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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women holds general discussion on rural women

7 October 2013

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning held a half-day general discussion on rural women, in view of receiving inputs and contributions for its General Recommendation on rural women that it will start drafting in 2013.

In her opening remarks, Nicole Ameline, Committee Chairperson, said rural women made crucial contributions to the development of their communities but their rights remained insufficiently addressed. Today’s discussion marked the start of the process of elaborating the General Recommendation on rural women, whose purpose was to provide guidance to States parties on the measures to be adopted to ensure full compliance with their obligations to protect, respect and fulfil the human rights of rural women.

In an opening statement Elisabeth Rasmusson, Assistant Executive Director of Partnerships and Governance, World Food Programme, speaking on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, United Nations Women and the World Food Programme, said of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people in the world 70 per cent lived in rural areas. Rural women carried most of the unpaid work burden due to the lack of infrastructure and services. Over 150 million people would be lifted out of hunger if women had equal access to land, education, tools, technologies, credit markets and participation.

Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said rural women were human beings without status, which made them vulnerable. Customs and traditions in many parts of the world limited women’s equal access to productive resources. The rights of rural women must be removed from a legislative theory to an actuality on the ground.

Naela Gabr, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s Working Group on Rural Women, said that the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was the first instrument to recognize explicitly rural – urban differences. By naming rural women as a distinct population the Convention moved beyond the implicit focus on urban populations that characterized a great deal of contemporary law making.

Emna Aouij, Vice-Chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, said rural women faced many types of discrimination and violation of their rights, particularly regarding decision-making and empowerment. Priority areas must be the improvement of working and living conditions, creation of jobs for rural women, giving them access to credit and to save money in a bank, and improving their ability to own land.

Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, presented his Human Rights Council report ‘Gender, Food Security and Nutrition’ and began by saying the relationship between women’s equality and the right to food was real and very important. Empowering women strengthened the availability of food. The situation of children was significantly improved when women had a say in how the household budget was spent, and the cycle of discrimination against rural women must be broken.

Mayra Gomez, Co-Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, focused on secure rights to land for rural women which was a critical issue and could itself be a prism through which structural patterns of gender inequality could be revealed. Women produced 50 per cent of food globally, and up to 80 per cent in the developing world, but globally it was estimated that only one per cent of women owned land.

Catarina De Albuquerque, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, said in the 12 county missions she had undertaken since taking on her mandate she had found that rural women suffered more than rural men, or urban women, of lack of access to water and sanitation. Lack of access to sanitation affected human dignity and undermined the enjoyment of women and girls’ human rights.

Violet Shivutse, Representative of Groots Kenya, an organization of grass-roots women, spoke about Kenya as a case study, where less than five per cent of rural women owned land, and her organization’s work to improve women’s access to land and property by awareness-raising, improvement of legal knowledge and accountability, provision of economic and social safety nets, and work to empower rural women to monitor policies that governed land rights.

States parties to the Convention speaking in the discussion were Australia, Spain, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela and Syria. The following United Nations agencies took the floor: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development and International Labour Organization.

Non-governmental organizations speaking were Landesa, in a joint statement on behalf of seven non-governmental organizations, FIAN International, in a joint statement on behalf of 14 non-governmental organizations, International Disability Alliance, Centre for Reproductive Rights, Soroptimist International, CARE International, Asociacion Colectivo Mujeres al Derecho Colombia, Arundhati Bhattacharyya India and the Centro de investigación y educación popular Colombia.

Statements and documentation relating to today’s discussion can be found on the Committee’s dedicated webpage.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today, 7 October, when it will hold an informal public meeting with non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions on the reports of Cambodia, Tajikistan and Seychelles, which the Committee will review this week.

Welcome by the Chairperson

NICOLE AMELINE, Chairperson of the Committee, said rural women made crucial contributions to the development of their communities. Despite some improvements in rural women’s status in both developing and developed countries, their rights and priorities remained insufficiently addressed in legal frameworks, national and local policies, budgets, as well as in development and investment strategies at all levels. The Chairperson said thanks must be given to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s Working Group on Rural Women which brought to life the initial idea to develop a General Recommendation on rural women. Today’s discussion was the beginning of the process of elaborating a General Recommendation on rural women. The purpose of the General Recommendation would be to provide appropriate and authoritative guidance to States parties, rights holders and other stakeholders on how best to protect, respect and fulfil the human rights of rural women. Today provided the Committee an opportunity to receive oral and written inputs to assist it in the drafting of the General Recommendation, of which an initial draft would be shared with participants in due course.

