Pain Swallowed by Silence

The Plight of 400 Million Rural Women in Developing Countries.

The following report on rural women in developing countries is drawn from documents and background studies prepared for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, Rome, Italy, 1979. It served as background paper to the policy discussions of WCARRD on integrating rural women more equitably into social and economic development and thus reduce famines.

Every country in the world has laws to protect women and guarantee them certain rights. In recent years there have been gains (along with some setbacks) in school enrollment, in the number of women in the professions, in the right to family planning, and in freedom of lifestyles for the urban elites. However, such progress is rarely related to the majority of women in the developing countries who live in the rural areas.

The lives of most rural women are governed by two basic conditions: poverty and the triple workload of family, house, and field. An improvement in their lives would require, above all, a reduction in work, particularly in the mindless and back-breaking tasks assigned to them in most rural societies. Yet, because of desperate poverty, women too often are forced to seek more work, not less. Nearly all studies show that the most basic of women's problems cannot be solved except through escape from poverty. Although specific problems of rural women need much more attention, all issues of agrarian reform and rural development are women's issues.

When the governing body of FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the Uited Nations, decided to convene WCARRD, the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, a special resolution was adopted calling on the Conference especially to undertake "a systematic analysis of the situation of rural women" and to identify "measures for achieving the full incorporation of women in social and economic development processes..." Such an analysis was undertaken, and it shows how far there is to go before the goal of "full incorporation" is achieved.

According to statistics gathered from various UN sources, women constitute from 60 to 80 percent of the agricultural labor force in African and Asian countries and more than 40 percent in Latin America. As paid and unpaid laborers, they are responsible for almost all the hoeing,weeding and transplanting of crops and share with men in the harvest work. They do most of the food processing at the subsistence farm level, nearly all spinning and weaving and handicraft production for use and sale, and most care of small animals. They do most milking of animals,carry food to men in distant fields, and gather the fuel wood and water for the home. Far more than is generally known, especially in Africa, they run farms without the help of men at all.

Yet, the WCARRD studies show that rural women also face problems beyond poverty and workload which perpetuate their social and economic marginalization in all developing regions. Among them

- Legal discrimination, particularly in relation to (male) rights as head of household, ownership of property and inheritance;

- Other obstacles to equality rooted in tradition, cultural attitudes and customs (often shared by women), even when contrary to law;

- Discrimination in access to productive resources (within the family as well as in the society at large), membership in group organizations such as cooperatives, and government programs of land distribution, credit and skills training;

- Low and/or unequal pay scales for work predominantly performed by women, and lack of union organization to secure job protection or bargaining rights;

- Lack of consideration of the effects on women in the introduction of technology and lack of interest in the development of technology pertinent to work women perform; and

- Difficulties of rural women of all ages to gain equal access to education and consequent illiteracy rates of up to 90 percent.

Because of these and other factors, even within the context of rural poverty overall, women continue to be deprived of true equality. Because of poverty, however, some forms of discrimination weigh far more heavily on rural women than others.

Impact of technology

There is increasing evidence that modernization and commercialization of agriculture and related activities undermine women's earning power and status in rural society, and at the same time create new inequalities between sexes. In a fight they can't hope to win, women seem to be pitted against technological progress

- In most traditional agrarian societies, ploughing is done by men while seeding, hoeing, weeding, transplanting and much of the harvesting is left to women. When ploughing is mechanized and acreage extended, women must work harder and longer to keep up with the new ploughing capacity.

- Most pesticides are mixed with water before use. While crop spraying is men's work (like almost all use of new equipment), water supply is women's, often meaning extra trips to a distant water source in addition to those for house use.

In these cases, new technology is labor-saving for men, but labor producing for women. But the dichotomy between the burden of work and the desperate need for wages continues to be felt. Double cropping in irrigated areas can increase employment for weeding and transplanting, but both jobs are underpaid stoop labor. Technology can also eliminate work.

- The introduction of mechanical rice hullers, although a boon to women through elimination of drudgery, deprives them of a major source of wages.

- Yarn spinning and cloth making are traditionally done by Asia's village women in the home, but spinning mechanization and modern textile industries have wiped out many thousands of jobs.

- Weeding, which traditionally brings women up to four hours of work a day through long periods of the growing season, can be greatly reduced by the use of herbicides. (In fact, herbicide use is small in most developing countries because pay for weeding is so low as to make chemical use uneconomic.)

Introduction of cash crops

The work burden-wage need trade-off is thus deeply embedded in conditions of life under poverty and underdevelopment, but is not much argued by the poorest women. When technology reduces unpaid work, it is a boon. When it reduces wage employment, it is resented. But the decisions on whether, or how quickly, to introduce the technology are almost never in women's hands.

In the transition from subsistence to commercial farming, women tend to be hurt in several ways. To begin with, a basic assumption is made in nearly all countries that cash crop farming is a male preserve. Again the colonial mentality is at workmen are "supposed" to take care of business, women to stitch and stir. This assumption, which is also reflected in official rural development programs of all kinds, magnifies sex inequalities while reducing women's actual and potential productivity.

On family farms combining cash and subsistence food crops, women are increasingly called on to spend more and more time in the men's cash crop fields. Particularly in Africa, this means less time available for food production, a reduction in women's income from marketing food surpluses and handicrafts, and greater dependence on men because of less control over family income. This last point is of great importance, not least because it upsets the natural balance of the home and family.

