First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Marcel Crozet ILO/OIT

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 11
Rural women

Rural women don’t want charity, they want to feel empowered

13 October 2021

Every year, on 15 October, the world celebrates the International Day of Rural Women, recognizing the critical role played by women in rural areas. This year the International Day recognizes their contribution in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty. “Women don’t want charity, they want to be helped and empowered,” says Reema Nanavaty, former General Secretary of the Self Employed Women's Association, in India, in a conversation with Elisenda Estruch Puertas, rural economy specialist at the ILO.



Hello and welcome to this edition of the ILO’s Future of Work podcast.

I’m Isabel Piquer at the ILO in Geneva.

Today, we are going to talk about rural women,

the crucial role they play in agriculture, food security, and nutrition,

and the struggles they face in their daily lives,

especially after the COVID-19 pandemic,

and how we can build their resilience and empower them.

We have two guests today, Reema Nanavaty, who belongs to SEWA,

Self-Employed Women’s Association,

a trade union in India that promotes the rights of low-income,

independently employed female workers.

With over 1.6 million participating women,

SEWA is the largest organization of informal workers in the world.

Hello, Reema. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Hello, Isabel. It’s my pleasure and privilege.

Also with us is Elisenda Estruch Puertas, rural economy specialist at the ILO.

Hello, Elisenda.

Hello, Isabel. Hello, Reema.

Let’s start the conversation with you, Reema.

Rural women have been at the frontlines of the pandemic even as the unpaid care

and domestic work increased during lockdowns.

Reema, has the situation in India improved in recent months for rural women?

What are women telling you about what they’ve been through?

Do we see signs of recovery?

Hello, Isabel and Elisenda.

I think you asked a very, very important question that, yes,

the situation of COVID-19 is gradually receding, including in the rural areas.

We see less and less people now getting infected with the COVID infection.

We see less of hesitancy as well,

so rural women are also coming out for getting vaccinated.

I think the last one and a half year has been very, very disruptive

to the lives and livelihoods of the rural women.

While most of the economic activities came to a standstill,

it was the agriculture sector that absorbed most of the shock.

It also had to also provide livelihood

and sustenance to the millions of migrant workers,

which were returning home from the cities.

I also still remember that one of our very oldest

members from the villages in a dry desert area,

she was calling me when the lockdown was announced.

Then she said she’s worked her whole life extremely hard,

pursuing multiple livelihood activities just to feed her family of six.

She says that this COVID-19 has destroyed us completely.

Not only has their livelihoods been destroyed, even the government’s National,

Rural Employment Guarantee work has stopped.

There's no transportation.

To top it all, there were unseasonal rains because of climate change,

which destroyed their standing crops.

"How do I feed my family?"

That was her question that she was telling me.

She says that, "Just because we are poor,

we don’t have any self-respect and a right to live?"

You were left with no answer.

The situation of the small farmers was different,

but that of the agriculture labourers or workers was even worse.

The farmers would even be to sell their harvest when the markets would open,

but what would the agricultural labourers do?

Kailashben, one of the agriculture labourers, she was saying that, "No one talks about

or thinks about agricultural workers.

Don’t we have the right to live?

All we need is work to sustain our lives."

She said, "It’s like walking on a double-edged sword."

Then there was the second wave, which was very fierce and deadly.

As a result, we lost some 391 members

of SEWA, our sisters.

266 sisters lost their husbands,

and over 1,017 members reported death in their families.

We have some close 252 children who became orphans.

They’ve lost both their parents.

I think the COVID pandemic led to asset erosion.

It led to disruption of the livelihoods and lives.

I think the children’s education has been also affected.

We see a lot of dropouts.

To give an example, Anjana Parmar, who’s a 36-year-old mother of two,

she lost her husband to COVID.

He was working as a daily wager as an electrician,

and they had very meagre savings and she had-- normally,

she used to use it to pay the fees off her children,

but now, she had to use it up for her husband’s

treatment and then his funeral.

She says that, "I don’t know from where will I manage or even my next meal,"

and the result is that she has to remove her sons from school.

This is the reality of how women are embracing the situation due to COVID.

We don’t know when the post-COVID is likely to be there.

Reema, in these extremely difficult circumstances that you’re describing,

what are the three most urgent measures

that should be taken to alleviate their situation?

What are women telling you, they want first?

What our members are saying

and what we have learned from our past almost five decades of experience,

is that they do not want charity but all they want is immediate work.

What we have also seen that what will be really

very important is access to universal social protection

and this includes skill-building, skill-enhancement, skill-diversification,

access to immediate primary health care,

childcare services, insurance, food security.

In short, we call it as full-employment,

which is work and income security,

access to basic support services and food security.

Unless and until you ensure that, then only the women

and their households will be able to have a minimum income,

which is there and when there is a minimum income,

and that is possible only when the livelihoods are stabilized.

Therefore, I think what we are trying to work on is to set up a livelihood recovery

and resilience fund for these rural workers.

In the current crisis, the livelihoods have been destroyed,

savings and other assets have eroded

and the women workers are facing acute work,

income, and most importantly, food insecurity.

That’s the biggest challenge and we are trying to address that.

On top of it with the migrants returning to the villages,

the stress on the rural economy has increased, exacerbating the issues

and challenges around gender inequality, gender pay gap.

You find that there is preferential employment of men over women.

I think another important aspect therefore,

what we are trying to see to address

this is, how do you ensure access to energy;

clean energy, green energy, to address the issue of poverty?

In short, how do you build an economy which is a nurturing economy?

Elisenda, give us a broader picture of the effect

of the pandemic on rural women around the world.

What Reema is telling us,

this extremely difficult situation is telling us about India,

is it true also for rural women in other countries?


The stories that-- well, it’s an honor to be listening to what Reema is sharing

with us today because these stories from Ranima,

from Kailashben, from Anjana, are telling us many of the elements

that are important also for other rural women,

especially in developing countries in these challenging times now,

of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me just highlight a few issues.

First, well, the effects of the pandemic have reminded us

that women play vital roles in agri-food systems and the rural economy.

Just two figures, rural women comprise about a quarter of the world’s population,

that’s big numbers.

They make up about 41% of the world’s agricultural labour force.

They could work as farmers, wage earners,

and entrepreneurs as the examples Reema has shared.

I think this gives us the importance of that really,

women are a backbone of many rural economies around the world.

At the same time, a second element to bear in mind is that the pandemic’s

impact on the world of work has been devastating and far-reaching.

Women and young people and migrant workers have been among

the groups that have been very much affected.

Particular to rural women,

I think the impacts of the pandemic have led to the prevailing constraints.

They were facing many difficulties

and that they have been further exacerbated because of these challenging times.

For example, they were and are often concentrated in low-skilled,

low productivity jobs with low pay, as Reema was saying,

with limited access to social protection.

For many rural women, in the context of the pandemic,

they were not covered by health insurance or income protection.

They were exposed to even larger levels of vulnerability.

A third element of reflection as I was hearing to Reema

and that I want to share is that many rural women

shoulder a disproportionate burden of unpaid care and household work.

That includes food provision, caring

for children, for the sick, for the elderly.

We have to keep in mind as well,

that many poor households in rural areas of developing countries,

it’s rural women the one that go collecting water

or food and even it might be younger

or even girls that take care of these responsibilities.

Those go often unreported, invisible, but yet,

are very important for the wellbeing of the families, of the communities.

This burden has increased with the COVID-19 crisis

because schools were closed, because there were care needs that increased,

because household members got sick.

This additional burden of unpaid work,

it’s preventing women in rural areas of engaging in more productive,

more rewarding activities, and new opportunities in the rural economy

and to advance in the world of work.

An element that it’s important

and it emerges in many stories we hear about rural women

is about how restrictive can be certain social norms

and gender stereotypes that, for example,

can limit the access of women farmers in accessing land

or even important services such as financial services

or agricultural extension, which provides technical assistance.

Also, many rural women or entrepreneurs

or wage earners are facing difficulties in accessing other services.

That can include employment services or even business support.

I think it’s important also to bear in mind those social norms

and gender stereotypes.

The last point as I was reflecting and hearing about Reema,

is that we have seen that organizations like SEWA have an important

role to play in addressing a very important challenge,

that is addressing the lack of voice

and representation that many rural women face around the world.

They are often underrepresented in workers and employers organizations,

as well as other kinds of rural organizations.

Where we see this gap larger,

it’s in leadership and managerial positions.

This has implications, for example,

rural women might not have such a strong say of their own,

now that the policy process toward the recovery are being discussed

and are being designed.

Thank you, Elisenda.

Reema, because of what Elisenda is describing,

because of all these problems you were telling us,

also, because they are underrepresented,

and they face all this increasing hardship because of COVID pandemic,

in a way, because we’re talking about that,

do you think that the role that women and girls play in rural households

and their contribution to a more sustainable agri-food sector is being

increasingly recognized in a way because we are talking about all these problems?

I think she really brought about this very important aspect

and women and younger girls, both play a very important role

and also responsibility of fulfilling the family’s food and nutritional needs.

In fact, I would go to say that,

they play a very major role in the entire food value system

as a farmer or as a small farmer or a family farmer in production,

in processing, in marketing, in trading, in the grain market,

then in making decisions of food and in consumption

and purchase of food at the household level.

They also play a major role in food waste disposal

and activities such as composting, producing biogas,

which is like a circular economy in itself.

I would like to say that despite their important role in the food system,

there are still gender discrimination and therefore,

women have been facing constraint as Elisenda was referring to,

as lack of land ownership, access to other productive resources

and an ecosystem to increase their voices and also their income.

So I think we still have some long way

to go in bringing visibility of women

and girls in the food value chain or in the agri-food sector.

I think one important aspect is that how do you organize

and build women’s own collectives, cooperatives, enterprises,

so that women just don’t remain agriculture labourers

or workers or small farmers, but they also become owners and managers.

Their farm also becomes an enterprise.

And let me give you an example of SEWA's members have formed some,

25,000 women have formed their own agribusiness enterprise

and they procure great process

from these small farmers, they package it,

and then do door-to-door delivery through a partner of sales women,

whom we call it as RUDI-bens.

This is under the brand of RUDI (Rural Distribution).

During COVID also, RUDI became so relevant because the women were there

right at the doorstep providing the needed nutrition and foods to the rural households.

Even though the transportation was not there

and the markets are closed, but RUDI was decentralized

and we procure from the farmers as well.

That enabled the value chain to continue,

so it provided nutrition and food security,

it provided market access to the farmers

and as a result, the turnover of RUDI increased.

I think the lesson here is that the more decentralized

and local the supply chain, it brings more recognition to the role of women

and girls in the food system.

Then I think we also have another enterprise which is called Kamala

where the traditional coarse grains are all going out from circulation

and the processed packaged food of multinationals is taking its place.

We have trained some 2,000 women

into making the snacks into bakery and culinary, using these coarse grains.

They make this cakes, bread, cookies,

crunchies, and that is also packaged and distributed in the villages.

As a result, the youth are now getting encouraged to prefer coarse grains

and millets compared to the processed and packaged food.

I think if we have these kind of initiatives where the women are the owners

and managers, the women own the whole supply chain

and the supply chain is local and decentralized,

then I think it brings the recognition of the role

that women play in the agri-food system.

Thank you very much, Reema.

I would like you to tell us a little bit more about what SEWA is doing.

The amazing work it’s doing with the workers that produce salts,

that work in a particularly dire situation.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I’m so glad that you also are remembering

the poorest of the poor rural workers.

These are the women who live

and work in the desert for almost about eight to nine months of the year,

and they produce the rock salt, the inland salt from the desert.

They live in very uninhabitable climatic conditions.

Very scorching heat and strong,

hot winds blowing and then in the desert, winters.

Previously, they used to use diesel pumps for pumping the brine

for about 24 hours for almost three months of the year

and barely earning a net income of $150 to $200

at the end of the entire season, that’s the whole year.

Life of these salt pan workers whom we call

as the Agariya women was like that of bonded labourers.

It was full of challenges;

lack of access to skills, working capital, high operational costs,

no direct access to market or affordable credit,

or even clean and efficient energy

and exploitation by traders, cartel, on top of that,

the uninhabitable working conditions.

We started organizing the salt pan workers

and today, we have close to 15,000 women workers.

The first thing was to provide them with technical training to improve

the quality of salts so that you could reach out directly to the market.

We found that, in spite of that help,

the majority of their earnings was going away in buying the diesel oil.

That’s where SEWA facilitated these women workers with affordable

access to solar pumps through an innovative financing solution.

As a result, there are no recurring costs associated with the solar pumps.

In three to five years, it helps them

completely resolve the working capital issue,

which was making them

exploited by the traders or moneylenders.

Today, SEWA has facilitated over 3,000 poor

salt pan workers with access to solar pumps.

This really proves that asset creation at the grassroot

level is the surest way to fight poverty.

It also proves what I had said in the beginning,

that poor women do not want charity,

but they need an enabling policy environment

and innovative financial tools and instruments.

Today, during the offseason, these women are setting up

the first-ever women-owned solar park.

The electricity that would be generated would be sold to the grid

and that would bring an additional income into the hands of these women

so that they are able to repay back

their loans quite efficiently.

Similarly, SEWA has connected some 500 poor smallholder

households to clean solar pumps for irrigation.

It has not only benefited them by having access to clean energy

but it’s also brought additional support in areas of cultivation,

cropping intensity, support to animal husbandry,

reduction in wastage of water, time, drudgery, air, and noise pollution.

That way, even though small, but collectively,

the women are contributing in reducing their carbon footprints

and the country's NDCs (Nationally. Determined Contributions) and also the SDG

that we all believe in.


This description of the poorest of the poor

as you very well describe them, Reema,

we also see one of the goals of the recovery

that we are starting to talk about in the world,

fighting poverty and empowering the most vulnerable.

Elisenda, it’s becoming more and more evident that the recovery

will be very different from country to country and from population to population.

From the ILO perspective,

how can we take into account the needs of rural women in this recovery?

Indeed, we have learned also about these stories now,

on these efforts that SEWA and impressive results actually,

in these challenging contexts, such as the desert

and salt production and so on and so forth

and how to turn it into a cycle of prosperity

and a more vibrant even in this difficult context.

Indeed, we hear that from the stories that Reema has shared

and also from other contexts that challenges are in many fronts.

Efforts need to go as Reema was saying, along an enabling environment as well.

Sort of an ecosystem, I think she used this word.

Well, much will depend, of course, on the country’s circumstances

and what are the needs of the specific populations

and when those needs need to be heard and considered.

Then what I can share as well is that, well,

the challenges are many but they are also interrelated.

They call for integrated approaches in how we define our response.

That’s why the ILO offers an integrated framework for rural women’s empowerment.

That’s underpinned well, of course, on the international labour standards,

in the respect for the rights at work,

employment promotion, social dialogue and social protection.

You might think, what do we mean by that?

What can we do more specifically?

Well, we have to put the attention in creating decent jobs for rural women.

Reema has mentioned several times that women don’t want charity.

They want to be empowered to be enabled, to make their contribution,

to build a more vibrant rural economy.

We can facilitate them as well access to entrepreneurship training

and to finance while promoting a transition

from informality towards formality.

In order to reduce, we have discussed as well their time constraints.

We mentioned that burden that they often have,

it’s important to continue improving access to rural infrastructure.

The example was mentioning about energy

and there is also, why not also improving connectivity

and access to new technologies for example,

and improving also water systems

and more sustainable practices also in rural areas.

All this is key.

This integrated framework also looks at a more,

how can we call it, more transformative perspective to come at gender inequality

and to empower rural women and thinking also of the new generations.

That also means making rural areas more attractive to the younger generation

and providing access to other kinds of services.

That includes also, of course, care facilities,

health services, access to quality education

and also to culture and other kinds of activities.

This will avoid perpetuating cycles of inequality

and poverty towards the next generation.

Let’s break those cycles.

Importantly, I think and what we have heard also from SEWA

and it’s to keep ensuring

and strengthening the voices of rural women

so that their needs can be taken into account

and that they can have a say in the policy responses towards their recovery.

In a short sentence of promoting decent work

and putting it at the centre of all our efforts to rural women’s empowerment

and pursuing this transformative agenda towards gender equality,

I think we can make a change, because it’s time for changing things, to do more

and to do it better as well.

We have to keep always in mind that empowering rural women

will have a significant impact not only on productivity in agriculture,

but also in improving food security

and in achieving a recovery in rural economies that it’s inclusive,

sustainable and resilient.

That means ensuring that no one is left

behind, that no rural woman is left behind.


Thank you, Elisenda, for giving us this broader view.

Thank you, Reema, for telling us what’s happening on the ground

and what SEWA is doing.

Thank you both for your time for our podcast on rural women.

Our guests today where Reema Nanavaty,

member of SEWA and Elisenda Estruch Puertas,

rural economy specialist at the ILO.

Please, join us again soon for another

edition of the ILO Future of Work podcast.