This is the second part of a series of blogposts from our engagement with the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (#CSW62) taking place at the UN headquarters in New York City. Read the first part here.
Statements from groups of member states on the first day of #CSW62 made visible the dichotomy between the perceived realities and lived realities of women and girls living in rural areas. Some key reflections:
All of the statements expressed deep interest and commitment to the plight of women and girls living in the rural areas and highlighted the great inequities this group faces with regards access to education, health, technology, economic participation. Lesser interrogations and thought has been given to what indeed is causing these inequities and inequalities. The theme seems to define the premises of the statement that geography is the fundamental cause.
Such premises do not allow for us to look closely and analyse in depth neoliberal policies at work in all of our countries: where subsidies are cut for rural and marginalised groups in agriculture; where development funding for the social sector especially expansion of health and education services fairly and uniformly across different areas; where governments have in turn privatised such social services and the private sector is not motivated to go to unprofitable areas. Can change actually occur for women and girls living in rural areas if neoliberal approaches to development are to be pursued by governments? One can and indeed should change laws on land inheritance for women and girls, but there should also be subsidies and incentives for women farmers to work the lands. Girls from rural areas should also be able to access quality education but their families should not be expected to go into debt in order for them to procure this education. Illness and poor health disable women and girls from fulfilling their fullest potential – and services must be accessible to them either free or at the lowest possible cost. There was little interrogation of whether current development policies actually widened the gulf between the urban and rural, and this in turn affected deeply women and girls living in rural areas.
The easy division of urban vs rural masks the intersecting marginalisation that women and girls living in rural areas face. These include ethnicity, religion, caste, class, indigenous and migrant status which further exacerbates these inequities.
The second flaw was the lack of recognition of gender power imbalances within families and communities in rural areas. It is not only about a lack of nutrition, but also that unequal consumption of nutritious food by girls and women within those families. In Asia, women and girls eat last, eat least, and eat less nutritious food. Hence to correct nutritional deficiencies there need to be both nutrition programmes AND education and awareness on equal right to food for girls and women. While practices such as FGM and early age marriage were touched on as occurring in larger numbers in rural areas, there was little on addressing the gender norms that perpetuate these practices. Both gender and geography need be addressed simultaneously if we are seeking solutions.
The third flaw was that women and girls were framed as ‘productive’ beings, and from that flowed their needs of education, technology, land, resources – but also women are ‘reproductive’ beings and these needs were much lesser talked about. Disproportionate maternal mortality rates, lesser access to a range of modern contraceptive methods, little or no access to safe abortion services, preventive screening for reproductive cancers – this were all missing from many statements. Despite the fact that all women and girls in the rural areas were perceived fulfilling a heteronormative frame.
Which brings me to the last and final flaw, the sexuality of women and girls living in rural areas was a topic that was never even brought up. That women and girls living in rural areas (like all women and girls) have relationships, have sex, experiment with their sexuality, and are diverse and include lesbians, transgender and intersex people were completely blacked out. Shockingly, even the ministerial roundtables on access to education didn’t bring up the topic of comprehensive sexuality education, which would enable girls’ and boys’ agency to speak up against proposed early age marriages, understand and manage the consequences of sex, negotiate boundaries and prevent violence, and have more equal, respectful relationships. Beijing reiterates strongly in Para 96: The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, and this frame would have helped greatly to nuance the lives and loves of women and girls living in rural areas.