Perspective

The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges

In Brief: 
  • Women’s empowerment begins with the understanding that the equality of women and men is more than a desired condition to be achieved for the common good; it is a dimension of human reality.
  • Current world economic and political structures tend to divide the world into producers and users of knowledge.
  • Yet, as the right of every human being, access to knowledge promotes meaningful and informed participation in decision-making.
  • It is imperative that educational processes assist rural women and girls to see themselves as active agents of their own learning.

The critical role of women in advancing agricultural and rural development, and in ensuring food security, has been widely acknowledged. Member States have committed to providing rural women with equal access to productive resources and to markets — recognizing their agency in rural and agricultural development. Despite progress made, rural women continue to have low levels of income, sparse access to education and health services, limited job security as well as limited land and inheritance rights. Again and again, their needs as well as their contributions are relegated to the margins of policy development and budgetary considerations. In addition to the entrenched patterns of discrimination, unsustainable development practices, climate change, and violence against women intensify the burden placed on women and their families.

When viewed in the broader context, the situation of rural women is but one of the symptoms of a social order characterized by inequity, violence and insecurity. As such, the vision of women’s empowerment must go beyond making room for women to participate in society within the present social order, as this will not suffice to end the marginalization of rural populations and the entrenched patterns of discrimination against women. The empowerment of women requires profound changes in the minds and hearts of people and in the very structures of society. It begins with the understanding that the equality of women and men is more than a desired condition to be achieved for the common good; it is a dimension of human reality. In those aspects that make human beings human, women and men are fundamentally equal. The goal at hand, then, is not only the empowerment of women for the advancement of agriculture and rural life; it is the full engagement of women with men in the construction of a new social order. Though marginalized by present-day economic and development frameworks, women are neither victims nor simply under-resourced members of society. In fact, they represent the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to eradicate poverty and advance collective prosperity.

How, then, can we conceive of empowerment in a way that will begin to transform the current economic order and the condition of its rural women? We offer three considerations, which address access to knowledge, the nature of full participation, and the importance of exploring diverse economic arrangements.

First, access to knowledge is the right of every human being. Yet the patterns of knowledge generation and diffusion in the current world order tend to divide the world into producers and users of knowledge. This has deep implications for the quality and legitimacy of education, technology, decision-making, and governance. For example, despite the fact that most agricultural work in developing countries is carried out by low-income women, the primary shapers and users of agricultural technologies have been men. A key challenge is how to strengthen women’s capacities to identify technological needs, and to create and adapt technologies in light of social needs and resource constraints. Reforming the present flow of knowledge — from “North” to “South”; from urban to rural; from men to women — will free development from narrowly conceived conceptions of “modernization.”

Patterns of knowledge generation and diffusion in the current world order divide the world into producers and users of knowledge. This has deep implications for the quality and legitimacy of education, technology, decision-making, and governance.

Second, access to knowledge promotes meaningful and informed participation in decision-making at the family, community and higher levels of social administration. Thus, while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. It is imperative, then, that the educational process associated with such capacity-building assist rural women and girls to see themselves as active agents of their own learning, as the driving force of an ongoing effort to apply knowledge to improve their own material and spiritual condition and to contribute to the betterment of their communities.

Third, the increased flows of goods, services, capital and labor within existing structures and processes benefit only a very few at the expense of many. This has given rise to the impoverishment of rural communities, the exploitation of vulnerable populations — women and children in particular — and the devastation of the environment. Such economic pressures have also led to the disappearance of diversified, ecologically sustainable small-scale agriculture, mostly found in rural areas, greatly impacting women who carry out the bulk of the work. Local economies that have historically valued collective well-being over competition and individuals have grown increasingly insecure. To note these realities is not to present a naïve idea of local economies but rather to stress that diverse economic arrangements need to be given space to develop.

This statement has tried to highlight three challenges that need to be addressed in the effort to empower rural women. While many more challenges remain, the Bahá’í International Community hopes that exploration of these issues can further the discourse on the role of rural women in advancing their own development and that of their communities. Moreover, it is hoped that such exploration will help to link these issues to the broader aim of promoting rural women’s full engagement — shoulder to shoulder with men — in the construction of a more just social order.

[Editor’s note: The following Perspective is adapted from the statement of the Bahá’í International Community to the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which was held 27 February-9 March 2012.]

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