Without question, there is also a negative effect on food supply for the society as a whole. Export-dominated commercial farming (cotton or tobacco, for example) is steadily taking overland formerly used for food production - often the most fertile land - and replacing male for female control in the process. Export opportunities have also led in many countries to a switch in land use from crops to pasture for cattle raising, which is again usually men's work.

In commercial farming and related activities where men and women are engaged as hired labor,sex-role bias is increasing and higher paid jobs go to male workers. Wage scales for jobs done by women are not commensurate with value added in the production process, and women workers are rarely organized in unions to defend their rights.

Beyond field work, modernization of secondary activities such as processing and marketing usually introduces male control even where the systems displaced were traditionally governed by women. For example, women do the milking and making of curds and cheese. Traditionally the marketing of surpluses provided money outside male control. But dairy cooperatives, beneficial in other ways, usually mean the introduction of male control and loss of the women's private income.

Male migration

Unpaid family labor by women is also dramatically increased by male migration in search of wage labor, even if the men return home in key times of the agricultural cycle. Women find themselves de facto (but not de jure) heads of the households with greatly increased work and responsibilities. The women farmers are then hampered by lack of legal decision making power over land held in their husbands' names. Decisions on what to plant or whether to hire labor often have to wait for a husband's permission by mail.

Studies in many countries show that remittances from male migrants can be a substantial support of rural households, but often are not owing to the difficulty of migrants in finding steady work and the cost of maintaining separate households. Studies also tend to provide a more macroeconomic aspect of migration. Movement to the cities facilitates urban economic activity through the creation of a low-wage labor pool. At the same time, it is believed that a lower rate of migration would reduce agricultural productivity. Thus, it can be argued that the unpaid subsistence farming and other work by women is subsidizing the growth of both urban and rural economies at no benefit to themselves.

Access to resources

Equity for women in rural societies would require equal access to resources and control over their use, starting with land. But the workings of customary and sometimes legal marital and inheritance systems and other property rights almost always favor men. In reform areas,discrimination in rights to land is sometimes but not always ended, depending on national laws governing women's rights.

In some cases, particularly where new land settlements are involved, land distributions has actually worsened the relative condition of women because (male) planners have not taken into account women's separate needs. Where reforms eliminate private plots, for example, the burden on women is particularly onerous unless all other social and economic conditions are changed. In some cases, dissatisfaction of women is cited as a major reason for colonization failure.

Institutional credit schemes, usually tied to the land as security, are often closed to women farmers, although studies of a few special women's credit programs show very favorable repayment rates. Official programs to upgrade women's agricultural or agriculture related skills are very rare in all developing regions. Such programs as exist are usually oriented to nutrition and home economics rather than farming techniques or other forms of income generation.

What can a world conference achieve?

Most governments, as well as the United Nations system, have recognized in principle that equal participation and full integration of women at all levels of national economic and social life is necessary for the achievement of sustained development. Recent UN conferences have given full support to these goals through a number of special resolutions. Yet, the actual extent of follow through of such good intentions remains very limited in terms of women, especially in the rural areas.

In a first draft program of action now being considered by governments in preparation for WCARRD, 13 recommendations are made dealing with specific women's concerns. The draft calls on the governments to consider action to

  1. Ensure equality of legal status
    1. Repeal those laws which discriminate against women in respect of right of inheritance,ownership and control of property.
    2. Adopt measures to ensure women equitable access to land, livestock, and other productive assets.
    3. Repeal laws and regulations which inhibit effective participation of women in economic transactions and in the planning, implementation and evaluation of rural development programs.
    4. Ensure full membership and equal voting rights for women in people's organizations, such as tenants' associations, labor unions, cooperatives, credit unions, organizations of the beneficiaries of land reform and other rural development programs.

  2. Expanding Women's Access to Rural Services
    1. Provide agricultural inputs and services to women through non-discriminatory access to existing delivery systems.
    2. Establish special recruitment and training schemes to increase the number of women in the training and extension programs of development agencies.
    3. Broaden the range of agricultural training and extension programs to support women's role in activities of agricultural production, processing, preservation and marketing.

  3. Women's Participation
    1. Promote collective action and organization by rural women to facilitate their participation in the full range of public services and to enhance their capacity to participate in economic, social and political development.
    2. Establish systems to identify and evaluate obstacles to women's participation and to monitor progress, especially in such areas as agricultural services, school enrollment, social services,employment and wages.
    3. Establish and strengthen programs to facilitate and ease the burden of women's household work in order to forward their greater participation in economic, educational and political activities.

  4. Improve Educational and Employment Opportunities
    1. Provide special incentives, such as reduced fees, for increased enrollment of girls and women in schools and training programs.
    2. Guarantee equal wage rates for men and women doing similar work.
    3. Establish and strengthen formal and non-formal education opportunities for rural women, including training in agricultural activities and support for better health care and family planning.


PAIN SWALLOWED BY SILENCE was written by Nicholas and Elfie Raymond and published in "Land, Food and People," the fifth issue of the newsletter of the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development. The thirteen points of WCARRD'S Program of Action quoted above were adopted in May 1979 by the 168 governments represented at the conference and signed into law.

See also The UN World Hunger Site.