According to the Women's World Summit Foundation, rural women comprise more than one quarter of the total world population. They produce more than half the food that is grown in the world (up to 80% of basic foodstuffs in Africa; 60-80% in the Caribbean; 60% in Asia; between 30 and 40% in Latin America and Western countries). In many countries, developed and developing, there has been an increase in the number of women who are the head of the farm. These women very often show great ability in administering farms and in increasing productivity. Farm women are a unique group of people. There is no other group of women who work so closely with husbands and family as they do. She is a partner in a family business. She has to know all that goes on inside the house and out. In most rural societies, women are an integral part of the agricultural activity of the village. Their role has to be seen and discussed in that context.
Women, it seems, are the workhorses of developing countries. Much of their work is invisible: bearing the children, nurturing them, gathering fuel and drawing water, cooking the food, taking their husband's meals to his workplace, milking the domestic animals and undertaking other household tasks. They produce most of the food grown for family consumption: 100% of household foodstuffs in Africa and 90% of household fuel and water needs. Although the proportion of women in agriculture is already high it is increasing, not only in subsistence agriculture, but in commercial production as well (women perform 30% of agricultural work in industrialized countries). In other countries, much of the back-breaking labour in the fields is done by women (50% of the labour involved in intensive rice cultivation in Asia is performed by women). Though a much larger percentage of the working population of women is concentrated in agricultural operations, men have a more diversified structure of occupations and perform more skilled work. For instance, women from artisan families do skilled or semi-skilled jobs. The unskilled work in agriculture is not only done mostly by women it is done for extremely low wages for a long working day. Although the evidence in the third world is that there are women farming effectively in their own right, the general picture is that they are over-worked and under-paid for reasons that are partly social and partly economic. 500 million women live below the poverty line in rural areas.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends developing pilot projects and extension services that would seek to build on the needs and knowledge base of women farmers.
FAO supports women in their role as agricultural producers and their special needs for: income-producing activities and control of income; training opportunities; and technologies and other means to ease the burden and increase the productivity of their work and their access to markets. In the support by WFP, emphasis is increasingly placed on gender-sensitive food aid intervention that also address the social constraints on women's disposable labour time and productivity (which arise in part from their maternal responsibilities and domestic chores). With partial assistance from UNDP, the World Bank is undertaking a project on women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as surveys to document the roles of women farmers in Nigeria and Kenya. INSTRAW cooperates with lead agencies in the design of programmes relating to women's role in rural development. UNDP encourages the participation of women in its food and agricultural projects. ILO is especially concerned to promote the employment of women in rural areas. UNHCR promotes participation of women in income generating projects.
The development practitioner can play an invaluable part in helping villagers to secure such inputs. To enable women to participate the availability of training, technology, credit and, of course, day nurseries, pre- school facilities and other support structures is equally important. In Tanzania, poultry production has been introduced to women in the Mwegazi Hatchery and benefits several areas of need. The women earn more (personally), the manure is used as a fertiliser for vegetables and maize and the community benefits from the protein the poultry adds to their diet. In Latin American countries, supplementary employment for women is a response to the 'exodus to the cities' syndrome and the deterioration of the Agriculture and non-farm schemes of It will be noted that, apart from increasing the villages, total food output, these schemes provided social benefits which extend to the community at large far beyond the greater job variety, work satisfaction and earning power that an individual woman may experience. For example, there are the nutritional benefits coming from home consumption of the milk, eggs, goat meat and poultry (all protein rich) and honey. An agricultural labourer may spend a little for drinking and the like of what he earns, but what she earns and what the children earn is pooled and she makes the decisions on how to spend it for food and clothing. It will take a long time before Indian women are released from the heavy work load they carry in the fields and at home.
In the interest of humanity alone, the quality of the village woman's life cries out for improvement. Particularly urgent is the need to lighten the domestic work load that tradition has laid upon her. Infrastructure improvements such as piped drinking water, better housing and drainage, the installation of electricity, biogas and solar energy could reduce the volume of her domestic work. Unless this is done, she will have neither time nor energy to take advantage of more varied employment opportunities, which would enable her to supplement her contribution to the family finances, in order to break out of the subsistence cycle.