To recognize “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty,” the United Nations General Assembly established October 15 as the International day of rural women.
Women make up about 43 percent of the farm workers in developing countries and gender inequality has been a major cause of poverty in the world. This is not exclusive of third world countries though.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor 2009 survey, the majority (72 percent) of all farm workers in the U.S. are foreign born. About 68 percent of all farm workers were born in Mexico and 22 percent are female.
About three million people in the United States migrate between states, earning their living by working in the fields. Their education rates are poor; about 30 percent don’t speak English at all; their health is compromised by the exposure to pesticides and their life expectancy is substantially lower than average. Their average annual income ranges from $12,500 to $14,999, below the poverty level.
A typical rural town: Immokalee
Maybe you have heard of one small agricultural Floridian town called Immokalee.
A good part of the fresh tomatoes you eat are grown in Florida, but especially in Immokalee, a land that became apt for agriculture in the last century after a part of the Everglades swamps were drained.
When you drive along Immokalee’s Main Street, the town seems from another film, not exactly one portraying the sweetest American dream.
Going further you can drive along vast planted citrus fields that go beyond the horizon and at sunset, if lucky, you can spot deer trotting behind the vegetation. This is the romantic side of this story. But read further.
Forty percent of the Immokalee people live under the poverty line. And this often means living in overcrowded trailers, sharing one bed for the whole family, a bathroom and a kitchen for several families.
Workers sometimes don’t know if they will have work on a given day or if they will be able to put some food on the table the next morning.
Illiteracy and lack of education are common in rural cities like Immokalee. Migrant workers fight against the language barrier; some only speak dialect.
Job conditions for rural women are deplorable
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has repeatedly denounced the saddest part of this story: job conditions for workers, but especially for women are deplorable in the fields.
The CIW has denounced underpayment, forced labor, slavery, sexual harassment and cases in which birth defects might have been the consequence of exposure to pesticides.
In the past 20 plus years, Immokalee became a community settled predominantly by migrant Hispanic (85 percent, mostly Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans) and Haitian (8 percent) workers.
Females run 20 percent of the households with no man present.
The per capita income in Immokalee was $8,576 in 2010 with a median income for a household of about $22,000.
Compare to neighbor Collier County town, Naples, located only 45 minutes away where the median income for a household was $71,553 in 2010, and the median income for a family was $102,262. The population under the poverty line of this wealthy town is still striking: 12 percent.
Unlike other countries where the level of poverty might be associated with low-productivity manual farming, Immokalee has highly industrialized agricultural fields.
However, the main crop, tomatoes, cannot be automated and workers manually pick the produce under the sun.
The crucial role of rural women
As in other rural communities around the globe, the role of women is crucial in Immokalee. They not only participate in crop production but they also engage in off-farm activities (from handicrafts to empanadas) to diversify their families’ livelihoods.
Rural women strongly support each other especially in taking care of the children, the elderly and the sick. Rural women who come from migrant families today run most childcare centers, health facilities and charitable organizations operating in the area.
Migrant rural women in Immokalee have also been active in the CIW campaigns against slavery and for fair food. Thanks to their active contribution, in 2005 and after a national campaign, the coalition reached an agreement with Yum! Brand (which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) for a penny-a-pound increase in the price of tomatoes. Other wholesalers, including Subway and McDonalds signed similar deals.
The agreement also included shorter workdays, portable tents for breaks, reduced exposure to pesticides and worker’s education on rights.
Coming from very poor communities in the Third World country, rural women are used to not having tap water, electricity or even a cement floor in their homes. These migrant women in Immokalee are not very demanding and certainly know to make the best out of scarce resources, but without them the town would not have made any progress.