by TSUNG SU
The 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) convened in New York City on Febrary 27th for its annual two- week conference, focusing on the priority theme of “the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges.” The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action stresses the importance of policies and implementing mechanisms to improve the life and circumstances of rural women. Their access to education, resources, land use, credit, health care, technology and employment are areas of concern and emphasis. The defining treaty of women’s human rights--
CEDAW-- calls for the States to guarantee the protection of rural women’s human rights, to protect their “ equal access as men to land, markets, health care facilities, training, education and decent living conditions.” It is only through guaranteed protection of women’s human rights that women, rural or urban, can realize their full potentialities as contributing members of their communities.
1. Women Farmers, Not Farmers’ Wives
Indeed, rural women who do actual farming work want to be given full credit as farmers, not to be known as appendix to men farmers, as they so asserted on many panels. It has often been reported that women produce 60-80% of the food stuff consumed in developing countries, yet enjoy little land ownership. Currently in Africa, where women toil hard long hours in rural areas to secure food and water for their household, own only 1% of titled land. This disparity in land ownership is due to patriarchal society’s bias against women’s right to inheritance and property ownership.
Rural women on farms work long and hard, in both developed and developing countries. An Iowan woman farmer from the American ‘corn state’ told of the long hard working days on an operating farm which has been family-owned for generations. Besides hard labor, the 4H club experience, a college education, accessible financing and the support of family members are essential in the operation and maintenance of a working farm. With the help of farm machinery, the task of farming has been made much easier than that of farming in the developing world.
Rural women in many isolated areas of South America, such as in Bolivia and Colombia, rely on community radio centers for information and inter-action. The radio centers also spread health knowledge and AIDS education of children, serving as a hub of cultural events. In Mexico, the internet has been useful to connect rural communities and train residents with skills and aids in literacy. In the Asian and Pacific countries, besides household work, rural women shoulder a large share of farming labor, such as livestock keeping, planting, harvesting, crops management, etc. In Bangladesh, they engage in agriculture, horticulture, and food processing. In Indonesia, women represent the mainstay of rural households, providing for families as well as working as farm laborers. In Pakistan, women are actively engaged in agriculture sectors which employ almost 12 million women in the production of crops, vegetables and live stocks. The cotton crop depends heavily on female labor. In Malaysia, the women labor force has moved from agriculture to the manufacturing sector as the largest employer of women. In Rwanda, Africa Road Inc., a NGO founded by women to help women and orphans rebuild their lives and communities after the 1994 Genocide, aims to bring literacy, education and vocational training to members of their cooperative.
Overall, rural women as a productive labor force have been actively contributing in the task of building their communities and feeding the world. The UN agency UNESCO and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG, target year 2015) have their special projects set to revitalize marginalized rural areas and to bring education to rural girls disadvantaged by isolation and inaccessible school facilities.
2. Life and Hope of Rural Girls
Young teen delegates from rural America and overseas gave insightful presentations on rural life on several panels. A panel sponsored by Girl Scouts of USA brought girls from American farmland and their African counterparts together to tell life-experience stories of both hardships and hope. Girls from rural areas in South Dakota, Missouri, New Hampshire and New York State have been actively and productively engaged in making contributions both at home and in their respective communities. They have help set up recycle centers, planted trees after a tornado hit, organized community events (teen dances and swimming nights), built community gardens then sold the produce at farmer’s markets, tended local parks by planting trees and bushes and adding benches. In some areas, with community help, they have provided food pantries to needy families and special vegetables to diabetic patients. Besides outside volunteering work, the girls also are busily engaged in farming chores, such as feeding livestock, planting, milking, cleaning, caring for younger siblings and many other chores in maintaining an operating farm. With rapid urbanization and the declining of farming and rural living, these girls’ proactive engagement gives glimmers of hope for future agro-life.
Two girl delegates from Africa gave some somber perspectives on rural life on the vast continent. Due to economic and political situations, many areas in rural Africa suffer varying degrees of poverty, shortage of food and drinkable water, inaccessible medical care, isolation and other inconveniences. Many rural girls shoulder large burdens of house-keeping, cooking, cleaning, securing of firewood and water, taking care of siblings, etc.
