WomenWatch - Information and Resources on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): Comparative Advantage

Primary Mandate/Concentration in Relation to Rural Women

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) established UNFPA's mandate with an emphasis on i) promoting sexual and reproductive health, ii) upholding and expanding reproductive rights, and iii) addressing population dynamics such as aging, migration and the increase of population groups such as young people and adolescents. In each of these areas, UNFPA builds evidence and addresses the needs of poor rural women.

Women in rural areas who are in the lowest wealth quintiles are often also those who have the least autonomy to exercise and claim their reproductive rights. In conservative and slow changing rural societies, women must rely on their husbands or relatives to give them permission to go for prenatal care and delivery and to seek family planning services. Rural women and girls are also vulnerable to the perpetuation of harmful practices such as child marriage, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, fistula, bride kidnapping and widow abuse. The ICPD mandate directs UNFPA to use a human rights based approach to ensure that rural women's reproductive rights can be met.

Areas of Unique Expertise/Strength

UNFPA is a key agency with a wide ranging field presence to support the collection of consistent, high quality data much of which is relevant to empowering specific groups of rural women — for example indigenous women and women with disabilities. Concurrently, support is being provided to governments to improve gender statistics, so that disparities between rural and urban women and men can be made more transparent.

UNFPA works with partners in health to increase gender responsive training and service delivery to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes for women and girls by reducing social, cultural and geographic barriers.

UNFPA works to improve rural communities' understanding about safe deliveries and to identify what steps need to be taken to ensure there are culturally acceptable, quality services accessible and available to poor rural women. UNFPA works with governments to improve ambulance services to rural areas to facilitate access and timely emergency care.

UNFPA and interagency partners are also working to ensure comprehensive sexuality education training is provided to teachers and that it is delivered effectively in schools to prevent HIV, STIs and unwanted pregnancies — and to ensure that boys and girls learn about equality of rights and responsibility in sexual and reproductive health. In rural areas, this also involves working with the gatekeepers of social norms and values to reduce social stigma for women and adolescent girls affecting their ability to access health services and make their own choices. Gatekeepers may include faith based organizations, fathers, husbands, political leaders, as well as influential women — such as mothers-in-law – who often resist change in conservative social norms.

Approach to the Empowerment of Rural Women

UNFPA approaches the empowerment of rural women as an extension of its global human rights based approach on population dynamics, sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

UNFPA works at all levels from international conventions, working with human rights special procedures, facilitating development of general comments from conventions to supporting more equitable legislation and policy. UNFPA as an agency sets specific strategic objectives to end harmful practices and to uphold the reproductive rights of women, including rural women, to have universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the knowledge that is associated with it.

Key Tools/Activities Supporting the Empowerment of Rural Women

UNFPA invests in highly successful methodologies for changing harmful social norms that exist largely in rural areas. This is done through working with expert civil society organizations that understand the specific context and who can influence communities on a wider scale. UNFPA is also using integrated joint programmes and gender transformative programme design elements to increase sustainability.

  1. UNFPA in Tunisia supports programme "Lansarine" in conjunction with UNIDO and FAO. The project considers the provision of high quality sexual and reproductive health services and information as well as rural women's effective social participation as a prime condition for sustainable economic development in the region of Lansarine. This joint programme aims at increasing income-generating opportunities for illiterate rural women and their dependents by empowering their entrepreneurship capacities, including through development ofhigh value agricultural food products for national and international markets. The programme is a pioneering experience in the development of rural areas in Tunisia, both from an agricultural industry perspective and from a social and health perspective.
  2. In Cote d'Ivoire UNFPA works with the National Regional Development Agency to train rural women in income generating activities. In all, 8070 women from 10 localities received training in a wide variety of business practices. Topics covered included income management, technical training, and even agricultural skills such as crop management or livestock rearing.
  3. In Turkmenistan, UNFPA, together with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan and Women's Union NGO, holds advocacy meetings for rural women across the country raising awareness and literacy about their reproductive rights and access to reproductive health services in their region. UNFPA has also conducted extensive advocacy efforts to increase demand for youth-friendly and gender sensitive reproductive health education including to young women and girls living in rural areas of the country. Since last year, teen hotline centers were successfully extended into the region reaching out to the adolescent girls in the rural areas.
  4. In Macedonia, UNFPA, the Ministry of Health and the Institute for Public Health have initiated a nation-wide health promotion outreach programme that aims to increase knowledge and awareness among rural women, particularly young girls and adolescents, on the importance of protecting and addressing their sexual and reproductive health and rights. The outreach programme is implemented through the existing patronage nurses system and offers information on sexual and reproductive health issues, free of charge counseling, gynecological exams and provision of oral contraceptives and condoms.
  5. UNFPA has a number of programmes to promote safe motherhood, including the Campaign to End Fistula, which focuses on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation; and facilitates fistula survivors to act as advocates who can raise awareness on the condition. For example, the obstetric fistula campaign in Liberia has provided fistula repair to poor rural women suffering from the stigma associated with fistula. In countries such as Malawi the Campaign is training mid-level providers to deliver surgical fistula repair for less complex cases. Prevention efforts also link with global efforts to ensure access to skilled birth attendance and emergency obstetric and newborn care when required. In addition, the programme addresses underlying social and economic inequities through efforts aimed at empowering women and girls, enhancing their life opportunities and delaying marriage and childbirth in adolescents. In the Central African Republic, advocacy efforts sensitized community and religious leaders about fistula. Similarly in Côte d'Ivoire UNFPA held sensitization workshops for religious and traditional leaders, as well as journalists and animators.
  6. UNFPA-supported mobile health units are a critical method for providing health care services to women living in rural areas, including following emergency and humanitarian situations. These types of units, which provide accessible, affordable, equitable and quality health care to hard-to-reach populations, have been supported in many places, including, but not limited to: Yemen, Nepal, Swaziland, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Haiti.

Inter-agency Partnerships


  • UNFPA works with UNICEF on the Joint Programme on FGM/C which encourages engagement of communities and empowerment of rural women as key approaches that will lead to the abandonment of FGM/C
  • UNFPA also works in collaboration with the H4+ group (WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank, and UNAIDS) on a number of initiatives related to improved delivery of holistic sexual and reproductive health services for rural women.
  • UNFPA has been a lead agency at the country level working with UN-Women and others on the In Task Force to End Violence against Women.
  • UNFPA is a member of UNSD's interagency working group on gender statistics, aiming to build capacity of National Statistics Offices and ministries responsible for gender and improve evidence of sex, age and geographic disparities.

All of these programmes support rural women's reproductive rights and analyse and address the root social and cultural issues that perpetuate gender inequality.

Regional and Country Level

  • In addition to implementing field-based components of the above-listed partnerships, UNFPA collaborates with a wide and diverse range of partners in the field to support rural women's reproductive rights and sexual and reproductive health. Additional partners include FAO, WFP, UNDP, UNIDO, OCHA, UNHCHR, and UNHCR.