Rural gender inequalities (1): demographic factors, women’s economic participation, and implications for rural development

Written by Libor Stloukal and Susan Kaaria, Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equity Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Rome, Italy

This blog looks at gender inequalities in rural areas, with the aim to sketch how they are shaped by demographic factors; highlight consequences for rural women’s economic participation; and outline broader implications for agriculture, food security and sustainable rural development.

Read part two on the feminisation of agriculture, and COVID-19, here.

Few factors shape the development agenda – and therefore efforts to eliminate hunger, reduce poverty and strengthen food security and nutrition – as fundamentally as the size, demographic structure and spatial distribution of national populations. Adequate understanding of demographic trends, and their implications for social phenomena like gender equality, is thus key to fight socio-economic inequalities and achieve important development goals.

In 2019, the world’s population surpassed 7.7 billion and if current trends continue, it is likely to reach 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050 (UN DESA, 2019). Global population trends are driven largely by trends in fertility, often measured by the average number of births per woman over a lifetime. This indicator has fallen markedly in many regions over the past several decades. Today, close to half of the global population lives in a country or area where lifetime fertility is below 2.1 births per woman. In 2019, fertility remains above this level, on average, in sub-Saharan Africa (4.6), Oceania (3.4), Northern Africa and Western Asia (2.9), and Central and Southern Asia (2.4). Globally, the level of fertility is expected to fall from an average of 2.5 live births per woman in 2019 to 2.2 in 2050 and to 1.9 in 2100, according to the medium-variant projection. The largest reductions in the level of total fertility are projected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result of these differentials in regional fertility levels, most of the population growth projected for the 2020-2050 period will be concentrated in a limited number of countries. A decisive share of this growth will occur in the least developed countries (LDCs), whose economies continue to be heavily dependent on agriculture. Although the LDCs currently contain only 13% of the world population, they are projected to account for 42% of the global population growth during the next thirty years. The massive population growth expected in LDCs will put additional pressure on resources and the environment, as well as strain the already limited capacities of LDCs’ governments to provide adequate services and develop appropriate policy responses.

Persistence of very high fertility in LDCs: a driver of gender inequality

High fertility rates in certain developing countries appears to be an important driver of gender inequality. The LDCs are a case in point. Fertility decline in LDCs has been markedly slower than in the other developing countries. The total fertility rate in LDCs is estimated to be 4.0 children per woman in 2015-2020, in contrast to 2.6 for the rest of the developing world and 2.5 for the world as a whole. This very high level of fertility has wide-ranging implications:

In LDCs, childbearing and childcare occupy a much larger portion of women’s lifespan than in more demographically advanced countries. In addition to direct health effects (e.g. maternal mortality and other pregnancy-related health risks), high fertility rates create conflict between women’s domestic and non-domestic responsibilities, and reduce their capacity to access educational and employment opportunities outside the domestic sphere. Having many children and/or short birth intervals also prevents women to maintain continuity of employment, with negative implications for their earnings and occupational choices, as well as employers’ willingness to hire and train them.

Fertility-related constraints

While it varies by country, in many low and middle-income countries, agriculture is the main employment activity for the majority of rural women and men (FAO, 2019).  For example, almost 70 percent of employed women in Southern Asia and more than 60 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture (ILO, 2018). In terms of farm support, women constitute a significant proportion of contributing family workers, partly because such work makes combining productive with reproductive responsibilities easier than employment away from the family farm.

However, because of competing demands of care responsibility within the household and productive work, women face limitations in terms of the time and energy they can dedicate to economic activities. As a result, and because of additional factors such as women’s lower literacy levels, women are less likely to engage in wage employment than men, and, when they do, they are more likely to be segregated in less secure forms of employment, e.g. part-time, seasonal and/or low-paying jobs in the informal economy. They also tend to be paid less for equivalent jobs and comparable levels of education and experience.

Women typically confront a narrower range of job opportunities than men. In general, therefore, livelihoods diversification is more of an option for rural men than for women. In settings where it is male labour that is predominantly able to take advantage of diversification opportunities, women may be relegated back to the domestic sphere and to subsistence food production. In this sense, diversification can improve livelihood security of some households, while at the same time trapping women in customary roles.

A key implication of the above is that demographic factors are powerful determinants of women’s participation and roles in agriculture and rural development. In many rural settings, the existing demographic regime, combined with the constraints that women face in the social and economic spheres, undermine women’s ability to contribute to development to their full potential, with negative consequences for productivity, inclusiveness and resilience of agri-food systems.

Part two (1st February 2021) of this blog series will look at rural gender inequalities and feminisation of agriculture and COVID-19. A full references list will be included.

Feature photo: Agro-pastoralist women collect harvest greens next to their crops in Amudat, Uganda next to the Kenyan border on January 26, 2020. ©FAO/Luis Tato.

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