"The empowerment of rural women and girls is essential to building a prosperous, equitable and peaceful future for all on a healthy planet."
— UN Secretary-General, António Guterres
The invaluable contribution of rural women to development
The crucial role that women and girls play in ensuring the sustainability of rural households and communities, improving rural livelihoods and overall wellbeing, has been increasingly recognized. Women account for a substantial proportion of the agricultural labour force, including informal work, and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work within families and households in rural areas. They make significant contributions to agricultural production, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management, and building climate resilience.
Even so, women and girls in rural areas suffer disproportionately from multi-dimensional poverty. While extreme poverty has declined globally, the world’s 1 billion people who continue to live in unacceptable conditions of poverty are heavily concentrated in rural areas. Poverty rates in rural areas across most regions are higher than those in urban areas. Yet smallholder agriculture produces nearly 80 per cent of food in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and supports the livelihoods of some 2.5 billion people. Women farmers may be as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, but are less able to access land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets and high-value agrifood chains and obtain lower prices for their crops.
Structural barriers and discriminatory social norms continue to constrain women’s decision-making power and political participation in rural households and communities. Women and girls in rural areas lack equal access to productive resources and assets, public services, such as education and health care, and infrastructure, including water and sanitation, while much of their labour remains invisible and unpaid, even as their workloads become increasingly heavy due to the out-migration of men. Globally, with few exceptions, every gender and development indicator for which data are available reveals that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women, and that they disproportionately experience poverty, exclusion and the effects of climate change.
The impacts of climate change, including on access to productive and natural resources, amplify existing gender inequalities in rural areas. Climate change affects women’s and men’s assets and well-being differently in terms of agricultural production, food security, health, water and energy resources, climate-induced migration and conflict, and climate-related natural disasters.
Sustainable infrastructure, services and social protection for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls
This year’s theme, “Sustainable infrastructure, services and social protection for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls”, places empowerment of rural women at the heart of fulfilling the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Despite progress on some fronts, gender inequalities remain pervasive in every dimension of sustainable development; and in many areas, progress is too slow to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
Delivering on the gender equality commitments of the 2030 Agenda stands or falls by the allocation of sufficient resources for their achievement and concerted action by governments and all stakeholders. Essential services on which millions of rural women and girls depend—health, education, childcare, shelters—are chronically underfunded or simply unavailable. Where they exist, they are often the first to be hit by austerity measures, which are once again on the rise. In 2018 alone, 124 countries are expected to be cutting their budgets, eroding social protection measures and essential services on which so many rural women and girls depend. This is not inevitable. In virtually all countries, there is scope for raising or reallocating resources to strengthen public services that are essential for women and girls. It is a matter of political will and of using all the available policy tools. The cost of inaction is simply too high.