Connecting Rural and Urban Women’s Struggles for International Women’s Day

UN Women’s theme for their International Women’s Day commemoration this year echoed the sentiments of solidarity that have always made for effective feminism: “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives.”

In the midst of a year that has seen the power of targeted campaigns and marches, including #MeToo and #TimesUp in the U.S., #QuellaVoltaChe in Italy and “Ni Una Menos” in Argentina, UN Women’s theme extends, in their words, the “unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice” that has taken shape to the longstanding activism of less publicized movements.  

The UN’s efforts serve as a crucial example in how to transform the momentum of worldwide movements into tangible action that empowers all women—rural and urban. The UN International Women’s Day commemoration brought together fearless voices from multiple disciplines united in the fight for all women’s equality–UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; the President of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Mónica Ramírez; Tony-nominated playwright, Danai Gurira and Academy-award winning actor Reese Witherspoon.

We at the United Nations stand with women around the world as they fight to overcome the injustices they face,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted in his official message for International Women’s Day, “whether they are rural women dealing with wage discrimination, urban women organizing for change, women refugees at risk of exploitation and abuse or women who experience intersecting forms of discrimination: widows, indigenous women, women with disabilities and women who do not conform to gender norms.”

Rural women comprise a quarter of the world’s population, and they make up 43 percent—the majority—of women in agriculture, a pivotal employment sector for developing countries and rural regions. But they’re also frequently forgotten or overlooked in conversations about worldwide development, despite being the people who are most prone to the negative consequences of it.

Discriminatory laws and longstanding social norms, in unison with changes in global economics, have put rural women far behind rural men and urban women in their access to adequate rights and proper standards of living. Their lack of infrastructure and social protection leaves rural women increasingly vulnerable to devastating consequences, including high maternal mortality, low income security and limited upward mobility. While the global gender pay gap is an already dismal 23 percent, that number rises to 40 percent in rural areas. 

They’re certainly not victims, though—nor are they powerless. “Rural women and their organizations represent an enormous potential,” UN Women declared, “and they are on the move to claim their rights and improve their livelihoods and wellbeing.”

Additionally, when rural activists win, all women win. Over 50 percent of women living in urban areas of developing countries lack access to basic necessities, like clean water, proper sanitation and lasting housing. Though the activism shaped by rural activists has persisted largely outside of the limelight, these resilient activists continue to mobilize and work to shape an inclusive vision of a better world for vulnerable people—one that extends far beyond their own lives and communities.

Ramírez said it best: “We’re not waiting to be saved. We are saving ourselves.”

Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.