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Women, equal opportunities and rural development

Equal partners in development

by Mary Braithwaite (*)


document type: article
keywords: women, equal opportunities
source: LEADER Magazine
last update: 5/96

Women play a pivotal role in maintaining rural communities. As well as their economic activities, they make major contributions to the maintenance of family and community life. Yet, most rural development strategies - to their detriment - do not fully recognise women's contribution and roles. Successful rural development depends on harnessing the skills and resources of all citizens and on delivering benefits which meet their different needs. Two principles are therefore essential for effective development: the integration of equality between women and men in rural development strategies and active participation by all in their implementation.

It is currently popular to talk of the need to recognise women as a "vital human resource" and, as a consequence, to encourage them to become "more economically active". The implication is that women who are not currently "active" in the formal labour market do not make an economic contribution, and that these women have spare time on their hands which could be used more profitably elsewhere. In rural areas, this is far from the truth.

  • Active, but not recognised
It is true that unemployment amongst rural women is generally far higher than amongst rural men. In some regions, female unemployment is more than double. In rural areas of Portugal, nearly two-thirds of the rural unemployed are women. Female unemployment in rural East Germany rocketed after 1989, with more than 80% of women who worked formerly in the agricultural sector losing their jobs, at a far faster rate than their former male colleagues. In only a few rural regions is male unemployment higher than female. This is the case in England and Scotland, due primarily to the growth of part-time, low-paid service sector employment, which has been taken up primarily by women. If one is to include those women who are seeking paid work, but who are not counted as being unemployed, the situation in most rural areas is even more grave than the picture given by official statistics.

Moreover, participation of rural women in the formal economy (as expressed in labour market activity rates) tends to be lower than for rural men, and generally lower also than for urban women. This is particularly the case in Objective 1 rural regions, where traditional agricultural societies still predominate.

  • Fewer opportunities, more constraints
These low rates of participation and high rates of unemployment are due to a range of phenomena, including: traditional attitudes about the respective roles of women and men; a severe shortage of suitable paid jobs for women in rural areas; and certain obstacles - in particular the absence of transport and of care services - restricting women's access to the labour market. Current trends aggravate the already difficult situation of rural women. The cutbacks in public services and in public sector employment and further centralisation of the location of both public and private services affect rural women doubly, making it both more difficult to obtain jobs and to access the services they need for themselves and their families.

In fact, taking a broader view than just formal labour market activity, rural women generally have more roles and responsibilities and work longer hours then men. In France and Ireland, where information on people's use of time is available, rural women, and particularly farm women, have the fewest number of free hours, fewer than urban women and most rural men. Rural women everywhere have multiple roles: in the domestic sphere they are household managers and family carers; in the community they maintain social and cultural services, predominantly on a voluntary basis; and in the economy, if they are not formally engaged as employees or entrepreneurs, they are often active in family businesses and farms. In contrast, they are generally less involved in decision-making at local or regional levels. Often their domestic and community maintenance roles not only restrict them from participating in decision-making, but provide the support which enables men to participate. The unequal share of family and domestic responsibilities is a significant constraint to the equal participation of women and men in rural development.

Some examples of initiatives which address the interests and needs of rural women and encourage their participation illustrate some possible solutions to these problems.

  • Sectoral strategies
In addressing female unemployment, strategic initiatives are required. These need not be targeted uniquely at women. The Taste of Ballyhoura initiative in Ireland, developed by the LEADER group Ballyhoura Development Ltd., was a well-planned rural tourism initiative aimed at improving the quality and turnover of local restaurants. The new jobs created were predominantly full-time, and the majority were taken by women. By targeting employment initiatives at sectors where women will have a higher chance of being employed, a real impact can be made on female employment.

Support for self-employment and enterprise is also important. Rural women are often very good at identifying local needs and resources which can provide opportunities for business ventures. However, long-term quality business support is needed, to provide women with the confidence, skills and back-up to develop successful enterprises. In some areas, specific women-only support initiatives have been established, such as the Women's Enterprise Centre in Launceston, in the south-west of England, which offers advice, information, training and premises for women starting out or already in business. As a result of the Centre's activities, its parent company, Enterprise Tamar, can claim that almost half its clients are female. In the remote community of Montemuro in Portugal, a women's enterprise initiative, run by a partnership of local associations, craft groups and public agencies, has trained and supported local women to develop a range of projects: child care centres, an integrated rural tourism scheme and marketing outlets for local handicrafts.

  • Integrated approach
While women-only initiatives can play a role, it is important that mainstream business support agencies ensure that their services are equally accessible to women and men. This may involve: training of business advisers to be aware of gender issues; training and promotion of female advisers; ensuring that the terms and conditions of financing or credit schemes do not discriminate against women; advertising training and support services in ways which encourage female as well as male participation...

Employment or enterprise initiatives should not only respect and build on the existing roles and motivations of rural women, but should also offer improvements to their professional status. Many rural women in family businesses or farms have no recognised independent professional status, and little time for pursuing a conventional training course. A national open-learning training programme launched in France in 1991 provided the basis for the development of an innovative distance-learning training package, aimed at providing the female partners of fishermen and oyster producers in Finistère, Brittany, with the skills and professional status required to diversify and develop the family business.

However, care should be taken that the businesses created do not add to women's isolation or burdens. Home-based teleworking, or the offer of bed and breakfast accommodation to tourists, may provide useful income, but can reinforce the isolation of rural women and the unequal share of domestic and family responsibilities.

