Struggle for justice: Women and Girls Living in Rural Areas: Reflections with my Mother

March 13, 2018

BY Marisa Viana

For the next two weeks, March 12 – 23, the United Nations will host the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) addressing the theme “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.” In 2012, when the CSW attempted to address the challenges of rural women and girls and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, the Commission failed to reach consensus on an outcome document. Some member states’ unwillingness to recognize and uphold sexual and reproductive rights, or recognize gender equality beyond binaries, couched as differing cultural issues, sent a clear sign that states chose to prioritize these differences over the need to put forward concrete recommendations that could potentially benefit women and girls living and working in rural areas globally.

As hundreds of women from around the world arrive in New York (against all odds, visa challenges, and civil society restrictions) to attend the CSW to raise the challenges and injustices women and girls living in rural areas face, we ask the question of whether the time, financial, and emotional commitment of these dedicated activists will be matched in political will and commitment from our decision-makers.

The fear of failing my own community and to once again fall into the co-opted, business as usual space that the United Nations has become is palpable. So to is the fear that by not engaging, we give a free rein to decision-makers and those in positions of power, to misrepresent and diminish our intersectional struggles down to commas and word-smithing of resolutions and agreements. Free rein to tend only to cursory commitments to food security and poverty alleviation through the provisions of rapid growing seeds and fertilizers, that see women and girls living in rural areas as women with only one role and destiny, as food producers.

I come from a family with a long history of working and living as ribeirinhos (river people) in rural areas in the Brazilian Amazon and my parents have worked in rubber tapping, small-scale agriculture and fishing to support my nine siblings and myself. As a woman living in a rural area my mother gave birth to all of us at home with limited care and support – and every single time risking her own life in pregnancy and childbirth. My personal history and that of my parents, made it impossible for me to disengage from this year’s CSW addressing challenges faced by women and girls living in rural areas, particularly when the very women and girls whose voice must be heard in these spaces are being denied visas to travel and overburdened with financial requirements in order to ‘participate.”

In a space, which is often void of human experiences, I offer a short reflection between my mother and I, in the hope that this CSW, I can at the very least contribute towards a substantive discussion on what social, economic and ecological justice for women and girls living and working in rural areas should look like.

Recently, as I sat with my mother discussing her experience living in a remote area of the Brazilian Amazon for over 52 years. I asked her about what could make a difference in her life and for her community right now. She started by saying that she really does not want to leave her home and move to Manaus due to her recent health diagnosis; that she wishes the ‘Luz para Todos” (Light for All) – a federal government project launched in 2003 to deliver electricity to rural communities – would actually happen so that she can have electricity in her home (despite the program’s positive results in parts of Brazil, for the communities in the Negro river of the Amazon where my parents live, it is still just a project plan); and that she wishes her phone would receive signal in her community so that she can communicate with her children in case of emergencies.

She feels, as an older woman, that leisure time and activities that support members of the community to engage with each other are important. She is concerned that so many of the adolescents in the communities are giving birth too early; especially with gynecological and obstetric care so hard to come by, resulting in a lot of women, old and young alike, complaining of ‘women’s issues’ such as long lasting vaginal discharge, irregular periods, pelvic inflammation and pains, which lead them to resort to homemade treatments and herbs. My mother shares her anxieties, like everyone in the community, with having to travel to nearest city of Manaus, and wait long periods of time to see a doctor or to access diagnostic testing; that basic health services in the community are limited to deworming, water purification tablets and malaria testing. I ask her whether she thinks that schooling for children in the village is better now than it was when we were children.She pauses, sighs and says that it is better in some ways – there is a safe boat that coordinates the pick up and drops off of all the neighbouring children. But, it remains difficult to keep teachers for more than one year living in the communities; that the school only work three out of the five days because many of the teachers live in the city and take long weekends away thus limiting the time kids who are already falling behind spend in an education setting.

