Let our rural women rise and claim their rights
Out of a population of over 160 million in Bangladesh, approximately 107 million people live in rural areas. Of them, at least 50 million are women and girls. They form the backbone of the rural economy, working tirelessly—often 16 hours a day—for the well-being of their families, as per research. Yet, they remain invisible and undervalued, not given the dignity that they deserve.
October 15 marked the International Day of Rural Women. The day was first observed by the United Nations in 2008, in recognition of their contribution to promoting rural development, maintaining food security, and addressing poverty within societies and families. At the global level, rural women produce 60-80 percent of basic foodstuff in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, and they are involved in over 50 percent of labour in rice cultivation in Asia. Rural women perform 30 percent of the agricultural work in industrialised countries, head 60 percent of households as single mothers, and also meet 90 percent of water and fuel needs in many regions of Asia and Africa. Despite that, 500 million rural women in the world live below the poverty line.
This year, there is a call for rural women to rise and claim their rights to sustainable development, which is timely and necessary. It is well-recognised that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda will not be achieved without ensuring the rights, entitlements, and security of women. The call is relevant in the context of the urgency to address climate change impacts and ensure sustainable development. It urges rural women to take control over their lives, assert their position in families and society, and be part of the decision-making process that often eludes them. For that to happen, society and families must undergo a change in mindset and attitude, and recognise that rural women are nation builders and should be valued and respected.
While it is well-known that women in all groups across Bangladesh suffer from various forms of abuse and neglect, the women and girls in rural areas suffer disproportionately from poverty, negative social norms and practices, discrimination within households, and a lack of empowerment in most spheres. Research indicates that poverty rates in rural areas across most regions are higher than those in urban areas, impacting women disproportionately. In Bangladesh, women may be as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, but they do not have equal access to land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets, etc. Subsequently, most of women's work in agriculture remains invisible and is lumped under "shongsharer kaaj" (household work). Laws, policies, and social practices don't support women's ownership of assets and property. Rural girls and women are more likely to be married off before the legal age of 18 years, are unable to complete their education, have fewer opportunities for employment, and generally remain bound to social norms that assign them the prescribed roles of homemaker and caregiver of their families.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of millions and shattered the social fabric of societies. In Bangladesh, women and children have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Besides health and financial crises, domestic violence has increased, and so have early marriage and child labour. Their double burden of responsibilities has increased manifold during this time. Rural women are very much a part of the effort to rebuild the economy and require incentives, support and monetary assistance, like their male counterparts.
Structural barriers and negative social norms continue to constrain women's decision-making ability and participation. Due to discriminatory practices in most households, women and girls in rural areas lack equal access to productive resources, assets, and public services such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure, including water and sanitation. Globally, with few exceptions, every gender and development indicator reveals that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women, and experience poverty, exclusion, impacts of climate change and natural disasters disproportionately.
In Bangladesh, women's participation in agriculture has grown tremendously in the last 15 years—so has their contribution to the rural economy. Rural women play an important role in various income-generating activities through agriculture, which includes various pre- and post-harvesting activities such as selection of seeds, harvesting, storing of crops, etc. Women working in paddy fields is now a common sight, especially in the northern parts of Bangladesh. According to estimates, women contribute 25-50 percent of household income in rural families, and are involved in 48 percent of agriculture-related work. Even then, women are invisible in the agricultural sector of Bangladesh, owing to the assumption that they are not capable of physical labour needed for agricultural production.
Rural women ensure household food security for their families. Household vegetable gardening, rearing of poultry and cattle—all contribute to maintaining their health and nutrition. They use whatever means possible to put some cooked food on the table; usually the last to eat, they make sure their families, no matter how poor they are, are fed at least two meals a day. A famous quote by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is, "Women in Bangladesh are the best managers in the world because they manage poverty." The quote needs no explanation, and that is why Sir Abed, through Brac, targeted rural women as the primary beneficiaries of its programmes.
Rural women's role as climate actors is no less significant, especially in land and natural resource management and building climate resilience. A recent study reveals that the role of women in the use, management, and conservation of the environment can be an entry point to build an economically viable and ecologically sustainable environment system in rural Bangladesh.
It is, therefore, time for rural women to come out of seclusion and claim their rightful place as nation builders and a major force in the economy of Bangladesh. Has anyone ever realised that much of the internationally acclaimed success of food self-sufficiency in Bangladesh is due to the "behind the scene" contribution of rural women? Then why should they not be given the status of farmers? Why should they remain "assistants" of farmers? Thailand introduced the legal term "women farmer" to allow women access to agricultural credit. As farmers, women will be entitled to get Krishi Card (agriculture card), enabling them to access agriculture inputs such as fertilisers, technical expertise, and other assets at lower rates than the market prices.
However, for such changes to take place, clear national guidelines, strategies, and plans need to be formulated and implemented. This includes the promotion of women's literacy, training in nutrition and health, and supporting women's participation in key decision-making positions, particularly as they pertain to the access to land and resources. The issue of land ownership should also be seriously considered. According to a study by economist Dr Abul Barkat with the Association of Land Reform and Development (ALRD), 95 percent of women in Bangladesh do not own land. Land ownership is a huge step towards women empowerment, which will boost their confidence, self-worth, and dignity. Steps should be taken to reduce the double work burden on women. Development plans must have the budget to set up childcare centres in rural areas, efficient cooking stoves, and water collecting systems. Most importantly, the male members of the family should come out of their social norms and practices and assist women in their household chores.
With Bangladesh poised to become a middle-income country by 2040, and the personal commitment of the prime minister to empower all women, it is high time the contribution of rural women was recognised as the productive force that it is. Rural women and girls are waiting to be included as the essential part of the growth and progress taking place in Bangladesh today. They should no longer work behind the scenes as assistants to men, or live as second-class members of their families. Now is the time for them to rise, raise their collective voices, and claim their rights as equal partners to ensure sustainable development.
Shaheen Anam is executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation.