Rural Women Activists Share Their Biggest Successes – and Battles Ahead

At the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, we speak with activists from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines about the progress they’ve made on economic advancement for women in their communities – and the challenges that lie ahead.

Written by Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Left to Right: Sepali Kottegoda, Maria Leyesa, Sohini Shoaib, Wekoweu (Akole) Tsuha.UN Women/Ryan Brown

NEW YORK – The 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women has brought activists from around the world to the United Nations headquarters.

As the U.N. Bureau of the Commission facilitates negotiations on this year’s priority theme, “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” News Deeply sat down with four activists who work in different rural areas in Asia to discuss their priorities for women’s advancement.

We asked each of them what success they had seen so far, and what progress still needed to be made for women in their communities.

Maria Leyesa is the rural women coordinator for the Philippine Peasant Institute, convention leader for the First National Rural Women Congress and the secretary-general of the National Rural Women Coalition.

Progress Made: The organizing of women’s groups at all levels. Self-help groups are very much accessible to women on a grassroots level. Informally but on a regular basis, they’re able to meet with each other, and mobilize savings and credit among themselves that they then establish policies on. They act as a mutual support for each other. After that, they can expand their organization into the higher level, cluster level and mini-village level and then to the level of the municipality or town.

While they are doing small-group organizing, they can reach the potential of really building a strong network of rural women.

What I am very much inspired by from these self-help groups is more than economic advancement, more than the economic impact; it is self-confidence. Before, especially for Indigenous women, it was difficult for them to go out of their houses and face people and speak to them and market their goods to them. More often than not, traders would just get their products at the farm level at an extremely low price. That’s where exploitation happens, as well. Now that they have greater confidence, they can go to street trading centers where they meet other Indigenous women and they can market their own goods and set their own prices.

We have 10-year-old self-help groups now. And as a collective, they are able to have millions in funds, loaned out among each other. As part of economic recognition, that should also be counted.

Progress Needed: We see more and more women engaging in the economy, but there’s really one thing that we are not yet quite feeling, which is having control over the resources – over land, over water and over ancestral domains.

At this conference, we speak of women in rural areas but is there enough rural area to speak about in the first place? Are there enough resources in the countryside that we have control of? It doesn’t mean that we are questioning development per se. Really what we are asking is: What is rural industrialization?

So, rapid urbanization and, of course, [we are] very critical about extractive industries in the Philippines. I’ve seen mountains being literally turned upside down, where the stockpile is higher than the original mountain. Where do rural women go in those conditions? They are being displaced, not only from their farms, but even from their homes.

Even if they’re able to mobilize at the self-help level, even if they have enough money, they’re still confronted with the thought of anytime now we will be displaced. So it’s really the control over these resources, the ultimate control, and being able to voice their position.

Sepali Kottegoda is an academic, women’s rights activist and technical adviser on women’s economic rights and media at the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka.

Progress Made: It’s a complex issue – but the migration of women to Middle East countries or what we call West Asian countries. Women go into the international informal sector and most often they do not have the protection of even local laws, if there are any. Some countries don’t have local laws that protect domestic workers.

However, look at what happens when these women return – they bring money. They have been sending money home, they have built their houses, sent their children to better schools, nutrition has gone up. There has actually been this change in women’s roles in society as income earners. [Then, when] other women go, they are much more confident than they were 30 years ago. So it’s an obligation of the government to ensure their safety, but recognition has to be given that this has actually made a huge difference in women’s ability to make decisions for themselves and for their families on finances.

Progress Needed: Where we still have to make tangible progress is in challenging patriarchal norms.

I think what’s very important in unpaid care work is to distinguish the emotional bonds that there are and the gender norms that expect women to take on the work of unpaid care.

When I have started talking about unpaid care work in Sri Lanka, I’ve had usually one of two responses. One is, “Why do you want to question this? This is what [women] do because [they] love their families and you are coming in and you are trying to bring in something that is not there.”

This mostly comes from men, but women kind of squirm a little. They understand what I’m saying but for them it’s like breaking their emotional bonds. What I say is, “No one is questioning the emotional bonds. We all do it – I do it – but it is work.”

Why is it that we have to abide by some definition of work that keeps the work that women do completely out of the picture? Our population [in Sri Lanka] is close to 21 million, out of which 7 million are designated as being outside the labor force – that is, they are economically inactive. Out of that 7 million, 5 million are engaged in housework. We have these 5 million women who are not considered to be contributing to the economy of the country.

