From 1995 to 2015: What has changed for rural women?


Susan Kaaria and Regina Laub, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Looking back at the last 20 years, what has changed globally?

In many ways, we are looking at a world that is a much better place now, than it was two decades ago. Millions of people have moved out of poverty. Worldwide there are 216 million people less undernourished than in 1990-92. We have evidence that food production has tripled since 1945, and average food availability per person has increased by 40%. Global governance of food systems has changed dramatically, and is now seen as a multi-actor process. Development now actively includes civil society and private sector, amongst other actors. Each of these different partners are recognized as a fundamental part of the development process. Technology has also advanced at an astonishing rate since 1995 when the internet was only used by around 2 million people worldwide. Today, 3.2 billion people are connected to the internet, of which two billion live in developing countries. Through mobile phones, almost half of the world’s population, has essential access to markets, health systems, weather forecasts, agricultural information, money transfer and much better communication, even in the most remote rural areas. Unfortunately, HIV/AIDS has advanced too over the last 20 years, claiming the lives of around 39 million people and infecting 78 million people.

Why focus on the year 2015?

Governments, Civil Society, UN Agencies and Development Partners worldwide marked the year 2015 in their calendars. It is an important year that signaled the end of the Millennium Development Goals, and it is time to take stock of lessons learned, achievements and failures. It is also the year that 193 Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a bold new agenda that commits every country to take an array of actions that would not only address the root causes of poverty and inequality, but would also increase economic growth and prosperity and meet people’s health, education and social needs, while protecting the environment.

The year also marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark “Fourth World Conference on Women” held in Beijing in 1995, where for the first time gender equality was placed at the core of the development agenda. Gender inequality has since been widely recognized as an economic cost to societies, sending them backwards in the development process.

As 2015 draws to a close, it is important to reflect on the achievements of the last 20 years, especially the commitments to the Beijing Declaration of 1995. And in particular a focus on rural women – and what has changed for them.

 How have rural women fared?

There has been progress in some areas. Women’s political participation has increased over the last 20 years. Currently, women members of parliament represent 22 per cent of the total number of parliamentarians globally, about 4 per cent increase over the past 5 years. While this still falls short of the benchmark of 30 per cent of women, some countries have made tremendous progress. In Rwanda during the 2013 elections 63.8% per cent women elected into parliament. Saudi Arabia, the last country to give women voting rights held historic elections in 2015, allowing women to vote and vie for elected office.

Globally, maternal mortality rate fell by nearly 44% over the past 25 years, to an estimated 216 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2015, from 385 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 1990. The annual number of maternal deaths decreased by 43%.  Emergent humanitarian settings and situations of conflict, post-conflict and disaster however significantly hindered the progress of maternal mortality reduction.

However, despite substantive progress in the world, there are still 1 in 9 people globally hungry, a significant proportion of who are women and children.

We know that globally rural women have fared worse than rural men, and urban women and men, in every single one of the Millennium Development Goal’s targets and indicators, for which data are available. For instance, even with the incredible progress in technology, rural women in Sub-Saharan Africa collectively still spend roughly 40 billion hours per year fetching water. The statistics on women’s land ownership are equally stark. Regardless of indicator and country, the percentage for women is lower as compared to men. Among total land area owned or accessed by households, women own 31% in Malawi, followed by Uganda (16 %), Tanzania (15 %), Nigeria (9%) and Niger (8 %). The burden of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and more recently the Ebola pandemic, falls to rural women, who traditionally carry out care work in societies.

One reason why there are still about 800 million people (795 million) without food, is because women’s role in agriculture has been overlooked. Both the FAO’s 2010-11 State of the Food and Agriculture Report and the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012 clearly state that gender inequality is closely interrelated with food insecurity and rural poverty. This is because rural women play an important role in agriculture and food production. Rural women are often the main food providers at rural household level, and they play a central role in food production, processing and marketing. We also know that women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. However, in many parts of the world, women continue to face significant constraints that limit their ability to contribute to agricultural production and to take advantage of new opportunities arising from changes shaping rural economies.

What can be done? Invest in rural women

The world is at a critical juncture. We produce enough food to feed everyone, but we still have a long way to end hunger for all. We need to improve access to food for the world’s poor, and step up sustainable food production to feed a growing population. To achieve this, we need to increase agricultural productivity, make our food systems more efficient and inclusive, while at the same time reducing agriculture’s ecological footprint. Rural women are the key to achieving this.

Exactly one year ago, we published an article in this journal highlighting the success story of Josephine Keremi of Maendeleo Farmers’ Group from the village of Kaithango in Kenya ( We argued that by working together and partnering with various actors, such as the Government, national agriculture research and extension institutions and United Nations agencies, this community has been successful in producing more and better quality food for their families. These types of initiatives need to be supported and scaled up because they can contribute substantively to ending hunger and food insecurity.

Increasing women’s access to critical resources for production, such as inputs, improved varieties and breeds, credit and infrastructure in rural areas can increase productivity and income of rural households. Retrogressive laws and cultural norms continue to hold women back. Therefore, changing policies and legal frameworks to allow women to own land and other resources, and removing discriminatory practices and reforming institutions to better support rural women, is critical.

We believe that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer new, promising opportunities for ending hunger and poverty. Agriculture, the role of women, and the importance of partnerships, have been explicitly recognized in the SDGs. Agriculture is a common thread running through the 17 SDGs. The role of women has been systematically addressed in many of the 17 goals. In addition, there is a standalone goal (5) which offers a critical pathway for promoting gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Under the condition that governments, UN agencies, civil society and private sector work together and systematically address gender inequalities in their policies, programmes and projects, the SDGs offer considerable opportunities to achieve an equitable world free from hunger and malnutrition.

Key References

  1. Doss et al. 2015. Gender inequalities in ownership and control of land in Africa: myth and reality. Agricultural Economics, Volume 46, Issue 3, pages 403–434, May 2015
  2. 2010-11. The State of Food and Agriculture. Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development. Rome, Italy
  3. 2014. The State of Food and Agriculture. Innovation in Family Farming. Rome. FAO.
  4. FAO, IFAD and WFP. 2015. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Rome, Italy.
  5. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Rome, FAO. Available at:
  6. Inter-Parliamentary Union, January 2015
  7. 2015. ICT Facts & Figures. Geneva. Available at:
  8. UNAIDS; 2015. How AIDS changed everything. MDG 6: 15 years, 15 lessons of hope from the AIDS response. Geneva. Available at:
  9. UNIFEM (now UN Women). 2009. Progress of World’s Women. Who Answers to Women? Gender and Accountability. p. 36. Available at:
  10. 2015. The Global Information Technology Report 2015. ICTs for Inclusive Growth. Geneva. Available at:
  11. 2015. Health in 2015 from MDGs to SDGs. Geneva. Available at:
  12. World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. World Bank, Washington DC, USA.

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