Rural Women and Girls: 25 years after Beijing – Critical Agents of Positive Change

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In 2020, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), also known as “Beijing + 25”, provides an excellent opportunity for governments, civil society, the United Nations (UN) system and all development actors to take stock of progress made toward gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

The BPfA is an ambitious framework for change that calls for a world in which every woman and girl can realize her rights, have equal livelihood opportunities, live free from violence and participate in decision-making that affects her life.

The year 2020 also marks the twentieth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, and the fifth anniversary of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is in this context that members of the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE)1 seek to raise awareness about and promote opportunities for some of those left furthest behind: rural and indigenous women and girls.

Globally, and with only a few exceptions, rural and indigenous women fare worse than rural men and urban women and men on every indicator for which data are available. Although they share challenges in the form of rural location and gender-based discrimination, rural women and girls are not a homogeneous group. The opportunities and constraints they face differ across their lifetimes, contexts and circumstances; they are influenced by location and socio-economic status and social identities associated with other forms of marginalization, such as indigenous origin and ethnicity, age, disability and migrant or refugee status. The complex experiences of rural and indigenous women and girls mean that they commonly face varied and deeply entrenched obstacles to empowerment. It is thus imperative to not only take stock of the broad experiences of rural and indigenous women and girls, but also to recognize and address the specific needs and distinct realities faced by those constituting these two groups.

This is vital from both a human rights and a social justice perspective and because we cannot afford to leave rural and indigenous women and girls behind: their social and economic empowerment is fundamental to achieving the SDGs and implementing the BPfA. Despite the multiple constraints rural and indigenous women and girls encounter, they often have a great potential for the development of their own households and communities and for resilience-building because of their capacity, local knowledge and enterprise skills. They are active agents of agricultural and rural development; increasing food and nutrition security and eradicating poverty depend on empowering them and their achieving gender equality.

There is evidence that when rural women have equal access to education, skills development, services, productive inputs and employment opportunities, they are more protected from discrimination and gender-based violence (GBV) and the yields on their farms increase, contributing significantly to economic growth, food security and nutrition. In an enabling environment, they are leaders in their communities and businesses, providing sustainable and innovative solutions to local as well as global challenges.

However, progress in empowering rural and indigenous women and girls has been slow and uneven across regions. Three-quarters of those living in poverty and facing chronic undernourishment reside in rural areas (FAO, 2017a); globally, there are 122 women aged 25–34 living in extreme poverty for every 100 men of the same age group (UN Women, 2018a), and it is estimated that more than 18 per cent of indigenous women live on less than US$1.90 a day – the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty (ILO, 2019). Rural women continue to have less access to and control over productive resources, technologies, services and opportunities than men. They also tend to lack self-esteem, confidence, negotiation and leadership skills (also referred to as agency), and often have lower education levels than their male counterparts. Many rural and indigenous girls and young women face massive barriers in agricultural labour markets and are restricted to low-status, poorly paid jobs, without legal or social protection or access to essential services and adequate health care. Many continue to face GBV in their homes, communities and workplaces. Gender-discriminatory behaviours and practices are commonly shaped by sociocultural norms regarding the roles played by women and girls, men and boys.

The role and status of indigenous women vary from one community to another, yet their concerns are often similar. In many indigenous communities, women and men have different roles and responsibilities, and thus different needs, aspirations and interests. Age is a key determinant of indigenous women’s roles and the types of challenges they encounter.

Older indigenous women act as custodians of indigenous cultures, moral authorities, spiritual guides and healers; at the same time, however, they are among those who suffer most from cultural and territorial losses. Indigenous girls are exposed to specific types of discrimination because of their age and are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking (United Nations, 2015, paragraph 15).

These challenges and barriers must be overcome if young rural and indigenous women are to engage in and benefit from development. This requires transformative approaches that address the root causes of gender-based inequalities that impact their lives.

This document highlights some of the ways in which this can be achieved. This includes good practices from the members of the IANWGE network in the thematic areas of education; food security and nutrition; health; access to and control over land and other productive resources; leadership, decision-making and public life; social protection and services; care and domestic work; GBV; and resilience in the context of climate change and fragility.