International Women’s day comes at a time of multiple crises for women especially in impoverished communities in the South – among others, the crises of food, land, water and climate change.

International Women’s Day: Renewing Our Commitment to the Emancipation and Empowerment of WomenMembers of the Women's Hawker Federation rally in 2012. [Saktiman Ghosh]

International Women’s day comes at a time of multiple crises for women especially in impoverished communities in the South – among others, the crises of food, land, water and climate change. They live their lives in great difficulty and insecurity, with many of their rights including the right to life itself increasingly violated.

Asia is a region where agriculture remains the main form of productive economic activity, relied upon for livelihoods by an estimated 2.2 billion people. The sector continues to serve as a major source of food and feed crops, not only in countries across Asia but the whole world. In the past several years, as more men leave agriculture, the sector has grown “feminized” in terms of the ratio of women to men.

Grassroots rural women and girls are far from being economically dependent on men as typically portrayed. They make up nearly 50% in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and play critical roles in agriculture, from within their homes and communities, from agricultural cultivation and production, trading and vending, to food preparation, processing and storage.

Ironically, despite their vital contributions to human society, rural women are also among the poorest. Their communities register some of the highest levels of poverty incidence in the world at 70%. It is also where the most impoverished, deprived and marginalized are comprised of grassroots women and girls. They often suffer poor health from malnutrition and hunger. They have little or no education and remain without access to assets and resources that could enable them to rise from income poverty and become economically empowered.

Asia remains a region where productive assets and resources, primarily land, continue to be controlled by a handful of economic and political elites, often colluding with foreign big business interests. Asian peoples though differing in many respects, share the characteristic of being heavily burdened by widespread landlessness. Access to land as an asset and resource is even farther away from the reach of impoverished women who are not only income-poor but also face deeply rooted structural and socio-cultural impediments to female land ownership. In South and Southeast Asia, as in other global regions, up to 80% of landholders is male. Women also have little access to the agricultural inputs that are typically made available to male spouses in the gender-biased assumption that this will benefit them too.

In contexts where women do own land, these are usually smaller in farm size as compared to men. Lack of ownership and/or security of tenure over land resources are major obstacles to their economic empowerment because land ownership remains the key to many other productive resources and to social status and inclusion.

Exacerbating the impacts of historical landlessness, governments/states themselves have increasingly been involved in various forms of land-grabbing, partnering with transnational corporations in resource extraction. In other instances, small landholders without the capacity to meet the increasing costs of farm inputs and lacking public subsidies, are forced to sell their land and are plunged deeper into debt, poverty and deprivation.

Women’s limited access to and/or control over land and agricultural resources also strengthens the stereotype of male-headed households (though there is evidence that women-headed households are on the rise) and generates more violations discriminatory to women. These include constraining access to information, training, support services and credit. They are also targeted by usurious microfinance entities, causing their indebtedness.

Rural women and girls further bear a tremendous time burden for care work, which involves not only taking care of children, preparing meals, house cleaning and laundry but also sourcing water, collecting firewood, tending crops and collecting and water. In post-disaster situations of displacement, women are also implicitly expected to make preparations for setting up living areas for family members.

With the climate crisis as a backdrop, even more difficult conditions threaten rural communities and particularly grassroots women producers across the developing regions. South Asia, for instance, where women comprise more than 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, rice production is feared to drop by 14 percent, wheat production by 49%, and maize production by 9% by 2050 – as compared to a scenario without climate change. Losses for East Asia and the Pacific, while lower than South Asia’s, are still alarming, with rice production possibly falling by 11% by 2050.

Many rural communities have already been forced to leave their devastated lands and livelihood, and are left with no choice but to settle in slum areas to work in the informal economy. This threat to the agricultural sector and lives of the rural people is also a threat to the global food supply.

Climate change brings spillover effects with gendered impacts. One of these, the rapid increase in food prices, is bound to intensify as the climate crisis heightens. Women have been known to tide over these difficulties by subsuming their needs to their families’ welfare, reducing their food intake, and taking on various types of work in the informal sector to augment household income. Diminishing fresh water supply also increases the difficulties women have to endure because of socially assigned roles that require the use of water, from child rearing to food preparation.

International financial institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank claim to work for women’s empowerment but also promote programs and projects that erode women’s right. Privatizing essential services of water and energy, for example, have resulted in constraining peoples’ access; the impacts are even more severe for rural populations which are not prioritized for service delivery. The resulting burdens are borne by women who continue to be expected to source these vital services and maintain the well-being of family members, as part of the unpaid care work they already primarily render.

In many developing countries in Asia, socio-cultural systems and structures deeply discriminatory to women support these conditions. Patriarchal beliefs, norms and practices endure and persist, complicit in the widespread discrimination against women. Nowhere are women’s rights and entitlements more stringently denied than in the realm of economic assets and resources.

The 105th commemoration of International Women’s Day underscores these many challenges that we must hurdle together for the liberation of women from poverty and violence. It also reminds us that to fully enjoy our rights, reclaim those that are persistently denied us and fully realize our empowerment in all aspects of our lives, women must be at the forefront of these struggles. We have the hard-won victories of women’s organizations and movements in Asia and the whole world to build on, and with courage and resolve, we will steadily advance towards a future without oppression or subjugation.

Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development