Durban — International Women's Day this year will place strong emphasis on empowering rural women with the aim of bringing an end to hunger and poverty.
On March 8, women from around the world will observe the 101st International Women's Day - a day that celebrates women's progress and at the same time highlights the inequalities they continue to face.
The 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters which opened on February 27, focused on the theme of empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication and sustainable development.
Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana, led the country delegation at the CSW where the commission will agree on urgent actions needed to make a real difference in the lives of millions of rural women.
Rural women, who constitute one-fourth of the world's population, continue to face more difficulty than men in accessing public services, social protection, employment and markets, due to cultural norms, security issues and lack of identification documents.
According to the United Nations, rural women account for a great proportion of the agricultural labour force, produce the majority of food grown, especially in subsistence farming, and perform most of the unpaid care work in rural areas.
"South Africa has prioritised the empowerment of rural women through the mainstreaming of gender as part of a Comprehensive Rural Development Programme (CRDP).
"Elements include providing access to funding, training, transfer of technology, building partnerships, ensuring food security, access to land as well as monitoring inequality in the redistribution of land," said Xingwana in New York.
Agriculture provides a livelihood for 86 percent of rural women and men and employment for about 1.3 billion smallholder farmers and landless workers - 43 percent are women. Their rights and contributions have been largely overlooked to date.
The UN's World Food Programme Gender Policy and Strategy have indicated that gender inequality is a major cause and effect of hunger and poverty, estimating that 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women and girls.
Facts and figures drawn from the inter-agency report, "Rural Women and the Millennium Development Goals" said men's average wages are higher than women's in both rural and urban areas.
Rural women typically work longer hours than men - they also have domestic and child care responsibilities. In Benin and Tanzania, women are said to work 17.4 and 14 hours more than men per week, respectively.
In some countries, the amount of time spent collecting water alone significantly impacts on women's employment opportunities. In sub-Saharan African women collectively spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
If rural women had equal access to productive resources, agricultural yields could reduce the number of chronically hungry people by between 100 and 150 million. However, studies show persistent gaps that impact the lives of rural women.
Education remains another area in which more has to be done to help reduce the rate of illiteracy. Women make up more than two-thirds of the world's 796 million illiterate people.
According to global statistics, just 39 percent of rural girls attend secondary school. This is far fewer than rural boys (45 percent), urban girls (59 percent) and urban boys (60 percent).
Staying in primary school alone means, every additional year increases girls' eventual wages by 10-20 percent. It also encourages them to marry later and have fewer children, and leaves them less vulnerable to violence.
The UN indicated that progress has been made in reducing the gender gap in urban primary school enrolment, but data from 42 countries shows that rural girls are twice as likely as urban girls to be out of school.
In Egypt, Indonesia and several African countries, building local schools in rural communities increased girls' enrolment.
Educating women would also mean that a large gender gap in their access to decision-making and leadership can be curtailed.
Women make up fewer elected representatives in most rural councils and their participation as chairs or heads in rural councils is also much lower than men's.
A multi-country study conducted by The World Health Organization said more rural women experience domestic violence, and yet few seek services. In Peru, less than five percent of the total amount of rural domestic violence survivors (60 percent) sought help, compared to approximately 16 percent of urban women (out of 49 percent).
As highlighted by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development ahead of COP17 last year, climate change impacts on women are quiet visible especially on women living in rural areas.
Natural disasters and climate change can undermine the health, education and livelihoods of rural women, differently to men.
"Women are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change due to their social roles, discrimination and poverty.
"As women are powerful agents of change, we must ensure active participation and consultation of women in environmental planning, financing, budgeting and policy-making processes.
"Women also have the indigenous knowledge needed to increase food security, prevent environmental degradation and maintain agricultural biodiversity. Rural women must therefore be involved in all aspects of adaptation and mitigation efforts in their communities," said Xingwana.
The South African government has made progress in helping empower women.
"We have 44 percent women representation in Parliament and 43 percent women Cabinet Ministers. We are striving for parity and this year, my department will table the Gender Equity Bill in Parliament," said Xingwana.
Government has also indicated its commitment, including budget allocations to fund a massive infrastructure development programme as announced by President Jacob Zuma in the State of the Nation Address, Xingwana told delegates.
"This will be rolled-out over a number of years. Government recognises education for women and girls as essential if we are to break the cycle of poverty and access to women's health, especially decreasing maternal and child mortality and the negative impact of HIV and AIDS on women and girls.
"We are happy to report that in the past year, as a result of an intensive advocacy programme, we have successfully reduced Mother to Child Transmissions (MTCT) of HIV by 50 percent. We will continue to build strong partnerships with civil society in working towards the objective of zero Mother to Child Transmission," she said.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will head the National Council Against Gender Based Violence to be established this year, to increase governments efforts to empower women.