The girl representative from Rwanda noted that the 1994 massacre left many households with only widows and orphans. Rural life for women and girls suffer many of the ills of poverty and violence. Rape, domestic violence, sexual attacks were often suffered in silence due to the victims’ sense of shame and lack of enforcement mechanisms. Early marriages of young girls to men three or four times their age are also forms of violence. Through education and the concerted effort of government and civic society, girls in Africa are learning the tenets of gender equality, leadership and basic women’s rights. Progress has also been made in inheritance law and other legal mechanisms to allow women inheritance rights and micro-finance for small business.
Noluthando Nzimande, a 17 year old from South Africa, gave an eloquent presentation of rural girls’ life of sorrow and hope. The 7-points program of Emthonjeni (Come to the Well Spring Girls’ Project) being conducted in her country has brought self-confidence, disciple and guidance to many girls, rural or otherwise. The seven points are : life-skill leadership, gender analysis, culture, environment, economy, women’s health, ethics and morality.
The consensus among the girl panelists is that education is invaluable to girls’ well-being and the fact that rural living, though harsh and toiling at times, has taught them from an early age the virtue of work ethics, self-reliance and a strong sense of responsibility.
3. Women and Religion
Each year at the CSW annual Conference, there have been panels on the bliss and plight of Muslim women in different regions. Some of the panels presented views quite opposite from each other, generating vibrant discussions. At this year’s conference, on the matter of ‘Religion and Women’ I will hereby note the following three items of interest:
Appealing for Iranian women’s right to participate in the CSW Conference
A panel sponsored by LDDHI (the Iranian League for Defense of Human Rights), AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), AI (Amnesty International) and other NGOs, with a number of prominent feminist scholars and human rights defenders as panelists, focused on the Iranian women’s right to attend the CSW conference without being threatened, harassed and persecuted upon their returning home. Despite the strides of changes over the past decades on women’s rights worldwide, the Iranian government of recent years seems bending on pushing women from the business world back to the home front and the kitchen.
An entity called Family Protection Bill and changes in Labor Law would work in concert to the detriment of women’s rights. National guidelines for universities and research centers stress women’s role as wives and mothers at the expense of their social role outside the home. Though progress has been made in women’s access to higher education, this has not improved women’s employment opportunities. Women’s unemployment rate in 2005 was 15.9% and rose to 25% in the spring of 2009. Since many households have women as their sole breadwinners, this high rate of unemployment resulted in the “feminization of poverty”.
Lack of financial security and independence also brings forth greater gender inequality and more violence against women. In cases of gang rapes ( 50 men in the Kashmar county case, 12 men in the town of Isfehan case), the official inaction/ indifference was explained by the county’s prosecuting attorney that “he could not take any actions until the woman made a complaint.” In the Isfehan case, the attitudes of the police and religious leaders were that “the women were responsible for what happened to them as their clothing was inappropriate.” This “blame the victims” logic brought a 113% increase in rape cases after the Isfehan incident (according to police report). Spousal rape is deemed legitimate, wife abuses are usually ignored. In 2010 there were 8000 cases of wife abuse through the emergency hot line alone, not counting the majority of cases unreported.
Early marriages of children is another form of gender-based violence. By official account, in 2010 there were 900,000 cases of under-aged married children, of which 85% were girls. In 2009, 449 marriages of girls under the age of 10, 40,160 marriages of 15-year old girls, and 301,246 marriages of 15-19 year old girls. Enforced marriages of young girls without their consent to much older men is in reality a form of legalized rape and pedophilia. Also acid-throwing against women has been on the rise, from 3 cases per year previously to 8 reported cases in 2011. The harsh reality is that “there is no law in Iran prohibiting violence against women, be it domestic, rape or acid throwing.” The misogynistic and cynical attitudes of the judicial and law-enforcement forces towards women breed more gender-based violence and bring it into the political arena, as manifested in cases of official persecution of women’s rights advocates, many of whom have been threatened, harassed and arrested. Thus for women activists to attend the UN CSW Conference has become an arduous task and a punishable crime.