  • Daring to be different
New or non-traditional sectors also offer opportunities for rural women, not only as a source of jobs, but also to solve some of the problems of transport and care support in rural areas.
In the Vogelsberg region of Hessen, Germany, a partnership project, involving public agencies and transport companies, has trained unemployed women in bus driving and created new bus routes in rural areas. One of the tasks now is to make the new routes profitable, through the development of transport services, such as distributing agricultural products to urban centres.
A similar idea lay behind a training programme in Haute-Vienne in France aimed at enabling rural women to become bus drivers: the dual objective was to diversify the occupational choices for rural women and to highlight the mobility problems of those without personal transport.

On a farm in a remote area of Northern Ireland, a successful private business, Kinawley Integrated Teleworking Enterprise Ltd. (KITE), provides training and teleworking opportunities for fourteen local people, primarily women, as well as a creche for their children. The enterprise was initiated by three women, and is currently managed by one of them. Surprisingly, KITE found it difficult to obtain start-up financing from development agencies. Its founders attribute this to a lack of vision by staff in the agencies they approached, who, used to more traditional initiatives, could not believe that such an innovative project for the region (teleworking and childcare) promoted by women could be a success.

While many women may need to develop the confidence required to start a business, many development agencies must learn to be more confident about the ideas and capabilities of women. Because many ideas developed by rural women concern non-conventional activities and types of businesses, and often integrate a number of objectives (income-generation, employment, improvement of social life, environmental protection, maintenance of culture...) they may not be taken as seriously by development agencies, and may therefore not be given adequate support and funding.

  • Strength in numbers
Projects may be initiated and developed by individual women, but often it is groups or networks of women that develop successful initiatives which benefit local communities.
Networking is at the heart of the success of KVINNUM, a women's association in Jämtland, northern Sweden (see accompanying article). In addition to a committee and a working group, which bring together representatives from all main public authorities, KVINNUM promotes "reference groups", each comprising 20 to 25 women from different backgrounds who are motivated to develop their communities or particular local services. With more than 60 reference groups in the county, KVINNUM has played a major role in facilitating the process of ideas generation and project development by and for women.

On the island of South Uist in Scotland, an informal network of women, started initially by a group of mothers who were organising a pre-school playgroup, has developed rapidly into a formal organisation. Called Cothrom, it provides training and employment opportunities - in textiles, tourism, culture and childcare - for women on the island. At the end of 1994, Cothrom had also become a centre of distance-working on behalf of a private enterprise, creating eighteen jobs for local women.

In Greece, the successful agritourism cooperatives, many of which are run by women, are also examples of the benefits of collective initiative and of group working.

  • Participation in planning and decision-making
Development agencies can, however, do much more than promote projects by and for women in order to ensure that women's needs and interests are better met. Bringing women into rural development also means ensuring participation in planning and decision-making, concerning development objectives, strategies and projects. Providing information to women about rural development and demonstrating that it is open to their ideas and their participation can be an important step. In the south of Portugal, the association IN LOCO (also a LEADER group) organised participative meetings with women from villages in the Serra do Caldeirão, at which the women explored their problems and identified possible solutions. In such meetings rural women can develop a solidarity through the sharing of problems, and create the motivation to take solutions forward.

It is also important that women take an equally active part as men in the formulation of policies and strategies by development agencies and authorities, and also that these agencies and authorities commit themselves to ensuring that their activities are equally accessible and beneficial to women and men. Training and promoting women development planners, and improving the representation of women and women's associations on committees and boards (through setting targets, or changing the timing, location and style of meetings...) would make a positive impact. In Ireland for example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has asked LEADER groups to ensure that their management boards comprise at least 40% women.

  • Integrating equality
Systematic checking ("gender proofing") of policies, strategies and projects should be undertaken prior to their adoption or approval in order to verify that they will not discriminate against women, or will even make a positive contribution to greater equality between women and men. This will require information about the situation, roles, needs and motivations of women and men in the region and a planning method which integrates this information. Obtaining such information is one way of involving women and men in the development process, if participative analyses and appraisals are used as part of the information collection. In Norway, a cooperative project between a number of government ministries, "Municipal Planning on Women's Terms", set out to establish participative planning processes and organisational structures in six municipalities to ensure that women and "the woman's perspective" are integrated into municipal planning and initiatives. Each municipality created a working group, of 7 or 8 women, whose role is to ensure that the interests and needs of women are taken into account in municipal policies, programmes and projects.

Methods and instruments for the identification, planning, monitoring and evaluation of projects which integrated gender differences and equality objectives are being developed by European organisations, although primarily in the context of their cooperation with third world countries. These could be used by rural development agencies to develop approaches adapted to a European context.

What is also required on the part of rural development agencies and authorities is a conscious commitment to ensuring equality of access and benefits between men and women. At European level, the integration of equal opportunities into all Structural Fund programmes has recently been made a priority. It is nonetheless necessary for these commitments to be translated into concrete objectives and indicators, and to be taken into account in the monitoring and evaluation of projects. Only then will it be possible to judge whether the policies and projects concerned bring the intended effects in terms of equality and the quality of life for women and men in rural areas.

(*) Mary Braithwaite is author of a study on women in rural areas, published by the European Commission (1). She is involved in research activities and projects on equal opportunities in European local development. She is also a specialist in participative methods for the planning and evaluation of development projects in Europe and the Third World.

(1)"The Economic Role and Situation of Women in Rural Areas". Green Europe series. 1994. Official Publications Office of the European Communities, L-2985, Luxembourg. Published in 9 EU languages. A Supplement, covering the three new Member States, is currently being produced.


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