Opening Statements

ELISABETH RASMUSSON, Assistant Executive Director of Partnerships and Governance, World Food Programme, said she spoke today on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, United Nations Women and the World Food Programme. Ms. Rasmusson began by quoting Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 statistics that showed that of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people in the world (those living on less than USD1.25 per day) 70 per cent lived in rural areas. Most of those people depended either completely or partly on agriculture, and 43 per cent of them were women. Any discussion about decent work must reflect the burden of unpaid care work. Rural women carried most of the unpaid work burden due to the lack of infrastructure and services. Over 150 million people would be lifted out of hunger if women had equal access to land, education, tools, technologies, credit markets and participation.

The empowerment of rural women and girls cut across the mandate of the four agencies; and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UN Women and the World Food Programme were committed to achieving a world of equity without hunger. That required all parties to address rural women’s economic empowerment through the promotion of gender equality and their rights. By joining forces, greater and more sustainable results could be achieved. Addressing the persistent gender inequalities and discrimination experienced by rural women required eliminating structural factors that caused and reproduced those inequalities in the economic, social and political domains. Empowerment was fundamental also for addressing gender-based violence, which was more acute in rural areas and where harmful practices were more widespread. To achieve that, partnerships must be made with men and boys to support and champion positive changes towards the status and condition of rural women. Gender must be mainstreamed into all rural, agricultural and development policies, plans and budgets. Macroeconomic policies must be especially sensitive to their impact on rural women. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was truly important in improving recognition of the needs of rural women, and should guide gender-responsive rural development.

IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said there was no doubt that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was one of the most active treaty bodies and especially on women’s rights. Rural women were human beings without status, which made them vulnerable. They suffered intersectional forms of discrimination, because they were women, poor, rural residents and or indigenous, and because they rarely owned land or other assets. Customs and traditions in many parts of the world limited women’s equal access to productive resources. The rights of rural women must be removed from a legislative theory to an actuality on the ground.

Introduction of the General Recommendation on Rural Women

NAELA GABR, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s Working Group on Rural Women, said that the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was the first instrument to recognize explicitly rural – urban differences. By naming rural women as a distinct population the Convention moved beyond the implicit focus on urban populations that characterized a great deal of contemporary law making. Ms. Gabr spoke about Article 14 of the Convention, which was dedicated to rural women, and the Committee and other human rights mechanisms’ work on the human rights of rural women. She praised the large contributions to the promotion of the human rights of rural women made by non-governmental organizations, which included awareness-raising activities, exchange of best practices, diffusion of know-how, creation of projects and more. Ms. Gabr also spoke about the value of academic research on the issue. In conclusion, Ms. Gabr said the upcoming General Recommendation on Article 14 would provide an opportunity to address issues of gender-based discrimination in rural areas and to develop a framework on State obligations to eliminate discrimination and promote substantive equality for rural women.

Keynote Speakers

EMNA AOUIJ, Vice-Chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, said the Working Group was established by the Human Rights Council by a resolution passed in October 2010, and consisted of five independent experts balanced in terms of geographical representation. The group sought to establish good practice, make recommendations to States parties and discuss ways of meeting the Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goal 3. Rural women faced many types of discrimination and violation of their rights, Ms. Aouij said, giving several examples, such as a recent visit to Morocco by members of the Working Group where they found that child marriage affected 21 per cent of rural girls, which led to serious health problems in pregnancy.

Regarding decision-making and empowerment, 63 per cent of unmarried women in urban areas usually made their own household decisions as opposed to 32 per cent of rural women. In Tunisia a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on rural women’s attitude to politics found that only 10 per cent of rural women aged between 19 and 24 participated in the 2011 elections. Rural women believed they were not entitled to discuss politics, they lived in a private and closed environment, while politics took place in a public sphere. Priorities must be the improvement of working and living conditions, creation of jobs for rural women, giving them access to credit and to save money in a bank, and improving their ability to own land.

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, presented his Human Rights Council report ‘Gender, Food Security and Nutrition’ and began by saying that the relationship between women’s equality and the right to food was real and very important. Empowering women strengthened the availability of food. The situation of children was significantly improved when women had a say in how the household budget was spent, as when women’s rights were recognized their bargaining position was improved, and their household choices benefitted the health, nutrition and education of children. Nutritional outcomes were directly improved by women’s empowerment, which led to women marrying later, having fewer children, and therefore better health and nutrition levels for all the family.

