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Situation of women in rural areas in Europe

Women play a major role in civil society and economic growth in rural areas. They help to maintain vibrant rural areas and communities, and viable farm businesses. Women act in the rural economy as farmers, workers in multiple sectors and entrepreneurs. They also assume responsibility for the welfare of their family members. Yet despite their crucial contribution, rural women still face numerous challenges, including difficulties in accessing the labour market.  There is a gap between male and female employment in rural areas of 13 percentage points, rising to over 20 in certain Member States. Women are more likely to be unemployed than men and are over-represented in informal and vulnerable employment. In addition, there is a lack of adequate public services for them (services related to childcare, health and social care for the elderly and women-centred services such as medical specialties), and they have a weak presence in decision-making forums.

The indicators of the statistical office of the European Union (EU), Eurostat, do not include many that are disaggregated by gender and at the rural territorial scale. For instance, when looking at the data:

  • The population trend or demographic balance data are differentiated by gender, but the Nomenclature of Territorial Units is NUT 3, which corresponds to a minimum population of 150,000 inhabitants and a maximum of 800,000 inhabitants. This therefore does not reflect the rural reality of most countries.
  • The gender employment gap data measured in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 5 includes information only at the Member State level (i.e. at national level).
  • The farm labour force data, within the agricultural indicators, is disaggregated by gender, but only provides information at the Member State/national level.
  • The quality of life or the quality of employment data is again disaggregated by gender, but only provides information at the Member State level.

This suggests that we are lacking complete information to measure and evaluate rural women’s needs and situation in depth.

Integrating rural women’s needs into European policies

For years, European policies have made gender equality a strategic objective. Equality between women and men has been a recognised priority since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and was reinforced in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU in 2000. However progress remains insufficient and many inequalities between women and men persist.

Women make up slightly more than 50% of the total EU population. According to the EU Long Term Vision for Rural Areas, there is a gap between men and women in terms of their degree of participation in economic activities. The Vision expressly noted that young women are more likely to leave rural regions than young men. In addition, the Vision proposed to pay attention to the fact that many women have precarious contracts or play an invisible role in rural societies.

In order to improve this situation, the EU Rural Action Plan includes a specific flagship initiative on social resilience and women in rural areas that describes the actions that the European Commission (EC) will take in the coming years:

  • Support for women will be provided for entrepreneurship, participation in decision-making and investments in work-life balance services, such as early childhood education and care, as well as services for older people.
  • Explore opportunities to increase women’s participation in the labour market, in particular in agriculture, under the Common Agricultural Policy or the schemes and support of European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).
  • The EC will continue supporting Member States’ work on improving the availability, accessibility and affordability of quality education and care services for children, older persons and persons with disabilities in rural areas through investments from the European Social Fund Plus, the European Regional Development Fund, the Invest EU programme and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 presents policy objectives and actions to make significant progress by 2025 towards a gender-equal Europe. To ensure that gender will be addressed across EU policies along with other forms of discrimination, the strategy includes the intersectionality as a cross-cutting principle. The intersectionality refers to the combination of gender with other personal characteristics or identities, and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of discrimination.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposal regulation COM (2018) 392 final establishes the rules on support for Strategic Plans to be drawn up by Member States. In this legislative proposal however, there is only one specific mention of women; Article 110 states that the Managing Authorities, responsible for the management and implementation of the CAP Strategic Plan, shall ensure the publicity of this Plan by informing the bodies involved in the promotion of equality between men and women.

From analysing the study requested by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the European Parliament (2015), it can be concluded that, at least at the level of farm leadership or management, women receive proportionately less support from both pillars (pillar 1 being direct income support, and pillar 2 focusing in rural development support) of the CAP than men do. In large part, this is because women tend to manage smaller farm businesses, have less land and lower levels of formal education. Women therefore benefit from less direct payments associated with the eligible land area or the livestock units.

Finally, the Farm to Fork Strategy within the EU Green Deal (EGD) does not specifically mention women.

Opportunities and conclusions

There is a need to strengthen the monitoring and evaluation system of the objectives associated with rural women in existing EU strategies and policies. A set of indicators disaggregated by gender and at rural level would make it possible to determine the extent to which public support for women in Europe’s rural areas is having positive results or where improvements are needed.

The EU Long Term Vision for Rural Areas introduces the ‘rural proofing’ to review major EU policies and consider potential impacts and implications on rural areas. A rural observatory will also be set up within the Commission to further improve data collection and analysis on rural areas and inform policymaking.

On 5 October 2021 the European Association for Information on Local Development (AEIDL) team organised an AEIDL Talks on Women in rural Areas, which led to the publication of an article on the role of women in rural development and innovation in the EU.

The article contains a series of recommendations on opportunities and actions to be taken to improve the situation of women in rural areas by using public support and through enhancing public-private agreements. Some of the opportunities specifically refer to policy improvements to address the lack of specification for rural women.

In relation to the use of public support (different funds, mechanisms, and instruments) there is space to review EU policies through a rural lens, ensuring rural and gender proofing. With regard to the CAP support programme, specific interventions for women are needed, as well as giving priority to women in the selection criteria for support.

About the author

Blanca Casares holds a Bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences and a Master’s degree in Territorial Rural Development and started her career in 2011 at the Spanish Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine. In 2017 she founded EfecTo TP, Territory & People as a personal project of design, monitoring, evaluation and learning (DMEL) where she works as a freelancer on a wide range of projects for different organisations, foundations and companies. Since 2020, she has worked for the European Association for Information on Local Development (AEIDL) as a rural development officer for three Horizon 2020 projects focused on rural areas (MOVING, SHERPA and DESIRA).