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Changing the lives of rural women and girls for the better

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Steve Wiggins, Eva Ludi, Anna Mdee, Louise Fox

Briefing/policy paper

Across the global South, most rural women and girls are disadvantaged compared to men and boys. Most receive less formal education, have fewer opportunities to work outside the household, and when they do, they are often paid less and treated worse than men. Most rural women live with norms that define them primarily as wives and mothers, confined to the domestic sphere, where men do less than their fair share of household chores. Changes to the lives of rural women and girls take place at several levels: within processes of development and transformation at the national level; in rural areas and within agriculture; in households; and, finally, for women and girls as individuals. Changes to agriculture and rural areas over the longer run can be dramatic, as agriculture loses its relative importance when a country urbanises.

To see how such changes take place and what they imply for women and girls, this briefing examines three cases of long-term rural economic transformation since the 1960s: those of Egypt, Peru and Thailand. All three countries have seen economic growth, urbanisation, and a marked shift in their economic structure as agriculture has declined relative to industry and services.

Key messages

  • Agricultural development is a pre-condition to accelerated national growth and a major driver of the rural non-farm economy.
  • For rural women and girls in the global South, however, economic prospects are often better in the rural non-farm economy and through migration to cities than they are in farming.
  • Rural women can only take up better economic opportunities if they are healthy, literate and numerate. Hence public investments in rural education, health, and clean water and sanitation make a real difference.
  • Family planning can empower rural women, allowing them to have the children they want. In the medium term it can lead to slower growth of the labour supply and consequently higher rural wages.
  • Gender norms count, especially those concerning women’s ability to leave the home in search of decent work.
  • Women who farm are often disadvantaged. Much remains to be done to establish their rights to land, livestock and water, and to improve their access to inputs (feedstuffs, fertilizers, etc.), finance and technical knowledge.

Steve Wiggins