UN Women - United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women

Speech by John Hendra on “Feminization of Poverty in Rural Areas”

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Remarks by John Hendra, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Policy and Programme, at a side event on “Feminization of Poverty in Rural Areas”, New York, 13 March 2014.

Date: 13 March 2014

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Thank you Florence.
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists and guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I’m very pleased to participate in this side event and I’d like to thank the Permanent Mission of Spain and the NGO AFAMMER for co-organizing this discussion on an issue that is really critical for sustainable development.

As we know, women are the face of poverty, in particular rural poverty, due to their lower access to productive resources and assets, capabilities and decent paid employment. What’s more, persistent, multiple economic and social inequalities have exacerbated the feminization of poverty in rural areas. 

Women comprise an estimated 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, and roughly 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Africa [1]. They produce most of the locally consumed food and are responsible for household food security in many areas [2].  

Yet in most of the developing world the majority of women in rural areas remain poor, hungry and powerless. They eat least, and last, in many communities. Although women have equal property rights in 115 countries and equal inheritance rights in 93 countries [3], gender inequality in landholdings remain widespread in all regions. And women farmers receive only 5 per cent of available credit [4].

As recent MDG reports show, rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women and men, across all the MDGs. As we know, the low levels of skilled assistance at delivery is a leading cause of maternal mortality, in particular in rural areas and among poor populations.  In South Asia, for instance, urban women in the highest wealth quintile are six times as likely to have access to skilled attendance at delivery as rural women in the poorest quintile [5].  

And rural women have less voice in decision-making. A 2010 study in 17 countries in the Asia-Pacific region found that the proportion of women elected representatives in rural councils varied between less than 1 per cent and 37 per cent, while the proportion of women chairs/heads of rural councils ranged from less than 1 per cent to 7 per cent [6]

Furthermore, inadequate provision of, and access to infrastructure, including energy, and water and sanitation facilities has a disproportionate impact on poor women and girls in rural areas.  According to WHO and UNICEF [7], women and girls represent 75 per cent of household water collectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, rural women collectively spend about 40 billion hours a year fetching water – equivalent to a year’s labour for the entire workforce of France. As the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights [8] has said, these heavy and unequal care and domestic responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality and to women’s equal enjoyment of their human rights, and in many cases, condemn women to poverty. 

The recent economic and financial crises and austerity measures adopted in many countries have also led to serious set-backs for women, especially in rural areas. Reduced public expenditure on essential services, and the introduction of user fees in education, health and water and sanitation sectors have driven poor families to depend even more heavily on women and girls unpaid labour, with serious consequences for their health and wellbeing.

Let us be clear. We know what needs to be done to lift rural women out of poverty. Promoting women’s equal access to, and control over, productive assets, decent work and social protection, improving women’s rights to work are essential for poverty eradication for all. For example, FAO estimates that if rural women had equal access to productive resources, agricultural yields would rise, and there would be 100 million to 150 million fewer hungry people.  

What’s more, there’s ample evidence that a life-cycle approach to education is critical for women’s empowerment, especially in rural areas. For example, keeping girls in secondary and tertiary education helps reduce early marriage. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is also fundamental to reducing poverty in rural areas, including by reducing maternal mortality and enabling women to control the timing and number of their children. 

Ensuring sustainable access to water and sanitation is also key to enable girls and women to participate in education and employment. As a Tanzanian study shows, reducing the distance to a water source from 30 to 15 minutes increased girl’s school attendance by 12 per cent – a very significant increase.

All of these are very important issues to be addressed as Member States and partners scale up efforts to accelerate the MDGs and formulate a new generation of sustainable development goals. But we have to go further.  

We cannot hope to eradicate poverty unless we tackle inequality. The recent economic and financial crises have laid bare the shortcomings of the current macro-economic model that contributes to inequality and vulnerability, in particular among women. As Oxfam has highlighted, the 85 richest people control the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. Millions of people are not realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work and are excluded from social and economic development. And this acts as a brake on economic growth and poverty-reduction, in particular for those who are most disadvantaged, such as rural women and girls. Macro-economic policies are not gender-neutral, and in the future we need to pay much more attention to ensuring that these policies promote human rights and gender equality, and reduce other forms of inequalities.

Indeed, if the new post-2015 agenda is to make a real difference, including for poor rural women, it must be transformative, and really tackle the structural inequalities that underpin gender inequality and gender-based discrimination, which ultimately constrain sustainable development. It must be universal, because poverty increasingly occurs in middle-income and fragile states, as well as in less developed countries – and because gender inequality is a universal problem that requires global solutions. And it must be rights-based, with equality, non-discrimination, greater accountability and gender equality and women’s empowerment at its centre.

UN Women welcomes the call among many Member States for gender equality to be a priority, and for a dedicated gender equality goal to be included in the post-2015 agenda. Just as important is to include gender-specific targets and indicators in all other priorities and goals that are identified, including those related to poverty eradication, sustainable consumption and production patterns, water and energy and environmental protection. Including gender-specific indicators on land ownership, access to and control over assets, and access to finance is also critical. We have a real opportunity to also ensure that the data revolution for post-2015 is a gender data revolution, and that we have baselines in place by 1 January 2016 that allow us to measure progress and ensure accountability in particular for poor rural women. 

Finally, the means of implementation really do matter. Poor women living in rural areas have not received a fair share of development assistance in the past. As the new Gender Chart released yesterday by the UN Statistics Division and UN Women shows, alarmingly low levels of aid in the economic and productive sectors is targeted to gender equality – only 2 per cent of all aid in these sectors went to gender equality in 2011 and 2012. And of the overall USD 20.5 billion spent by donors on gender-specific initiatives in 2010-2011, only 8 per cent went to agriculture and rural development. This has to change. 

That’s why the support of donors such as Spain is so important. Spain has been one of the UN system and UN Women’s greatest supporters, including through a very generous USD 65 million contribution in 2009 to UN Women to support the creation of the multi-donor Fund for Gender Equality which focuses on women’s economic and political empowerment. Through its thematic focus on women’s economic empowerment, the Fund works to expand real freedoms and opportunities, not only by increasing what women earn or consume, but by expanding what they are able to be and do – with a specific focus on supporting rural women to access and control resources and assets.

As just one of many, many examples, the Fund has supported a USD 2 million programme in Rwanda to promote and increase women’s access to land, inheritance and economic participation. The programme has provided community leaders with the tools and resources to support women’s claims while at the same time also actively engaging with men and traditional leaders, and targeting government institutions to revise policies that impact women’s rights.  These are very important initiatives but we need to see much greater investment in the future, in particular in poor rural women. 

Looking forward, the new post-2015 agenda must build on the lessons learned from the MDGs, by tackling the structural inequalities that impede progress. It must be an agenda in which development works for poor rural women – rather than poor rural women working for development gains that they themselves don’t see. And only if it is focused on the poorest and most marginalized women and girls will the post-2015 agenda truly be able to deliver equality and eradicate poverty for poor rural women. And only then will it succeed in delivering sustainable development for all.

Thank you.



[1] Secretary General’s report on agriculture development and food security (2012)

[2] OECD-DAC. “Women’s economic empowerment” 2012.

[3] UN Women (2011), Progress of the World’s Women 2011-12: In Pursuit of Justice.

[4] As cited in the Secretary-General’s report on agriculture development and food security (2012).

[5] http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=E/CN.6/2014/3

[6] UNDP, UN Women, CLGF and United Cities and Local Government Asia Pacific (UCLG)/ASPAC, Women’s representation in local government in Asia-Pacific, Status Report 2010: Going beyond national targets in monitoring status for MDG 3 on women’s political empowerment.

[7] WHO/UNICEF, ‘Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, Drinking Water: Equity, Safety and Sustainability,’ 2012.

[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, “Unpaid care work”, A/68/293. Can be accessed here: http://www.empowerwomen.org/~/documents/2013/10/10/20/51/report-of-the-special-rapporteur-on-extreme-poverty-and-human-rights