The importance of achieving gender equality in the rural sector

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Author: Claudia Derbez Fernández

Country: Mexico 

Gender equality in rural areas is a pending issue on which it is essential to make progress. Agriculture remains the largest source of rural employment and women represent at least 50% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, as well as about half of the 600 million small-scale livestock managers globally and approximately 50% of the workforce in small-scale fisheries (FAO, 2020). 

However, the difference between men and women continues to have repercussions in terms of women’s freedom of capabilities, autonomy and decision-making. Gender stereotypes, through which biological differences are converted into structural inequalities, continue to be an obstacle for all women, and to an even greater extent for rural women, as this is a sector where such gender inequalities prevail the most. 

In rural areas in Mexico, women spend up to 33 hours per week on unpaid household work (care work) and men only six: a difference of 27 hours per week. This is much greater than in urban areas, where it is 19.2 hours per week. This undermines women’s options and freedoms, both to have time for paid work and therefore their economic autonomy, and to develop personally in other aspects, according to their skills and interests.

Rural women have lower incomes, less land ownership, less decision-making power over their assets, and less access to social security and health services than men. On average, rural women over 15 years of age have studied only 6.6 years, 2.4 years less than at the national level, which reduces their employment opportunities. In 2015, only 13% of rural women had access to health services and two out of every three maternal deaths lacking medical care occurred in rural locations, affecting their quality of life and life expectancy. Only three out of every ten women working in the agricultural sector receive a salary for their work, an aspect that reveals structural gender inequalities, high labor informality and a greater risk of exposure to occupational accidents.

In Mexico, half of the national territory is social property, in the form of ejidos (communal land) or communities, and a little less than one third of the people who have some type of recognized agrarian rights are women (ejidatarias, comuneras, posesionarias or avecindadas), which is equivalent to 1.4 million women; of these, 48.48% are over 50 years of age. Likewise, only 21% of the representative bodies are made up of women. If women have the same access as men to productive resources, they can significantly increase the productivity of their land, which, in turn, could reduce world hunger (FAO, 2019).

Female agricultural laborers, who do not own or lease the land they work on, face the highest level of marginalization. There are between 300 000 and 500 000 female agricultural laborers in Mexico (INEGI, 2016), and due to the seasonal production cycle, many of these laborers migrate from the south of the country to the north of the country to reach agricultural centers, where they work for a maximum of six months a year. The seasonality of the work and the migratory status reduces their support networks and exposes them to more risks and situations of vulnerability. Of the agricultural laborer population in Mexico, 40% are indigenous, 90% work in vulnerable labor informality and only 3% have a written contract (INEGI, 2016), representing a challenge regarding labor formalization and an opportunity to extend social protection.

Reducing -and eventually eliminating- gender inequalities in the rural sector will contribute to improving the living standards of rural people. At the same time, by increasing women’s level of schooling and their access to financial services and job training, rural employment will be boosted, which will improve the resilience of female laborers and their families, as it has been shown that non-agricultural rural employment contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The promotion of rural development and the improvement of the quality of life of their inhabitants can only be obtained by actively including women in this process.

Claudia Derbez Fernández is a Gender and Social Protection Consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). She has experience working with rural women in different regions of the country through social research, organized civil society and the federal government. She is an internationalist from the Universidad Iberoamericana and holds a master’s degree in Inequalities and Social Sciences from the London School of Economics.

* There is no single estimate of the number of agricultural laborers in Mexico, given their high mobility, the lack of official records, and the existing estimates are not disaggregated by gender or by indigenous or Afro-descendant groups.