Many of the development agencies speak about getting women into the labor force, but they don’t talk about unpaid care work. Number one: Recognize unpaid care work. Define it. Following from there [can be] very clear employer policies that [would] recognize men’s role in care within the household. In countries like ours, if men say, for example, “My child is sick, I need to take leave,” the employer asks, “Why can’t your wife take leave?” There are men who want to take care of their children [but] it’s kind of understood that they are not required to do so or [others] will say, “Oh, this man is under his wife’s thumb.”

Wekoweu (Akole) Tsuha, from India, works at the North East Network (NEN), a women’s rights organization, where she engages with issues of rural women and girls in Nagaland.

Progress Made: We are working in a context in northeastern India that is quite marginalized and excluded from the policy and development discourse. Particularly the state that I come from, we have been having a lot of problems in terms of contracting with the Indian state and the insurgent groups. [People are] very, very poor, particularly in terms of getting access to basic infrastructure.

[Yet] if we’re looking at work participation – whether it’s in agriculture, vending, selling the produce – a lot of progress has actually been made by women. Earlier, women would just do farming for their families and that’s that. Now a lot of the women in the rural areas are participating in terms of bringing in cash income.

Rekha Rose Dukru, an independent candidate from the Chizami seat, with a group of women from Tsupfume village during an election campaign for the Nagaland assembly on Feb. 20, 2018. The 35-year-old Dukru is one of five female candidates trying to become the first woman member of the legislative assembly in the state. (Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Progress Needed: In our state, women don’t have inheritance rights to immovable assets like land and other properties. We have access rights to use the land through our brothers, our fathers and our husbands, but not as women landowners.

For a lot of women, especially in the rural areas, the primary livelihood that they are engaged in is farming. It’s basically subsistence farming. [But] now, we are witnessing a change in land use patterns. There’s this policy and programmatic support for the kind of agriculture that brings in cash; for mono plantations and a cash economy. We are witnessing that when people are shifting from a subsistence kind of agriculture to a system where there is cash crop, men are taking control over even the access to the lands, the community lands, the clan lands, the family lands.

In the biodiverse or subsistence agriculture system, women do have a voice and a capacity to decide what to grow and when to grow it. Outside that system, when there is the market, the cash crop, women’s voices are muted.

One critical issue in my state is the exclusion of women from decision-making bodies, both at the community level and at the state level. We need to see that women participate in these kinds of decision-making bodies because they are deciding about livelihoods.

We still have very strong customary traditions, so while you have the constitutional rights that give you equal rights, when it comes out in reality, the customary laws supersede the constitutional rights. So we are our working out how to sensitize traditional institutions, from man to man, family to family, to understand that it is important for women to also have access and ownership rights of the land.

Sohini Shoaib, from India, works with the Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan, a non-party political union of landless rural workers, marginal farmers and youth, which operates out of six districts of Bihar. Over the past few years they have started engaging with rural youth – with a special emphasis on Dalits, women, those of diverse religious or gender-sexuality identities and people with disabilities – to help build organic second-generation leadership in the community.

Progress Made: I think one area where a lot of progress has happened is that there has been a change in leadership, and by that I mean that women are now seizing power at the grassroots level. Initially, my organization was not focused exclusively on women. What we saw was that for all our public programs, there were mostly women who were turning up because the men would migrate seasonally, go to the cities and work. In terms of membership, you would see 50/50 men and women but when it came to the leadership of the organization, you’d see men. Even though they were all from the untouchable community, from the Dalit community, there was that hierarchy.

In the last three years, we increased our work around gender, because we realized that you have to address it at every stage of union building; it is not a given that just because a union is a political space everything is automatically right with it. It is just like a microcosm of the inequalities that the larger society holds. Through gender workshops and masculinity workshops, we saw change coming where women started speaking up, claiming space for themselves and not receding into the background. And then the younger generation we started working with had enough role models, and they wanted to take it forward and upward from there.

Progress Needed: One of the biggest challenges [that remains] is our union had started off from a specific historical context where the world’s largest employment guarantee program was implemented in India, called the NREGA – National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. What has happened as a result of that is now everybody started seeing this union as a NREGA union.

Being narrowed down to a particular issue, because that’s what most NGOs are doing, makes it a challenge to talk about larger structures of inequality. You have to realize that it’s not just about reformist policies where the state hands out something, and you take that and you’re happy. You have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Suggest your story or issue.

Send

Share Your Story.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more
× Dismiss
We have updated our Privacy Policy with a few important changes specific to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and our use of cookies. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies. Read our full Privacy Policy here.