The Al-Hakim Foundation, Iraq
The Foundation, an Iraqi-based civil society organization, has been working against violence against women and other issues concerning the welfare of women and children. It sponsored the third National Conference on Anti-violence against Women in Baghdad in August of 2011. In August 2009, the Foundation conducted a national survey on violence against women, the first ever in Iraq. Its stated goal is to raise social awareness of this phenomenon, find out its root cause and the ways and means to eradicate the problem. The survey, covering 10 Iraqi provinces, finds that 65.6% of the surveyed suffer some forms of violence (verbal, emotional or physical ), 12% suffered a combination of the three types of violence, while 32.5% did not suffer any types at all. In its work on behalf of women, the Foundation also has been quite successful in engaging the support of religious and community leaders.
Women and Religious Fundamentalisms
A book entitled “Towards a Future without Fundamentalisms; Analyzing Religious Fundamentalist Strategies and Feminist Responses” is a comprehensive study of fundamentalisms in the context of women’s rights and human rights. The author, Cassandra Baichin, gives a clear and objective analysis of the root causes and the historical, cultural, religious and political backgrounds of various brands of fundamentalism. She points out the dangerous combination of politics, nationalism, and religious fundamentalisms used by groups and governments to justify certain political agenda and ambitions. Authoritarian governments use religious fundamentalisms for internal control and social stability. According to the author, the common features of religious fundamentalisms, regardless of color, creed and national origin, tend to be patriarchal, absolutist, intolerant, anti-women and anti-human rights. I may add a few more features: self-righteousness, power/control obsession, ego-centrism and serious hatred of and contempt for dissent of any kind , shape or form. Balchin stresses on the importance of distinguishing between religion and religious fundamentalism. The study also gives strategic guidelines of feminist responses to the challenges and restraints imposed on women by the fundamentalists.
This study is useful reading for anyone who wishes to understand the strange phenomenon of fundamentalism and its stranger attraction to its followers. But the painful fact remains that worldwide, there are factions of political and religious ideologues with small mind and smaller heart, hiding behind diverse banners of self-righteousness and self-appointed missions, hell-bent on doing very large harm to the welfare of women in particular, and to humanity at large.
4. Empowering women and girls through clean cookstoves and fuels.
A panel on the very practical aspect of women’s life ---cooking –was sponsored by Global Alliance for Clean Stoves and was well attended. According to brochures, the Alliance is “an innovative public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation, to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.” The primary goal of the Alliance is to aim for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.
From both the panel discussions and printed materials, here are some related facts on health , environment and cookstoves: l. each day nearly 3 billion people rely on solid fuels to cook food with traditional cookstoves or open fires. 2. Exposure to smoke from these inefficient forms of cooking kills 2 million people annually and causes health hazards including cancer, heart and lung disease, blindness and burns. 3. Household air pollution is the leading risk-factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among non-smoking women in developing countries. 4. In poor or rural areas in developing countries, it falls on women and girls to secure fuel and fire wood for cooking and heating. This task often exposes them to gender-based violence, especially in conflict regions. 4. Time spent in fuel-collecting left women and girls less time for more productive work such as education and income-generation. 5. Clean cooking solutions can prevent or reduce NCDs and improve lives. It also means cleaner air, less depletion of natural resources (trees and forests), better health for women and girls who otherwise are exposed daily to toxic smoke and fumes in traditionally cooking.
The Alliance, with more than 200 public-private partners, is actively engaged in raising global awareness of the health, environmental and economic benefits of clean cookstoves and fuels. It also will work with its partner “ to overcome the market barriers that currently impede the production, deployment, adoption and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world.”
Some parting notes:
1. For 2013, the priority theme of CSW will be “Violence against Women” (VAW)
2. Registration procedures for delegates have been greatly improved. Old timers (repeat attendees who have photos on file) were spared the time waiting for ‘mug shots’. The 3-6 hours waiting on the registration line was only a nightmare of bygone years. 3 cheers for efficiency !!