Celebrating the International Day of Rural Women: A rethink

by Greg Clough

Recently, I joined many other bloggers around the world in highlighting the importance of the International Day of Rural Women, celebrated by the United Nations on 16 October. The day aims to recognise and celebrate the vital role that rural women play in agriculture, food security, and rural development.

In my blog, “A Salute to Rural Women”, I celebrated that role by drawing on my experience of observing women rice farmers in West Java. But the next day, I started rethinking some of my original views. Subsequently, I wrote a second blog, “International Day of Rural Women: The Morning After”, challenging some of my earlier assumptions. Let’s look at some of those challenges. But first, let’s review the assumptions that prompted them. In “A Salute to Rural Women”, I wrote the following.

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“With today marking the International Day of Rural Women, there are many things we need to be grateful for. In the global south, women’s increasing role in leading communities and participating in decision-making is promoting inclusive and equitable development in rural areas. And despite the greater time spent fulfilling the community role they increasingly play, women remain the primary caregivers, responsible for household chores, childcare and elder care in rural communities. Rural women also do a lot more than engage in community leadership and caregiving. Perhaps their biggest contribution to rural life is the hard and sweaty labour they contribute to farming — the endless hours spent planting and tending crops, raising livestock and ensuring their family, community and country have enough to eat.

Women farmers in West Java

I live in West Java and am always amazed at the effort women put into working the local rice fields. They are actively involved in tending to the paddies and harvesting the crop. A common sight is a group of sarong-clad women beneath pointy rattan hats, breaking their backs in knee-high water, transplanting rice seedlings. And all grinning and laughing with each other. After five or six months of weeding, thinning the field and keeping a close eye on water levels, they break their backs again harvesting their valuable produce. But the work doesn’t end there. Before they can profit from their labour, they have to thresh the grains from the husks and stalks. Then, they have to throw the rice in the air and “winnow” the chaff and plant debris from the heavier grains. Fortunately, threshing and winnowing are increasingly mechanised. Unsurprisingly, men are quick to step in when it comes to handling the machinery. Although I have read this is changing as we see greater gender equity.

At the risk of “virtue signalling”, I hope the International Day of Rural Women reminds us of the valuable contributions women make in rural communities, not just in West Java but around the world. And not just in rural communities but in all communities. I also hope we recognise and support the ongoing changes towards greater gender equality. This progress is a testament to the determination of women – rural and urban – to lead and shape their communities.

I think we can all salute that!

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As already noted, come October 17, I had second thoughts about my blog saluting rural women. I wrote a second blog, “International Day of Rural Women: The Morning After”. I was concerned that many of the well-intentioned blogs about rural women progressing were well intentioned but often misguided – not all, but many, and particularly my own.

Sure, women’s empowerment has increased. Setting aside a day to celebrate rural women and their increasing leadership is clear testament to that. But, once the day is over … come the morning after, it’s equally important to admit women’s empowerment, rural or urban, has a long way to go. Again, I drew on my experience of West Java. After recapping my main comments in “A Salute to Rural Women”, I wrote in the following blog that International Day of Rural Women “is a great day to champion great accomplishments. But there is always a tomorrow. And as the exuberance of the International Day of Rural Women subsides, we owe it to them to acknowledge the less-than-champion accomplishments and demand even greater women’s empowerment.

Let’s consider the situation in Indonesia.

Violence against women: A 2017 government survey found one in three Indonesian women had experienced violence in their lifetime, inflicted by their spouse or someone they knew. One study reported that the prevalence of lifetime exposure to sexual and physical violence was 22% and 11% among women in rural areas. Disturbingly, the rate of gender-based violence in Indonesia continues to increase. The World Health Organization says cases of violence against women in Indonesia rose 50% between 2020 and 2021.

Child marriage: According to UNICEF, one in nine Indonesian women marry before they turn 18, with girls in rural areas three times more likely to marry before the age of 18, hindering their schooling, job opportunities and economic development. Much worse, marrying too young exposes girls to exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth. If there is any single fact that challenges the narrative surrounding rural women’s independence, it is that most female teenage prostitutes are recruited and trafficked from rural areas.

Access to education: Although female students have relatively equal access to education, studies confirm that there is discrimination against the poor, women, and those in rural areas – especially when it comes to accessing quality education that will lead to equal employment opportunities. For rural students, the challenges include a lack of transportation, adequate school facilities, staff attendance, and qualified trained teachers.
None of this is to suggest women’s empowerment is not on the Indonesian government’s agenda. It is. However, reports suggest mainstreaming gender equity at all levels of government is blocked by a series of problems and challenges. Obstacles to empowering women include social and cultural barriers, limited resources and capacity, lack of coordination and monitoring and, critically, political will and leadership. One report argues that the major problem faced is “the continuing occurrence of violence against women and vulnerable groups”.

Celebrating all that is good about the International Day of Rural Women is commendable. But we must also confront the stark realities. In Indonesia, violence against women remains a social plague in both rural and urban areas. Child marriage still happens too often, and it’s mostly in rural kampungs. Access to quality education remains unequal, hindering employment opportunities. While the government’s efforts to empower women face numerous obstacles, they must nevertheless persist with their efforts.
It has been said before, but it bears repeating. Empowering women is not only the right thing to do. It is the smart thing. Simply put, 50% of the population is female. When we don’t empower women, we are not making full use of the expertise, wisdom and skills available to build a better world.”

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Unquestionably, the International Day of Rural Women inspires much to celebrate. However, as indicated in my follow-up blog, “International Day of Rural Women: The Morning After,” there remains much to commiserate. Gender-based violence, child marriage, and educational disparities persist in many countries, hindering not only women’s progress but also sustainable development. Empowering women isn’t just a social obligation. It’s a strategic choice for a more prosperous society.

Banner photo: Shura. Indonesian women winnowing rice in a paddy field. Wikimedia Commons.

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