October 15 marks the International Day of Rural Women. This day praises and gives special appreciation to the rural women’s contribution all around the globe. Marking this day in Nepal always reminds of rural women farmers who have contributed a lot to their family, society and country and yet gets unnoticed and are deprived of accesses. Chanda Devi from Paltuwa village of Sarlahi district is one of them. She is one of those rural farmers who had to walk for hours every day under the scorching sun to fetch water from a distant river. Her responsibilities were more to it. Toiling diligently alongside male farmers in the fields, caring for her cattle, and tending to her family’s needs were her daily routine.
Alike was the struggle of Chandra Kala, another smallholder woman farmer from Ranichuri village of Sindhuli district. Investing countless effort and time for staple grain farming but still struggling for good livelihood was her life. But now, their life has taken a U-turn. Today, Chanda Devi's life has been transformed thanks to the installation of an irrigation system that has alleviated severe water scarcity and brought freshwater closer to homes and fields in her village. Chandra Kala on the other hand has transitioned from staple grain to high-value vegetable cultivation. This shift has brought her timely income and better prices, making a substantial difference in her farming experience. This was possible due to the support they received from programme like Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme.
Increase in income
This joint programme initiated by four UN agencies: UN Women, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme under the leadership of Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development has transformed the lives of 3,622 rural women farmers. Chanda Devi who also served as a site coordinator of the programme says, “The new irrigation system has significantly improved women’s lives of my village, saving the countless hours we used to spend fetching water. And I am using this reclaimed time for more productive activities in my farm.” With ample water for crops and cattle, her agricultural production has increased, boosting her income and food security. The joint programme has also improved her access to markets and honed her leadership skills.
Empowering rural women farmers like them not only benefits the community but plays a crucial role in supporting Nepal’s economic development. As an agrarian country, agriculture contributes 23.95 per cent of Nepal's gross domestic product and provides a livelihood for an overwhelming 66 per cent of the population. The unsung heroes of this sector are women, who constitute 70 per cent of this agricultural workforce. The vast majority – 80 per cent – reside in rural areas. Although their contribution is immense, women are often unpaid and overlooked. Rural women still grapple with economic and social marginalisation. And new challenges have emerged, especially in the face of climate change and the increasing frequency of natural disasters, which are threatening the sustainability and productivity of food systems.
When confronted with food shortages and other crises, women bear a disproportionate burden, primarily due to deeply embedded patriarchal social norms that restrict their access to resources, services, and information. Additionally, their responsibilities for unpaid care and domestic work exacerbate this burden. Rural women often lack alternative livelihood opportunities and remain in subsistence farming as a substantial number of men seek better employment opportunities overseas. With the state of food security and the rural economy becoming increasingly challenging in Nepal, women have taken on prominent roles in ensuring that their communities have access to food through sustainable production and distribution.
The joint programme recognises women as producers, promotes their resilience and leadership in agriculture, ensures their access to markets, resources, and credits, and invests in their businesses. Initiated as a pilot for the gender-responsive implementation of Nepal’s Agriculture Development Strategy, the joint programme’s first phase brought about remarkable changes in the lives of rural women in Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. Building on lessons learned during the first phase, the second phase will intensify efforts to reshape social norms and foster collaborations to amplify women’s voices and influence policy. Beginning this year and spanning five years under the continued leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, the joint programme will expand into Nepal’s Siraha and Saptari districts.
A total of 5,500 rural women will be supported to adopt improved agricultural practices with reduced drudgery, enhanced income opportunities, and strengthened leadership skills. By providing access to digital resources, the programme will equip these women with the latest agricultural knowledge and skills. This holistic approach recognises that the benefits of this support can only materialise when there is an enabling environment supporting women’s advancement at all levels – within the family, community, market and at the policy level.
The joint programme also seeks to address the challenges faced by marginalised groups of women, such as single women, women with disabilities, Dalits, Indigenous, Madhesis, Muslims, gender and sexual minorities, and survivors of gender-based violence, who face additional stigmatisation and discrimination based on their intersecting identities. The programme is thus prioritising the inclusion of the most marginalised women through ensuring intersectional identity of women and collaborating with local governments and other stakeholders. This aims to address the range of systemic barriers that lead to their exclusion.
The stories of Chanda Devi and Chandra Kala exemplify the joint programme’s power to chart a new path forward by recognising rural women’s contributions and ensuring that they are not just active participants but also beneficiaries of Nepal’s agricultural growth. Empowering these women is not only an aspiration, but a necessity, given the indispensable role they play in reducing Nepal’s dependency on food imports and securing a sustainable future for all.
On this Rural Women’s Day, let us reflect on the transformative power of programmes like the Joint Programme for Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment in Nepal, through which rural women are breeding hope through their collective spirit and sowing the seeds of prosperity. And last but not the least, on this special day, we congratulate and send our best wishes to all rural women of Nepal for their immense contribution towards sustaining agriculture sector.
(Sharma is Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and Pacheco, Country Representative, UN Women Nepal.)