Learn from ARCOS’ Experience: Why empowering rural women is crucial for sustainable development?

Since a woman’s work is intangible, it is seen as worthless for the economy (Marçal, 2015). The UNDP (1995) however, estimates women’s unpaid labour output at one-third of the global GDP of $23 trillion, receiving a much smaller share of goods and services produced by total labour, compared to what they contribute.

Linking this with the challenges of rural areas in most East African countries (in our case Rwanda), deforestation and no access to clean water leads women to spend more additional time on unpaid work i.e. collecting firewood and fetching water (Nankhuni, 2004).

The FAO2 (2011) has calculated that time savings from unpaid work, reducing infrastructure for water collection and food preparation is equivalent on average to 466 thousand and 4,590 thousand full-time jobs respectively.

Recent research is pointing to the importance and the role of women in rural development, especially female leadership which leads to more investment (Chattopadhyay & Duflo, 2004). Investing in buidling the capability of rural women raises aspirations, increases education for children as well as more equal time-use in households (Beaman, Duflo, Pande, & Topalova, 2012).

How does ARCOS go about it?

As suggested by World Bank (2008), overcoming environmental problems in agriculture requires a good understanding of private incentives of individual resource users and ways to manage resources more successfully from society’s point of view. In agreement with the statement, ARCOS Network’s overall goal is to promote sustainable development through empowering community-based enterprises and enhancing sound management of environment.

Through its leading line “Partnering for improved livelihoods and environmental sustainability” of its Nature Based Community Enterprises Programme (NBCEs), the long-term aim is to sustain community development at household and community organization level while strengthening their nature based enterprises and building networks.

The NBCEs Programme is one of the programmes through which ARCOS channels its collaborative actions with various stakeholders. Once a partner is chosen e.g. a cooperative, a Sustainability Agreement (SA) is signed between ARCOS, its partner communities and local government authorities. The SA is a performance and benefit-based contract between all collaborators, comprising the activities aiming to integrate sustainable actions, enhance environmental resilience and promote community development. It is done through the empowerment of community business enterprises and building the experience-sharing networks between different community groups. To achieve this goal of sustainable development and enhancing sound environmental management so as to build socio-economic landscape where people and nature are in balance; ARCOS has developed an integrated implementation approach named “BEST Approach” with four key areas: B: Building leadership and sustainable institutions, E: Enhancing environmental resilience, S: Sustainable business solutions, T: Transforming and inspiring others.(See details in a pdf copy of a case study here)

Taking into account the cooperative members testimonies and the outcome the cooperative has on their livelihood and especially income, all results show that the initiative is beneficial. They are also in line with Trommlerova et al’s findings (2015), who found that self- reported capabilities are more important for empowerment than socio- economic ones, even though we are able to find both in the case of JAMBERE MUNYARWANDA and KAKIKA, ARCOS’ partner women cooperatives. Despite perceptions and social norms being hard to change (World Bank, 2015), recent research finds that if rural women are trained they are being perceived as experts and even men then seek their advice (Johnson, Kovarik, Meinzen-Dick, Njuki, & Quisumbing, 2016). Exposure to a different lifestyle i.e. women as paid labour, contributor to household income and decision maker, is able to change mental models and aspirations of this and other groups (Jensen & Oster, 2009).

Giving women the opportunity to participate in the labour market and in turn earn their own income is an important step in sustainable development. As research shows, not only women but also their environment i.e. community as a whole and household members, benefit. This is done by changing and challenging existing social norms, mental models and old perceptions. Putting women in charge, offering them a voice, giving them a platform to express themselves in turn gives them acceptance and respect from their society and the other sex. Giving opportunities today will create even more opportunities for future generations.

For more information on ARCOS’ Approach, achievements and lessons learnt read through a case study accessible here on ARCOS’ website.