Having worked as an extensionist for five years in Zimbabwe, it is apparent to me that the rural woman's most prevalent problems revolve around limited access to education, property rights, land ownership, credit, appropriate technologies and little knowledge of the rights that she does have. The lack of trained female extensionists compounds this situation.
In developing countries, society has traditionally viewed women as providers of water, fuel, food and other household needs. The result is that women "belong" to the home. Traditional practices, customs and religions dictate that women are seldom or never consulted for decision making in the home or community.
Women in developing countries have long been denied education. According to the State of the World Report (UNFPA), two-thirds of illiterate adults in developing countries are women. Lack of education among women leads to lack of education among children. For women it also means limited opportunity for better jobs, limited family planning methods and less preparedness to manage issues outside the home. Women were, and for the most part still are, kept at home to work.
Property rights and land ownership are major problems for women in developing countries. Women must depend largely on men for access to land. In most parts of Africa women are allowed to cultivate land, but men control the land as well as any profit made. Property rights vary from country to country. In Zimbabwe, for example, a law was passed in 1982 permitting women to own property. But most women in rural areas are unaware of this law and traditional ownership rights prevail. Land ownership is still reserved for a woman's father or son.
Access to technology and credit is not equitable. Women are denied credit--an opportunity to improve their lives--because most financial institutions require collateral in the form of a title or property. Most women do not own property. Even if they did, the lengthy and complex application process becomes a roadblock to women because of their lack of education.
Culturally inappropriate technologies are at best ineffective and at worst can make a woman's situation more difficult. Many technologies that could be used to ease women's workload end up being controlled by men. The case of grinding mills is a good example. In most African countries women traditionally grind grain with a mortar and pestle, or with grinding stones. When grinding mills were introduced, men had the money to purchase mills and began to dominate the industry. In most cases women still do not have access to grinding mills, because credit rates are too high for them. What had been a woman's industry has become dominated by men and women provide labor for it.
It has been my experience that women extensionists are more successful at working with women than men are. Women confide in women. This is accentuated in cultures where gender roles are strictly defined. But there is a shortage of trained female extensionists. Because of this, women extensionists have to work twice as hard to compensate for their small numbers, and to have an impact.
Unless women in developing countries take the initiative to lift each other up, to work together to change their lives, it may take centuries for their situations to improve. Women must realize that unless some cultural norms and customs are bypassed, they will never realize their rights and will never be recognized. In countries where women can be voted into the political system, those women are needed to fight for a change in the system--and not fall within the existing system of their male counterparts. Women extensionists should collaboratively encourage women's groups to take up the challenge to improve their well-being. Women extensionists should keep abreast of development work taking place in different areas to stay informed. Women's groups should work hard to convince men that they can stand on their own.