The Special Rapporteur said the cycle that must be broken was as follows: girls were less educated, therefore had less access to employment and economic activity outside the household, they had to stay at home to care for the children and the elderly and had a weak bargaining position within their own household; and they suffered from time poverty and so had fewer opportunities to seek education and outside employment, leading to mobility barriers. The discrimination women faced needed to be recognized, they needed some relief of the burdens they carried; and women’s load should be redistributed by challenging stereotypical gender roles and involving men in change. The Special Rapporteur set out how social protection tools, such as cash transfers, public works, asset transfers and school-feeding, could help make huge changes to the situation of rural women.

MAYRA GOMEZ, Co-Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said her presentation focused on secure rights to land for rural women. Land was a critical issue for rural women, and could itself be a prism through which structural patterns of gender inequality could be revealed. Women produced 50 per cent of food globally, and up to 80 per cent in the developing world. The livelihoods and welfare of rural women was inextricably linked to their secure rights to land, and secure land rights could be transformative for women and their communities. However, globally it was estimated that only one per cent of women owned land. In many countries women were restricted to secondary land rights, holding their rights through a male family member.

Many systems of customary law around the world did not allow widowed women to inherit land from their deceased husbands, and theme women were subject to ‘property-grabbing’ by male in-laws. When women did have access to land, their parcels of land were usually smaller and of lower quality than men’s. Secure rights to land for rural women helped to raise their status within their families and communities, leading to women’s increased decision-making power, greater autonomy and greater participation in the community. Research suggested that secure land rights for women may help reduce the spread of HIV AIDS by promoting their economic empowerment and thus reducing their vulnerability to gender-based violence, unsafe sex and other AIDS-related risk factors. Ms. Gomez made several recommendations, including for States to reform discriminatory inheritance laws, address customary traditions, raise awareness about secure land rights for women and ensure legal and support services for women wishing to enforce their rights.

CATARINA DE ALBUQUERQUE, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, said in the 12 county missions she had undertook since taking on her mandate she had found that rural women suffered more than rural men, or urban women, of lack of access to water and sanitation. Lack of access to sanitation affected human dignity and undermined the enjoyment of women and girl’s human rights. Sanitation was one of the most off-track targets of the Millennium Development Goals and 2.5 billion people did not have access. United Nations data showed that one billion people still had no option but to practice open defecation daily, which made women particularly vulnerable to violence, including sexual violence. Women in Bangladesh had to hide behind bushes to defecate in the dark. People living on small Pacific islands had to go in the ocean, she said recalling a woman in Tuvalu who had to carry her old mother to the ocean every time she needed to relieve herself, as she could not walk. In Egypt an elderly lady lived with her family in a one-room hut where she had to use her neighbour’s toilet, but felt too embarrassed to use it in the night or when she had diarrhoea.

Many rural girls did not attend school when they had their periods, because sanitary pads were too expensive. Girls in Bangkok told of how they went home during school breaks to clean themselves, but girls in rural areas lived too far away to do that. Teachers spoke about how they bought toilet paper and soap with their meagre salaries to make sure girls had access to sanitation and hygiene in school. Rural women who ended up working as sex workers in cities, such as migrants from rural Myanmar and Thailand who went to Bangkok, were often charged by their employer to use a bathroom after they performed their services. Data collection must be enhanced, as many States simply did not pay attention to certain sectors, including rural women, unless they were obliged to report on them.

VIOLET SHIVUTSE, Representative of Groots Kenya, said Groots Women was an organization of grass-roots women. Women constituted the majority of the rural population and of the world’s poor. They provided 80 to 90 per cent of labour in subsistence farming and 70 per cent in cash crop production, but they disproportionately shouldered the burden of sustaining households. Ms. Shivutse spoke about Kenya as a case study, where less than five per cent of rural women owned land. Land and asset stripping was rampant, and aggravated by the HIV AIDS pandemic. Access to justice was complex and expensive. The Succession Act and Customary Law were conflicting when it came to the rights of rural women.

Groots Kenya was working to improve rural women’s access to land and property by awareness-raising, improving legal knowledge, holding local dialogues with duty bearers to improve accountability, providing economic and social safety nets, championing transformative leadership and influencing governance, and promoting peer learning to promote initiatives across cultural and national boundaries. Among her recommendations Ms. Shivutse said rural women should be empowered to monitor policies that governed land rights, such as through the Community Land and Property Watchdog groups expanded throughout 11 Africa countries, via the organization Women Land Link Africa.

