In the village of Kyzart in Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan, little was known about the transformative power of vegetable farming. A simple change to the diets of rural households—a smidge of horticulture added to the carbohydrate- and protein-intensive diets—has resulted from the determined farming efforts of self-help groups of rural women. Testimonies of how balanced diets are positively impacting the health of household members, and consequently household savings as the burden of medical expenses is reduced, are now commonplace in a region known for cold winters that have traditionally rendered many forms of agriculture impossible. Today, greenhouses, which provide farmers resilience against the region’s extreme weather, enable the rural women of Kyzart to grow nutritious vegetables that complement high carbohydrate- and protein-based diets all year round for their families as well as for sale at the market.
The rural women’s success story in Kyzart, however, is not an isolated phenomenon. It resonates with those of other rural women exposed to harsh climatic conditions in other parts of the world. From Nepal, where rural women farmers’ protection from hot weather is attained through the construction and use of storage facilities that prevent food loss, to Niger, where rural women’s Dimitra Clubs employ technologies that help save time critical for water collection in increasingly arid climatic conditions, rural women’s agency in climate resilience is yielding results for sustainable livelihoods. By accessing equal economic opportunities, rural women around the world are securing a sustainable future for their children, families and communities, which is crucial in a world continuously affected by climate change.
There is a growing recognition of the potential for gender equality and women’s empowerment to produce social, economic and climate-resilience benefits.
The impacts of climate change on rural industries disproportionately affect the well-being of women living in rural areas and can compromise their potential to contribute towards sustainable development. The 2019 report of the Secretary-General, “Improvement of the situation of women and girls in rural areas,”1 prepared for the seventy-fourth session of the United Nations General Assembly, showcases the evidence of how climate change especially impacts rural agriculture. This is an industry which, by employing at least one third of all women globally, is undoubtedly the largest occupation of rural women besides household care and domestic work. As such, the corresponding need for rural women farmers to employ climate-resilient agricultural technologies for household food security becomes an economic constraint which, when addressed, has been seen to elevate the financial and, sometimes, physiological costs incurred by many of them.
Furthermore, the prevalence of gender roles prescribed by society means that rural women must contend with growing distances to source biofuels used in supplying household energy or water for domestic and agricultural purposes. In turn, rural women frequently lose valuable time that they could invest in productive activities outside of the domestic sphere while failing to dedicate sufficient efforts to time-intensive and time-sensitive climate-resilient approaches.
In spite of the observable economic restraints, rural women continue to be instrumental in adapting to and mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. There is a growing recognition of the potential for gender equality and women’s empowerment to produce social, economic and climate-resilience benefits. Indeed, rural women have unique knowledge, skills and experiences that are critical to promoting sustainable practices and combating the ill-effects of climate change. Studies also show how, in Brazil, for example, rural women farmers are playing a key role in conserving biodiversity2 and protecting indigenous crops that are more resilient to erratic climatic variability. They are also often at the forefront of adopting sustainable production methods in farming, energy and water management.
Importantly, rural—including indigenous—women play a pivotal role in the three components of food security: food production, distribution and utilization. To achieve these as producers, farmers and cooperatives, women are increasingly adopting sustainable ancestral, indigenous and modern technological practices, responding to climate variability and frequent climate shocks. Furthermore, empowered rural women play important roles in adopting low-carbon technologies, spreading knowledge about climate change, and urging governments and businesses to take action.
As early adopters of new agricultural techniques, first responders in crises, entrepreneurs of green energy and decision makers at home, rural women are also agents of change who must be counted as an integral part of solutions leading to a sustainable future.
It is our strong belief at UN-Women that the economic empowerment of rural women and sustainable livelihoods are intrinsically intertwined. Economically empowered women are far more prepared to participate in climate-resilient agriculture strategies and afford the type of care for their families that is reliant on cleaner and more efficient resources and methods. The spillover effects on the economic well-being of families are evident. For example, through a United Nations joint programme on “Accelerating progress towards the economic empowerment of women,”3 48-year-old Herlinda Caal Tzi from Guatemala is now able to contribute to her household’s income, relieving her husband from being the sole breadwinner. In Ségou, Mali, women’s cooperatives engaged with the UN-Women programme on “Achieving gender equality through climate-resilient agriculture”4 are now able to have secure access to land for the first time.
Economically empowered rural women, like those in Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Nepal and Niger mentioned in this article, are key to the success of families, communities and national economies. Through their labour, they are maintaining and improving their children’s education, household health, food security and nutrition, and are thus indispensable in the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Deliberate efforts to improve their economic empowerment for sustainable livelihoods are also critical to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Much progress has been made since world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 to set the tone for what would be a post-2015 development agenda. Under a newly formed UN-Women, an appeal for a gender-responsive development agenda was made through the report “The Future Women Want: A Vision of Sustainable Development for All”, calling on all actors to integrate gender perspectives into the design and implementation of environmentally sound and sustainable resource management mechanisms and infrastructure development in rural and urban areas. This was a major step to ensure that a post-2015 world would have women and girls as active agents at the centre of development, as well as men and boys as equal beneficiaries.
Since then, the Commission on the Status of Women has dedicated itself to convening dialogues that will shape the normative and operational environment for interventions aimed at addressing rural women’s needs. The conclusions of the Commission’s sixty-second session in 2018 highlighted key solutions grounded in the climate-resilience of rural women as central to achieving all 17 SDGs, including gender equality and women’s empowerment (Goal 5). Furthermore, the aforementioned report of the Secretary-General addresses, in particular, the incidence and worsening situation of rural women due to climate change. As the report states, out of the nationally determined contributions from 190 countries, 64 now mention women; 15 refer to women as important decision makers or stakeholders in climate change policymaking; and 6 refer to women as agents of change.5
The momentum generated by these commitments is energizing countries to amplify the voices of rural and indigenous women by integrating strategies for their empowerment into national laws, policies and programmes.
2 Agencia EFE, “Indigenous and farm women demand gender equality in Brazil”, 14 August 2019. Available at : https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/indigenous-and-farm-women-demand-gender-equality-in-brazil/50000263-4042807.
3 Implemented since 2014 by FAO, IFAD, WFP and UN Women in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda; UNDP, “Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women”. Available at : http://mptf.undp.org/factsheet/fund/RWF00. Accessed 16 September 2019.
4 UN-Women, “Women’s Empowerment through Climate-Smart Agriculture”. October 2016.Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2015/fpi%20briefagriculture%20localusweb.pdf?la=en&vs=3547
5 A/74/224, para. 22.
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