Expert Group Meeting on

The Situation of Rural Women Within the Context of Globalization

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

4 - 8 June 2001


Statement by

Ms. Yakin Ertürk


Division for the Advancement of Women

Department of Economic and Social Affairs

United Nations

Distinguished experts, ladies and gentlemen,

It is truly a pleasure and privilege for me to be here in Mongolia. I am delighted to welcome you to this Expert Group Meeting on "The situation of rural women within the context of globalization". I wish to express my deep appreciation to the Government of Mongolia for hosting this meeting in Ulaanbator. We are particularly grateful of Ambassador Enkhsaikhan, the Permanent Representative of Mongolia to the United Nations and his staff for their active support and assistance in the preparations and of the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who have very generously facilitated our work here. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution made to this meeting by UNIFEM.

The issue of rural women has been addressed at various United Nations conferences and summits. Previous reports of the Secretary-General on the "Improvement of the situation of women in rural areas" addressed the issue of rural women and proposed relevant agendas and recommendations to the General Assembly. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) underlined the special situation of rural women obliging the State parties to take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and their significant economic contributions, including to the survival of their families, food security, subsistence as well as market oriented production. The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women (July 1985), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (September 1995), and the Outcome Document of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly (June 2000), also stressed the importance of the situation of rural women and emphasized the need for their equal access to productive resources, such as land, water, capital, credit, information, technology and employment as well as decision-making, education and health services.

Mongolia has played a major role in sponsoring the General Assembly resolution on the "Improvement of the situation of women in rural areas" (A/RES/54/135). In this resolution the Secretary-General was requested to prepare a comprehensive report on the situation of rural women and the challenges faced by them. This Expert Group Meeting organized by the Division for the Advancement of Women in collaboration with the Government of Mongolia and UNIFEM aims to respond to that mandate.

The situation of rural women calls for special attention. Rural women make up the vast majority of women in the developing world and their economic contributions are vital for their family, community and the economy at large. While, the female agricultural labour force in most developed countries is only about 3 %, in the developing world more than half of all women live in rural areas and vast majority of these are engaged in some form of agricultural activity. For instance, just to give an example, in India 86 % of rural women workers, as opposed to 74% of male workers, are in agriculture (1999 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, UNDAW). Even in countries where there is a trend towards a decrease in the overall size of the agricultural labour force, the share of women in agriculture labour force is on the rise. According to FAO projections, in developing countries this will increase from 43.55% in 2000 to 44.16% in 2010. The trend appears to be reverse in developed countries (declining from 36.13 % in 2000 to 33.73 % in 2010).

Majority of women in rural areas of developing countries are unpaid family workers on small land holdings, in animal husbandry and/or in non-farm enterprises. Contrary to popular perceptions, rural women are not just involved in the subsistence and non-monetized sectors of the economy. On the contrary, they contribute to subsistence as well as to market oriented production. In the course of a long work day, most rural women may work on the family plot; attend to livestock; transport and market food; organize informal resource and labour sharing groups; do domestic chores, such as cooking, cleaning, food processing, gathering fuel wood, fetching water, among others; as well as engage in wage labour during the peak agricultural season. Yet, their diverse roles and contributions, often go unrecognized and difficult to measure. However, feminist scholarship over the past three decades has shown how women in general and rural women in particular are actively engaged in national and international economic development.

The Green Revolution experience, which entailed a shift from household subsistence production to cash crop commercial farming, has significantly altered household division of labour along gender lines. Men became associated with the market oriented cash crop production and women with household subsistence production. Agricultural modernization programmes implemented in developing countries were, by and large, designed according to this basic division of labour, creating male dominant processes and institutions that systematically excluded women from access to resources, decision making and the benefits of development. However, in the light of growing research evidence, it is now well recognized that the implantation of cash crops and the creation of wage labour could not have been possible if women did not supplement male labour through their household production as well as by assuming the labour intensive tasks of cash crop farming. Similar patterns could be identified in livestock production in settled and nomadic communities. This realization has contributed to a shift towards a more holistic approach to women and development programmes that aim at supporting women's active role in the economy.

The recent developments in commodity and labour markets associated with the process of globalization have posed new challenges and uncertainties for rural people. In order to cope with market demands and minimize income insecurity, households try to diversify their resource base. Under market conditions land alone no longer provides a secure and sustainable living for rural people, even for those who own relatively large holdings. Predictable sources of cash earnings are needed to maximize household livelihood security. Although, the actual patterns households may adopt in response to this requirement will vary according to regional differences, prevailing types of economic activity as well as cultural factors, the common strategy has been to maximize livelihood security through the restructuring of the main resource available which, for most of the rural poor, is often just the household labour. By differentially allocating tasks according to sex and age, some members of the household remain on land, freeing others to seek work elsewhere. Depending upon the prevailing norms of gender relations household strategies may favour either male or female members to migrate for non-farm employment.

Research shows that in most countries of the Middle East and Africa, women often take over the work on land or the non-farm family business, thus enabling male members of the household to migrate in search of work in national or international labour markets. In Latin America and Asia, on the other hand, women - single as well as married - have for long been the principal labour migrants. What is common in both situations is that, through such strategies, households are able to maintain their subsistence on land while at the same time engage in the non-farm and non-rural sectors, leading to what I have conceptualised as "land-based / free-floating labour (1994). Le Heron (1991) has used the term pluriactivity for the case of New Zealand to describe the multiple job options pursued by farm families confronted with market pressures.

The relocation of mass production industries to countries with low labour costs, the creation of export processing zones as well as the trade in services for example, in the area of domestic work, care giving, entertainment etc. have intensified these trends, creating a strong demand for female labour and actually altering the patterns of labour mobility around the world. The dominant pattern of labour migration of the post war era, which entailed an exodus from rural to urban areas and from the south to the north has become less of an option with the changing demand for labour that favours temporary and short term employment. As a result, seasonal-temporary labour movements have become the mode of survival for many rural households and women are increasingly becoming its major actors.

In short, rural women play a central role in contributing to economic development as resident or migrant labour without the benefits of social security, access to information and to resources. Gaps in our knowledge of their situation and contributions continue to be a prevailing fact .

It is the challenge of this Expert Group Meeting to examine the impact of major global trends on the situation of rural women, living under diverse conditions and to propose a research and policy agenda to maximize the beneficial effects of change for women. The findings of this meeting will be incorporated in the Secretary-General's next report on the "improvement of the situation of women in rural areas" which will be submitted to the General Assembly in Autumn 2001. Im confident that the distinguished experts, attending this meeting, will make invaluable contributions towards this end.

I wish you all the success in your deliberations.