Oral Statements by Stakeholders

States Parties

Australia said one third of all Australian women lived in regional communities, and while the number of women living in rural communities was low, the vastness of Australia and the isolation of rural communities presented particular challenges. Australia was working to improve women’s access to key services, including education and training, which led directly to better employment opportunities and enabled women to become drivers of economic growth. Access to information and communications technologies was also an enabling factor. Globally Australia’s aid programme supported the GSMA Women Programme which aimed to expand mobile telephone access to poor women.

Spain said it was a huge paradox that the territorial area where women’s input was most important was where they were least recognized. Gender disaggregated data and statistics collection had to be improved. All public policies must devote a specific chapter to the needs of rural women. Women must be seen as a key element in the economic participation of the rural world. The skills of educated rural women must be better used, for example in Spain, the percentage of rural women with university degrees, was twice that of men (20 per cent compared to 10 per cent).

Cuba said it had been working for a long time on the issue and as a result had identified challenges and problems faced by rural women in Cuba. Some rural communities, particularly in mountainous areas, often did not have jobs for women. When women did work their work was not recognized, as it was often not full-time hours. In 2012 Cuba started a new development phase that included actions to improve the provision of recreational land to women, resulting in over 17,000 women now holding over 10 per cent of the land.

Brazil said in rural areas women accounted for a significant proportion of the agricultural labour force, played an essential role in food production and performed most of the unpaid work. Yet rural women and girls were more vulnerable to poverty, lack of education and violence. The Government of Brazil had taken several initiatives since 2003 to ensure that rural women could participate in and benefit from rural development, and to combat gender-based violence. Rural women’s empowerment was key.

Venezuela said no measure to help rural women could be successful if not accompanied by a policy of measures of equality. The Venezuelan Government had launched several policies, particularly in the granting of loans, equipment, infrastructure, training and technical assistance to rural communities and particularly to women. In its seventh National Agricultural Census Venezuela had included a gender aspect in order to disaggregate data by gender in future.

Syria said the Syrian Government had always considered women to be a driving force in economic development. Rural people, including women, were the hardest hit by violence stemming from the horrors of terrorism currently afflicting Syria; the result of armed terrorist groups supported and financed by the parties known to all, who were guilty of crimes against the Syrian people. Rural areas of Syria and rural women were the first to bear the brunt of sanctions which prevented them from enjoying their right to development and other rights. The speaker also spoke about the suffering of rural women in the Israeli-occupied Golan territory.

Thailand said as a developing country with a large population of rural women, today’s discussion was timely. A holistic approach was needed to address the issues, especially to enhance women’s political participation, and help rural women access jobs and services. The allocation of resources to support rural women and the prioritization of female-headed households were crucial. The speaker outlined a number of actions taken by the Thai Government to empower rural women and girls.

United Nations Agencies

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, proposed five priority issues that the Committee should address in its General Recommendation. States parties should promote rural women’s leadership and participation in rural institutions and in shaping laws and policies. The recommendation should emphasize the broadening of social protection programmes, and underscore the urgency to employ more women in agricultural roles. It should also emphasize the need for mitigation of the impact of disasters, and the need for building rural women’s technical knowledge in food harvesting techniques, preservation, storage, packaging and marketing systems.

International Fund for Agricultural Development, said her organization, which was a United Nations specialized agency, had worked for 35 years on rural and agricultural development. Today agriculture was on the verge of a new era. With the world population expected to pass nine billion by 2050, demand for food would only rise. The face of rural poverty was also changing, while climate change was another looming threat on the horizon for some, and a reality for others. Rural women had to play an important role in that new era, and their economic empowerment must be promoted, as well as their voice. Finally, their workload had to be reduced.

International Labour Organization said it focused on rural women’s empowerment as a key strategic objective of its mandate to improve rural livelihoods. It repeatedly called on States to promote gender and social justice in rural communities and strengthen the participation of women in workers’ organizations and cooperatives in rural areas. The International Labour Organization was working on promoting rural women’s entrepreneurship and supported constituents through research, knowledge-sharing, policy advice and technical cooperation.

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said rural women experienced a range of harmful traditional practices which increased their vulnerability to HIV infection and impact. For rural women living with HIV, accessing goods and services to reduce the impact of HIV infection was a major and overarching challenge. In its recommendation the Committee must ensure that States reported on steps taken to ensure that rural women could access HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services; provide better disaggregated data; eradicate harmful traditional practices and gender-based violence; as well as support rural women care givers.

