Rural women ‘the poorest in society’ – NIA Tells them to Shut Up

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April 24, 2007 Edition 1

Amelia Naidoo

Life is generally very hard for women who till the land.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke on these shared hardships experienced by rural women in South Africa at the Fourth World Congress of Rural Women, which opened in Durban yesterday.

More than 2 000 delegates, including rural women themselves, the government and civil society, are attending the congress at the International Convention Centre, which is being held for the first time on African soil.

The conference is aimed at discussing universal issues confronting rural women and to share experiences of success. It is being hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs, with involvement from the Department of Social Services and Foreign Affairs, and the Women in Agriculture and Rural Development (Ward) non-governmental organ- isation.

Mlambo-Ngcuka told the women that about 42 000 households had agriculture constituting the main source of income, and there were at least two million rural black households that engaged in agriculture representing about 45% of all rural black households.

The discovery of minerals had ensured the destruction of the African peasantry and land ownership, which required land restitution and land reform policies, she said.

“We have not recovered from that race and class dilemma our people have faced in agriculture for a century,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka.

According to an International Labour Organisation report, almost 70% of economi- cally active women in the rural sector in emerging regions, and female farmers, were the majority among 1 500 people who lived in abject poverty.

The report stated women were overloaded with work in developing nations, and had to continue well beyond the retirement age. The deputy president said rural women’s prolonged working years were complicated by a burden of diseases, especially HIV/Aids. With millions of children orphaned by the disease, girl children were destined to carry the load of family responsibility.

In addition, poor working conditions in rural areas had a greater adverse effect on women than those in urban areas – women were more likely to take on unrewarding seasonal wage work.

These unskilled casual workers on large-scale farms – whose unions were the most ineffective – were undervalued as employees. A double exploitation that included patriarchy resulted.

While delegates interacted with their counterparts from across the globe, trouble was brewing outside the ICC.

A group of 600 rural women gathered to stage a protest as they claimed that government organisers, particularly Ward representatives, had removed certain rural community organisations from the delegates’ list to replace them with other, handpicked people.

Because of the implications of holding an illegal protest, the women reassembled at Curries’ Fountain to compile a list of grievances that they would present at the ICC today, said an organiser.

The group also claimed that the government organisers had sent the National Intelligence Agency to intimidate civil society leaders, said spokeswoman Constance Mogale.

Mogale said they had participated in the provincial processes ahead of the conference, where many of them had been elected to formally represent the voices of rural women.

“Only last week, the NIA visited the offices of the South African National NGO Coalition and issued a stern warning for civil society not to embarrass the government at the congress,” said Mogale.