by Pat Landowska

Did you know that October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women? It was established by the United Nations in 2007 and observed for the first time in 2008, in New York. The purpose of dedicating the day to women living in rural areas of the world is to direct attention to both the contribution that women make in these areas, and the many challenges that they face.

According to the 2009 report “Global Employment Trends for Women,” rural women form the backbone of the agricultural labor force across much of the developing world. Globally, more than a third of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture, while in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, more than 60 per cent of all female employment is in this sector.

In developing countries, rural women fulfill many different roles: they are farmers, caretakers of children and the elderly, wage workers and small-scale-entrepreneurs. They often spend long hours fetching water and collecting firewood. But too often they are held back by lack of education, unequal property rights and limited control over resources. Because women carry out a range of vital household and caring tasks, their overall working hours tend to be longer than men’s.

“Rural women have the potential to propel their households and communities forward, to lift them out of poverty,” says Annina Lubbock, Adviser on Gender and Poverty Targeting at International Fund for Agricultural Development. “When investments reach women, transformations begin to occur.” Providing women with better opportunities to grow and sell their own crops, undertake paid work in an agro-industry, or take on other paid activities in the rural sector is critical to increasing their bargaining power within the home. It can also legitimize their control over key material resources, such as land and credit. This is important because it elevates their status within families and communities, but also because women are more likely than men to invest their income on food and other basic needs for the household, states the 2008 report of the World Bank “Equity for women : Where do we stand on Millennium Development Goal 3?”

“To tap women’s potential, we need to first understand their challenges and their needs, and then direct our investments accordingly,” says Lubbock, “because when they overcome traditional barriers, the gains are huge.”