Today marks the United Nations International Day of Rural Women, which recognizes the critical role that rural women play around the world and highlights the continuing challenges they face.
These women contribute to food security and development of rural areas, yet with little or no status, they frequently lack the power to secure land rights or to access vital services such as credit, fertilizer or new fishing nets, and training, and their vital contribution to society goes largely unnoticed. However, given their role in managing local natural resources, better integrating women into existing conservation and development projects could dramatically improve the projects’ success.
Here are just a few reasons why rural women are fundamental to food security, economic development and environmental stewardship:
- Through their varied and multiple roles, women play a critical role in the rural economies of both developed and developing countries. Ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities can enhance economic productivity, make institutions and policies more inclusive of the people they represent, and improve well-being of the next generation. For example, research shows that putting more income in the hands of women improves child nutrition, health and education.
- According to the FAO, women produce more than half of the world’s food, mostly on small plots of land with few technological resources like fertilizer, as well as in fisheries and animal husbandry. Research has shown that when women obtain the same levels of education, experience and farm inputs that currently benefit the average male farmer, they increase their yields by 22%. (For more information, check out this infographic in The Guardian.) Their important contribution to food security isn’t relegated to developing countries; here in the U.S., for example, the USDA reports that female farmers are the most rapidly growing segment of the nation’s changing agricultural landscape.
- As the primary caregivers to children, women are in a unique position to provide guidance to the next generation about environmental stewardship and development priorities. For example, when I lived in rural Madagascar, I worked with female octopus fishers who often brought their children along when fishing. Watching their mothers follow sustainable management practices and discuss the community’s decision to regulate fishing instilled in these young people a greater understanding of and interest in sustainable resource management.
- Rural women spend, on average, up to five hours a day collecting fuelwood and water for household use. This division of labor and direct connection to natural resource harvesting suggests a great opportunity to target fuel and water management initiatives to those who are most intimately tied to those resources. For example, the Global Women’s Water Initiative trains rural women to build and maintain water technologies like wells and water catchment systems, significantly reducing the burden of harvesting, improving health and providing income.
Recognizing these and other critical roles that rural women play in environmental conservation, CI is making a concerted effort to address the challenges and opportunities that arise in community conservation. From Madagascar to the Philippines, we are working closely with rural communities to protect and conserve natural resources through collaborative management and sustainable livelihood options.
This is an exciting time to be working on gender integration at CI. By designing our projects to take into account both men’s and women’s environmental roles, needs and priorities, we can improve conservation results and make sure that rural women are getting the support and recognition they deserve.
Kame Westerman is the advisor on gender and conservation in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace.