ABOUT 1.2 billion women live in the rural areas of the developing world and at least one-third of these are heads of households. These women bear a crushing workload -- at home and in the fields -- but their contribution to rural development is often overlooked.
Environmental degradation adds to the burden of women who have to trudge greater distances to gather fuelwood. And the migration of men to urban areas in search of jobs means that the women left behind are burdened with the additional responsibility of providing lone support to their families. Yet women's work is often perceived as being economically unproductive and they are not recognised as "farmers". Development programmes are wrongly targeted to the male farmer and this only worsens the situation.
In addition to overwork, women and children in developing countries become the targets of hunger when food is scarce. Culture and tradition often dictates that adult men be served food first. A heavy workload and limited food intake make women a victim of malnutrition, which reduces their lifespan.
But perceptions are changing now. The crucial role that rural women play in development is beginning to be recognised. New theories favour an enhanced role for women in agricultural production and development education is being directed at both men and women. Better economic opportunities for women, it is now thought, will increase production and labour productivity and result in a population downslide.
Improving a degraded environment, education facilities and providing basic services like drinking water systems and health care would enhance the abilities of women in rural areas. Legal and economic partnership in the farming enterprise and involvement in farming cooperatives would make development strategies more effective.
To make this possible, several international organisations are lending a helping hand. US-based ECOGEN (Ecology, Community Organization and Gender) conducts field research on village organisations and examines the role of women in sustainable production and natural resource management.
ECOGEN has published several case studies. The International Center for Research on Women, on the other hand, conducts research on women in development and provides gender policy guidelines for researchers.
African Women Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment (AWLAE) awards grants to women from developing countries to pursue graduate studies in agriculture and the environment in the US while The Global Fund for Women provides small grants to women in developing countries for various development projects.
WOMANKIND Worldwide finances women's projects and programmes in developing countries that meet long-term development needs and the Funding and Network Resources for Women and the Environment can provide a selected list of funding sources. The Gender and Environment Network provides information on women and the environment.