She hopes that some of the young people from the community, who are doing long-distancing learning, can become teachers at the school. She also shares that it is the only potential job since the community has become part of an national park so fishing and planting will be regulated. She quickly remembers, that she is happy though because the meals served by the school are real food like rice, beans and fish, and that the kids have built their own vegetable garden.

I also ask her about retirement and difficulties in accessing social security benefits as a woman working in a rural area. As she reflects on this, she is infuriated with the initial proposal by the government for pension reforms that could affect rural workers (the debate is a long and complex one that also reflect the wealth inequality in the country). She speaks of the fact that she started to work in the field, doing heavy physical labor, at the age of seven. She talks about how hard she worked and paid her dues so that she could retire and be able to receive the minimum wage as part of rural workers compensation plan at the age of 60, instead of the usual 55 for women (since she started to contribute late). She speaks of the time when she went to acquire her “Carteira de Trabalho (workers ID card) and she was questioned about her double role as a caregiver and food producer. The person attending to her said she couldn’t be both. She asked why not, since she was working on the cassava (root crop) field and doing all the care work of her nine children and home. They made her pick one occupation despite the fact that Brazilian women living and working in rural areas are responsible for 90.8% of the care work in rural areas. This reduction of my mother’s experience ignores her double, and sometimes triple ‘shift’ as fisher and/or cook, and a caretaker.

While these are personal reflections based on my mother’s lived experiences, they point to the complex and myriad of challenges women and girls living and working in rural areas face on a day-to-day basis. They also point out to the shortfalls of the poverty-alleviation assistance approach often used to empower women and girls living in rural areas instead of addressing systemic inequalities in resource and wealth concentration that hinders social, economic and environmental justice. It troubles me to read the draft agreed conclusions’ and subsequent revisions and witness the perpetuation of women and girls living in rural areas as marginalized groups that just happen to be poor. As stated in the report released by the Expert Group on the CSW62: “The social and economic injustices rural women continue to experience should not be inevitable; they are the result of global and local policymaking intersecting with entrenched patriarchal practices.”  

In Brazil, the plight of women and girls living in rural areas remains underdressed and made invisible. This is aggravated in part due to the scarcity of information and data on women and girls in rural areas, which make up an estimated 7.4% of the population of the 190 million people (2010 census). This means that there are at least 14 million women, like my mother, who live in remote areas, with precarious access to public services including education, health, in particular sexual and reproductive health, access to water and sanitation, productive land and access to energy. While some rural communities have gained access to schools and basic health facilities, the absence of teachers and qualified health professionals remains a challenge. According to a 2013 research conducted by PNAD (Brazilian National Household Sample Survey), secondary education attainment for women and girls above ten years old living in rural area is only 13% while 19% of women have only completed one year of schooling.

While the reality is that people living and working in rural areas, in particular women and girls, are dependent on access to land and the environment and are food producers, working predominantly in agriculture, the solution to address the inequalities, injustices and violations experienced by them, cannot be only in the form of micro financial interventions aimed at making women and girls in rural areas less poor. As rightly noted by the Expert Group Report, women and girls living in rural areas have multiple identities and are far from being a homogenous group, and they experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, including in defense of their land, territories and environment. Respecting and recognizing their bodily autonomy and freedom, their roles as leaders, decision-makers, workers, entrepreneurs, caregivers, and healers must be part of any solution. Moreover, actions and interventions by governments need to take measures to redistribute wealth and resources that yield to the concentration of power and privileges at the hands of a few, instead of providing the rightful opportunities to protect and promote the rights of all women and girls, particularly of those that have been historically left behind (in UN language adage).

As diplomats, ministers, UN agencies and civil society alike gather over the next two weeks in New York to discuss the challenges and opportunities to empower women and girls living in rural areas, let’s not forget that they are more than a mere theme to be addressed over a political game of back and forth, but real people with full human rights that should be respected and fulfilled in their entirety.