Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
HAPPY Women’s Day to all you women, and the people that you touch with your triple roles – men, children, the elderly and terminally sick.
Being reliably informed that the theme for this year’s commemoration is ‘Time is now: Urban and rural activists transforming women’s lives’, I am dedicating this write-up to women in rural areas.
As Zambians unite in their diversity to commemorate International Women’s Day today, my heart goes to women in rural areas who are usually miles behind men and their womenfolk in urban areas in every aspect of human endeavour.
Talk of access to health services, education, economic opportunities, credit facilities to boost their agriculture-driven economies and the prevalence of poverty, women in the countryside are worse off.
Perhaps today’s commemoration does not mean much to women in the villages because the challenges are many compared to the townies who are better off in the struggle for gender parity.
At the launch of the Seventh National Development Plan last year, President Edgar Lungu noted with dismay that the gap between the rich and poor in rural and urban areas was wide.
He promised that his Government would work at reducing these inequalities in their quest to make Zambia a middle-income country by 2030.
“Although overall poverty levels declined from 62.8 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2015, I am concerned that rural poverty remains high at 78.6 percent and unemployment rates at 7.4 percent.
“Very few Zambians work, informal sector accounts for 89 percent of the employed. I am concerned that the gap between the poor and rich remains wide. We must all work together to reduce this unacceptable income disparity,” President Lungu said.
It’s good that this year’s theme for International Women’s Day took into consideration the plight of poor women in rural areas. Perhaps this recognition will help us to ensure a balanced approach in improving standards of living in rural settings.
The gist of my write-up is that all women, men, boys and girls should derive equal benefits and opportunities from the national cake.
But the Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, gives a gloomy picture of the gender parity campaign.
In its 2017 report, it says it will take about 217 years for the world to achieve gender parity. Gender equality is considered a must-achievement for a country to achieve sustainable development.
The reason is that women play an important role in the economic life of any country. Leaving them behind could reverse any economic gains.
In any society, women juggle three roles – production (income generation), reproduction and care-giving – which makes them the pillars of human development, yet disadvantaged by poverty, low educational attainment and discriminatory cultural barriers, among others.
If women remain trapped in the quagmire of poverty, it means the people who depend on them for a living will suffer dire consequences.
As the theme for International Women’s Day suggests, time is now to empower women from rural and urban settings so that they could all explore their full potential in life.
Every woman, regardless of territorial setting or social status, needs access to good health services, clean water and sanitation, education services, vocational training and economic opportunities and resources to live a decent life.
This day should remind us of the need to implement policies that will transform lives of people in the rural areas as much as in urban areas.
Perhaps let me put it this way – What is the status of women in rural areas?
First of all, it’s important to note that poverty bears a woman’s face in any part of the world and it is worse in rural areas where access to social services and economic opportunities is poor. In the case of Zambia, rural poverty stands at 78.6 percent compared to 54 percent in urban areas.
What this means is that, because of the prevailing gender inequalities, women in rural areas face the harsh realities of poverty.
For example, women play an important role in food production as peasants.
But they have little control over crop marketing and income from the sale of crops due to patriarchal systems that subordinate them to their husbands, brothers, uncles and other fatherly figures in the family
In the villages, the majority of women subsist on farming but very few of them have security of land tenure, whereas access to credit services and capital still remains a challenge.
Men have an upper hand on productive resources such as land and capital, because traditionally, they can inherit family land, so they have better economic opportunities.
If we want ‘urban and rural activists to transform women’s lives’, women in the villages need equal access to economic opportunities, including financial and natural resources, such as land and water.
Agriculture being the backbone of rural economies, Government must ensure that women have security of land tenure, access to credit facilities and modern farming technology.
Much as we are making progress in the area of educational empowerment, gaps exist between women in rural and urban settings.
The school dropout rate for girls is high in the countryside because of teen pregnancies and child marriages, aggravated by discriminatory cultural practices.
Apart from that, these communities need more secondary schools, resident teachers and tertiary institutions if we are to close the gender gaps in educational attainments.
The teacher turnover in rural areas, owing to teachers only using rural schools to secure employment and later seeking transfers to urban areas, tends to disadvantage learners in the affected communities.
Well, things that we need to address to improve living standards in rural areas are many, but let me briefly make reference to health care services.
Women need health services as close to their homes as possible because of their frequent need for child health, antenatal and maternity services.
In our quest for better maternal health, women in these communities need to give birth in health centres and attended by skilled health practitioners.
But generally, according to United Nations statistics, less than 30 percent of births in sub-Saharan Africa from the poorest 20 percent of households are attended by skilled health personnel, compared to over 80 percent of births in the richest 20 percent of households.
This implies that women from poor households are unlikely to be attended by skilled birth attendants. Therefore, the challenge for Zambia is to make sure that every rural community is within the UN recommended 5km radius to a health facility.
Data from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicates that the major causes of maternal deaths in Zambia are home deliveries, poor care of pregnancy and limited access to health care in rural areas.
Only about 47 percent of births are attended by skilled health workers, while 53 percent of births take place in homes.
Access to health facilities is good in urban areas with 99 percent of households being within the 5km radius to a health facility. Only about 50 percent of the people in rural areas live within this range.
These are some of the things Zambia needs to address in its quest to become a prosperous middle-income country by 2030, without leaving anyone behind.
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA