In Linda Sue Park’s 2010 novel, A Long Walk to Water, the plight of the rural female in South Sudan is underscored. Nya is an eleven-year-old girl whose daily task is to walk shoeless two hours one way to gather water. Her family’s survival depends on it. Though Nya is fictional she is based on a contemporary representation of children in South Sudan.
Park’s historical fiction novel, now read by school and reading groups alike, speaks to the concerns of the United Nations who in 2008 began a day of awareness, Rural Women’s Day, so that females like Nya do not continue to go unnoticed.
Consider the following statistics:
- One billion people living in poverty are concentrated in rural areas.
- Less than 30% of people in rural areas have access to safe water.
- 2.5 million people in Asia and sub-saharan Africa depend on smallholder agriculture to survive. This accounts for nearly 80% of the food in this region.
- Globally, women constitute 43% of the agricultural workforce.
Aside from generating income and producing food, rural women have additional challenges and responsibilities with which to contend. Gender inequality. Child rearing. Vulnerability to violence. Added to that is climate change. As floods and droughts increase, women and girls increase their time collecting water and fuel. (Remember, Nya already spends four hours per day!) This means that women miss out on opportunities for education and income producing work. When spending one’s day on daily survival tasks, the plate for a woman becomes quickly and ironically full. Accordingly, the 2017 theme of Rural Women’s Day is “challenges and opportunities in climate-resilient agriculture for gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”
The challenges are visible, but what are the opportunities? Some estimates show that closing the gender gap could increase agricultural production by up to 20% in Africa, leading to an increased rate of climate-resilient agricultural practices. Closing this gap means implementing efforts to increase access for women to land, information, technology, financing, water and energy.
The UN is not alone in creating an awareness campaign to illuminate the struggles of the rural woman. An effort sprang up in Tanzania in 2016 among groups from 22 African nations. The Tanzanian Gender Networking Program, along with other organizations including Oxfam, ActionAid, and International Land Coalition, supported efforts of rural women to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. This initiative gave voice to rural women in many African nations who want a role in decisions about land and natural resources. A delegation of sixteen women, representing rural women, summited the mountain in October of 2016 carrying a charter of demands which they later delivered to organizational leaders including the UN secretary general.
Whether walking four hours each day to retrieve water in South Sudan, or climbing Africa’s highest peak in Tanzania, rural African women continue to steadfastly place one foot in front of the other on the path towards economic stability.
Park, Linda Sue. A Long Walk To Water. New York: Clarion Books, 2010.
Photo 1: By Oxfam East Africa - A mass grave for children in Dadaab, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16001983
Photo 2: By CIAT - 2DU Kenya 86, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30331271