refers to national parliaments, clearly the target will be reached only through women's greater participation in community affairs and local government. Legal impediments to women's participation are relatively scarce. Low participation is the result of women's lack of time, but principally of stereotypes – held by both men and women – assigning women's agency role more to the private sphere and men's to the public. Positive action measures, such as quotas, can help to expand women's political presence. We have seen that development projects can do much, through economic empowerment and organisation, to give women the required confidence to play a more active role in public and private decision-making. Increasing participation requires organisation at the grassroots, and transformation of grassroots organisations into sustainable local institutions representing the interests of rural women. Decentralisation of government presents opportunities for women's increased political presence that need to be fully utilised.

The basic needs dimension

Lack of, or limited access to essential services and infrastructure (health, water, education) is a major development constraint for poor rural people. But it places a special burden on women and girls due to their care-giving and other domestic responsibilities. It is a major limitation to women's advancement since it prevents them from participating in the mainstream of economic development and community life. This is also a central concern of the Millennium Development Goals, as reflected by the fact that 22 out of 49 indicators refer specifically to health, water and education.

Indeed, not only the MDG, but also all recent international conferences have recognised that meeting basic social needs is a condition for sustainable development. Nevertheless, there is growing concern that the stream of donor and national investments in social services may fall short of achieving the MDG targets. These shortfalls will dramatically affect prospects for the leap ahead in women's status that is necessary to catalyse the achievement of almost all the Goals, and to make substantial inroads in reducing poverty and food insecurity in rural areas in sustainable manner.


Statement by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for ECOSOC Ministerial Roundtable discussion on "Economic and Rights: Interconnections in the context of HIV/AIDS and feminised poverty"

30 April 2003