Women stand at the crossroads between production and reproduction, between economic activity and the care of human beings, and therefore between economic growth and human development.
Yet, although women account for more than half of the potential talent base throughout the world, as a group they have been marginalised and their economic, social and environmental contributions go unrealised.
While there is increasing donor recognition of rural women's contributions to eradicating poverty and hunger and to overall well-being in rural households and communities, there remains a lack of data on the actual impact of aid on rural women's empowerment and gender equality.
Movement towards such objectives is often translated into monitoring and evaluation indicators that assess ‘progress’ by the number of rural women participating in particular interventions, rather than the quality of those interventions and the broader impacts on rural women. There is an urgent need to invest in rural women and to develop more comprehensive and nuanced metrics and related measurement systems to assess the different impacts of agriculture and rural development policies and programmes, together with contributing aid allocations, on rural women and men.
Women in Africa are still shouldering households' economic burdens. They are left behind to mind their farms and their families, while their migrant husbands who sometimes do, and sometimes do not, send remittances back home. They are abandoned wives, young widows, unwed mothers and refugee women with children to nurture.
Women face many obstacles to increasing their economic power: no ‘slack’ time to invest in additional work that could bring in needed income; lack of access to commercial credit and training in traditionally female - and mostly low-wage skills. These obstacles differentiate the work experiences of men and women, exacerbate women's poverty, and sustain a vicious cycle of impoverishment from one generation to the next. On every side, speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.
Renowned development commentator, Barbara Kalima, writes that globalisation has had negative consequences for women and children worldwide. The corruption within the global market has seen numerous dictators and military regimes in the developing countries bought out by Western multinational corporations. Locals are repressed and corporations and the ruling elite become fabulously rich. When the economies of such countries collapse and the government overthrown, massive debts are accrued.
Bailing of the debts comes with strict restrictions on social expenditure which usually marginalise women at all levels. Reduced incomes mean women, as providers for the household, have to exert extra effort to sustain the family. Higher prices, especially those of food and essential services, compound their tasks. Reduced availability of health services - and the consequent impact on nutrition - impacts most on women and their children.
Opportunities for women to diversify their roles within the economy have also remained limited. The fact that women remain confined to the care economy - to which an economic value is rarely attached - has resulted in their exclusion from the benefits of national economic strategies.
While several countries have created constitutions which incorporate gender equality as a human rights issue, the presence of neoliberal policies continues to undermine efforts to make gender equality a reality.
A 2011 United Nations Women study to assess progress made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, found that rural women and girls still face persistent structural constraints that prevent them from enjoying economic freedom.
Less than US$8 per person is spent on healthcare in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi compared with US$24 per person on debt repayments. Uganda spends US$3 per person annually on health and the same amount on education but US$17 per person annually on debt repayment, while five of every ten Ugandan children die of preventable diseases before they reach age five.
While these numbers are startling, equally important is that girls in rural Malawi spend three times more time than boys fetching wood and water. Collectively, women and children in sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 billion hours a year hauling water.
However, this poverty gap between men and women is not inevitable. Ending women's poverty and providing better economic opportunities for all women will require specific policy actions. Debt negotiations ought to consider the link between debt and budgeting for social services. All reviews of poverty reduction strategies need to be gender disaggregated.
Past mistakes must be avoided and governments should develop clear guidelines as to how loans will benefit men, women, and children. As a new measure, citizens need to become the mechanism to control new resources and governments should only obtain loans that are sanctioned by the people through their representatives (parliamentarians); allowing civil society to monitor them.
The best policy solutions to address women's poverty must combine a range of decent employment opportunities with a network of social services that support healthy families, such as quality health care, child care, and housing support.
Policy objectives must also recognise the multiple barriers to economic security women face based on their race, ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality, physical ability, and health status. These approaches must promote the equal social and economic status of all women by expanding their opportunities to balance work and family life.
To this end, women's equality stops simply being the right thing to do - it becomes smart economics.
- Angela Machonesa is information and communications officer at African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD). This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links.