Empowering rural women: Biggest contributor to rural women’s impoverishment is poor health

Jessie Duarte

The United Nations Economic and Social Council has acknowledged that the health plight of rural women is rooted in poverty, which contributes to their poorer health status and creates financial barriers to obtaining health care. The health needs of rural women can be addressed through policies that diminish poverty and provide protection through a national health program, making the NHI a timely and critical health intervention. Despite all the wonderful achievements, and immense contributions of women in our country, the women in rural and poor areas, together with children, remain the most vulnerable members of our society.

Women in rural areas perform many of the agricultural tasks as well as the households care tasks. In addition to food production, looking after children, and cultivating crops, women also process food, carry water, make clothes, and work 15-16 hours, often much longer than the men. Rural women have additional conditions imposed on them by the isolation of the rural environment from resources commonly available in urban areas, such as public transportation to services and availability of a wide range of health resources.

Many reviews on rural women have revealed that information as well as material, financial and social resources needed for empowering women are often lacking. Yet, information and economic resources determine the achievement of proper nutrition, good education, participation in decision-making processes and politics. Also, better engagement of grassroots communities accelerates the unlocking of women’s potential, boosts their self-esteem and effectively mobilizes the support of crucial stakeholders within their areas of residence.

This means Organisations or group action is necessary to reduce the women burden and to provide support to women who are isolated in their homes and in farms. All poor women have difficulty obtaining basic needs such as health services due to their poorer health status and lesser ability to pay for services.

Primary therefore to the resolution of the plight of women is a recognition that all these rural burdens on them result in a much fragile state of a rural women, resulting directly to their poor health and diseased bodies. The rural health then becomes a distinct part of the larger health system with unique challenges. Rural health strategies must first address women’s poverty.

The focus on women’s health and poverty is no more critical than in expressed women’s grievances about an inadequate wage and compensation for farm-workers. The lack of access to adequate health and education facilities and safety and rehabilitation centres for women and children, as well as the unresolved issue of land ownership for farm-workers has a direct impact on the impoverishment and deteriorating health of rural women.

The biggest contributor to women’s impoverishment and poor health, including farmworkers and to a certain extent urban women, is the provision of basic infrastructure and services. A report by the Presidential Working Group on Women highlighted huge shortfalls in the provision of water and sanitation and the failure to end violence against women and children in our poorest provinces. Rural women are largely excluded from the broader narrative of empowerment which centers mostly on changing the position of women in leadership positions in all spheres of life.

Rural women remain the most marginalized and most dis-empowered. How do we solve this problem. The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s Charles Taylor, she was celebrating the publication of her autobiography, Mighty Be Our Powers. A guest asked her how empowered women could help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in other places across the world. Her response was four simple words: “More women in power.”

Activists are correct that with women so well represented in our Parliament and in our government this should mean that gender issues become more prominent and take on an increased importance, and that more resources should be allocated to the plight of the many women and children who are suffering in the rural and poor areas. This, however, is unfortunately not the case as the suffering and vulnerability of women and children continues. We need to do more to help support these vulnerable groups.

In SA today we must embrace the notion that everyday is womens day and that struggle to for a better quality of life for rural and poor women must remain one of governments number one priorities, and this is not only an ANC government mandate, but it must become a call to all those care so deeply about the plight of the girl child. I am reminded here of the 1958 ANC conference banner, which read, ‘Malibongwe Makhosikazi’ (‘Let the women be praised’). This banner echoed the message of the 1955 ANC National Executive Committee report, when it said  “the women have been active in those major issues that most keenly affect them: Bantu Education, the threat of passes for women, the home, the children and the family. They have administered to us all a lesson on how the people’s daily needs can become the kernel of a united protest campaign so that even those not previously active in political affairs, feel compelled to join in”

Indeed we must all agree that ‘rural women are powerful catalysts for sustainable development, they are agents against poverty and hunger. This will however depend on the support that all of us give to women both in appointing them to more positions of responsibility and to creating special programmes for rural women.

Rural women however must move beyond the basic struggles for raising children and running the households to knowing their rights beyond the home. Rural women must avail themselves for elections in their rural towns, they must be considered first for local government positions of influence and higher responsibilities, and every organisation and institution in rural areas must harness the power and skill of women and empower them to be much more.

Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary General of the ANC