Non-Governmental Organizations

Landesa, in a joint statement on behalf of seven non-governmental organizations, said secure land rights were essential for women to enjoy their right to equality, and provide for their essential needs and those of their families. The organizations made several recommendations to the Committee, including the need to emphasize that States had an obligation to establish clear legal and regulatory frameworks to protect women’s secure right to land, to disseminate information on their land rights, and to ensure that discriminatory customary law did not hinder women’s right to land.

FIAN International, in a joint statement on behalf of 14 non-governmental organizations, first asked the Committee to explicitly recognize the right to adequate food and nutrition in its forthcoming General Recommendation. It highlighted five key areas to be addressed by the recommendation that included the need to protect women’s access to natural resources; guarantees of decent work for rural women workers; recognition of the “intertwined subjectivities” of mother and child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding; the value and protection of the many roles of rural women; and the importance of an adequate legal and constitutional framework.

International Disability Alliance said United Nations data estimated that 15 per cent of the world’s population were persons with disabilities, most of whom lived in rural areas of developing countries, where women made up three quarters of the population. Rural women with disabilities had largely been absent in the statements heard today, the organization said, asking the Committee to increase its attention on the intersectional barriers impeding the full inclusion of women and girls with disabilities living in rural environments, and to call on States to ensure they carry out the necessary reforms.

Centre for Reproductive Rights said that rural women had less money to pay for reproductive health services, and usually lived further away from health facilities. Furthermore, they were disproportionately affected by State-imposed legal restrictions on reproductive rights, including access to abortion. States needed to ensure a wide range of reproductive health information and services, including contraception and abortion, were legal, physically accessible and free or a low cost to rural women to enable them to make meaningful choices about their reproductive health.

Soroptimist International, said as a global voice for women, it called upon stakeholders to prioritize sustainable development, particularly for rural women, and made a number of recommendations, including the need to recognize the important role of women as the primary producers and purchasers of food and ensure that actions taken to empower rural women were system-based and horizontal, rather than project-based and vertical.

CARE International listed areas of guidance it would like the Committee to include in its recommendation, such as that States address discrimination in land ownership and tenure, engage women in policy-making and planning processes at all levels, increase investment in women smallholders and ensure funding was gender-sensitive and reached women smallholders. It also said that Governments should implement planning processes to identify the constraints rural women faced in accessing information, markets and natural and productive resources.

Asociacion Colectivo Mujeres al Derecho Colombia said the association had been developing legal action for rural women making land claims in Colombia. The agrarian land reform legislation of 1994 was supposed to benefit women heads of households who were vulnerable to violence. However, the reform did not end the gender gap and by 2009 it was estimated that for each 100 men who benefited from a land purchase under that legislation, only 39 women had. Additionally, the armed conflict had meant rural women had frequently had to abandon their land.

Arundhati Bhattacharyya India, said the rural woman of India was the epitome of strength, performing her daily duties from dawn until dusk, and frequently working the land at night, but her contribution was unrecognized. Girls had to work in the household from a young age, were married off at a very early age, and women rarely had the option to own land or assets. The representative spoke about the 2005 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a flagship programme that was slowly bringing change to the overall level of empowerment of rural Indian women.

Centro de investigación y educación popular Colombia spoke about the impact of mining activities on rural women. The Mining Energy Sector accounted for seven per cent of the GDP and 50 per cent of Colombia’s exports, and had increased at a dizzying rate. However, it had hugely impacted poor and indigenous women. The representative spoke about those impacts, such as to maternal mortality, the nutrition rates, as well as poverty and empowerment.

Closing Remarks

NAELA GABR, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s Working Group on rural women, thanked all parties for their support today, including United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations, but especially the States parties for attending, sharing their success stories, and listening. The General Recommendation was aimed directly at the States parties, so the Committee needed to have them on board at all stages of the exercise. The Committee understood and fully agreed with the need for a holistic approach to tackle the issue of rural women. Ms. Gabr highlighted the importance of data collection, and especially of a gendered approach to legislation. Although rural women were often invisible, Ms. Gabr emphasized that human rights could not be achieved without respect of the human rights of rural women

NICOLE AMELINE, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked all speakers for their contributions to the discussion, which had been a successful initiative with many useful recommendations.


The Committee’s concluding observations will be made available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=812&Lang=en on Monday 21 October.

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