Commission on the Status of Women 2012

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) welcomes the priority theme of the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

IPPF is a global service provider and a leading advocate of sexual and reproductive health and rights and works through 153 Member Associations in 174 countries. IPPF believes that the fulfilment of rural women’s human rights and their empowerment are prerequisites for poverty and hunger eradication, the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and sustainable development more broadly. In most regions of the world, including in middle-income countries, it is in rural areas where achieving the MDGs are most off-track. This is in part because worldwide; 1.3 billion people do not have access to effective and affordable health care[i]. As a result, low- and middle-income countries bear 93 per cent of the world's disease burden, yet account for just 18 per cent of world income and 11 per cent of global health spending. Seventy per cent of the developing world’s 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty reside in rural areas.[ii]

Sexual and reproductive health and rights is a crucial issue relating to the empowerment of women, many of whom live in rural communities. Women continue to face serious challenges in carrying out their multiple productive and reproductive roles within their families and communities, in large part due to a lack of access to essential goods and services. They are disadvantaged as a result of gender-based stereotyping and discrimination which deny women equal access to opportunities, resources and services.

Women and girls living in rural areas bring and make significant contributions to economic growth and the fight against hunger, ill-health and poverty. Yet many barriers exist to their empowerment. These barriers are varied but all impact at different levels on their ability to contribute to poverty and hunger eradication and development. Recent events, including the financial, food and fuel crises, natural disasters and challenges such as climate change all exacerbate the impact of these barriers.

It is essential to recognize the importance of reducing barriers that keep rural women from accessing SRH services and information including safe and affordable contraceptive and safe abortion services, which discriminate them on the basis of their geographical location and socio-economic status, making them particularly vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, HIV and other ST infection and maternal morbidity and mortality.

Key problems specific to access to care for women in rural areas include distance to health facilities, transportation, availability of health providers, cost of and poor quality of services. These combine to expose rural women to an increased risk of mortality and morbidity. As such, affordability, availability, and acceptability diminish significantly in rural areas. These access barriers are compounded by geographical isolation and the cost of travelling to areas where health services are more widely available. Another major barrier is the lack of skilled healthcare providers in rural areas in part caused by issues related to the recruitment and retention of trained staff. Another access barrier is the shortage of health workers and resources, especially in rural areas, and the unique health issues facing women, including reproductive health and increased vulnerability to HIV infection

Lack of access to health care is a key barrier. One in 16 women in developing countries risks dying in child birth, and in sub-Saharan Africa young women are 8 times more likely than men to be HIV positive.[iii]

HIV tends to the path of least resistance and in many regions this disproportionately affects rural communities. Despite advances HIV is still the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age. Complications from pregnancy continue to be the leading cause of mortality among adolescent girls aged 15-19; young people aged 15-24 account for 40 per cent of all new HIV infections, and in sub-Saharan Africa, young women make up 71 per cent of people living with HIV. The challenges of poverty and hunger have linkages with the causes and consequences of HIV as HIV increases the likelihood of individuals falling into poverty and facing hunger. A coordinated and integrated approach is necessary to empower women. Empowering women socially and economically is a vital step in reducing their vulnerability to HIV and poor SRH. Part of this means ensuring that micro-finance and similar schemes are available and specifically target young women and girls and those living with HIV. The lack, or neglect, of rural services – in particular those to address HIV and SRH – is a continuing problem in efforts to address the situation of rural women. Ensuring there is the necessary infrastructure and resources to support isolated rural services must be a key priority for the global community. The resources invested in HIV services offer a key opportunity for strengthening the broader health system. 

Women play an important role in other people’s lives – their children, their family, their community – but empowerment should focus on the situation of the individual woman; not empowering her solely to serve others needs. IPPF has been an elected member of The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS which aims to address and advocate for many of the key HIV issues facing women and girls in particular. The active involvement of men and boys as partners in the lives of their wives; mothers; and sisters needs to be more actively promoted. Linking HIV and Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) is vital. Comprehensive services that address a woman’s needs holistically are an essential factor in ensuring women are in a position to secure their own health, those of their children and of their family. Eliminating HIV transmission from mothers to their infants and keeping the mothers alive has become and should remain a key platform for addressing both MNCH and HIV.

Rural women are also often the first casualties of the current aid architecture, especially as their contribution to economies is often lowly regarded – care and support for families; subsistence agriculture/farming – all of which entrench gender-based violence and deepen poverty. Rural women survivors of violence and abuse often find it difficult or impossible to access services. In many rural areas, women and girls often work in the lowest paid and most precarious forms of employment. Many also have no independent access to and control of resources, and usually have responsibility for care-giving and household duties. The disproportionate share of unpaid care work that falls on rural women relative to men restricts the time they have available for paid activities and active participation in society. These unpaid tasks are rarely recognized as important economic functions. Sharing domestic responsibilities more equally between men and women is therefore an important means by which to improve the health and well-being of women and girls. Domestic responsibilities can result in girls and women being denied access to education and employment and they may be prevented from participating fully in the public sphere, especially in decision-making fora and governance. When a girl is prevented from attending school, her ability to participate meaningfully in the formal economy and in decision-making fora as an adult is compromised. When men and women both contribute to household responsibilities, women have more time to engage in paid work and as a result, control over household income is shared more equally.

IPPF recognizes the link between rural development and the access and participation ofwomen in education, health and meaningful employment. As per Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, IPPF recognizes that education is a human right and that there is a bridge between education and health, especially in rural areas which is essential for development at all levels.

Education for women and girls has a multiplier effect when it comes to poverty eradication. Yet, education facilities in rural areas are neither well equipped nor adequately staffed. Children of educated women are usually healthier and better educated. It is vital also that young women and men and girls and boys have access to comprehensive and gender-sensitive sexuality education (CSE) in both formal and informal educational settings. Approximately 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year - around 11 per cent of all births worldwide, the vast majority of which occur in developing countries. Delayed first births, later marriage, birth spacing, fewer healthier babies, and better educated better fed families, are all largely the result of secondary education and access to family planning services and CSE. This in turn leads to freedom for further training, education, empowerment and meaningful employment, so lifting families out of poverty. As such there is a clear link between SRH, access to health services, education, gender equity, well-being and development.


Concerted action to address the barriers that diminish opportunities for the social, political and economic empowerment of women and girls in rural areas is long overdue. IPPF believes that the following recommendations if fully implemented would significantly help address the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication and development.

Access and availability of SRH services which are affordable and close to the community, with price exemption for the poorest women;

Laws that protect and promote women’s liberty and bodily integrity should be enforced. Rural women are likely to suffer from harmful traditional practices – these practices risk women’s health and well-being. Availability of the necessary infrastructure and resources to support isolated rural services including health facilities, education (including CSE), training and other support services.

Community outreach to inform women on the availability of safe legal abortion and care services including referral to service delivery points;

Task shifting where possible by training mid level providers in abortion related care;

Rights-based polices and programming within health services and the community should be promoted especially for primary prevention of HIV in women of childbearing age (with special emphasis on pregnant and breastfeeding women), and prevention of unintended pregnancies in women living with HIV initiatives that promote behavioural change around gender roles and encourage an equitable distribution of care work between men and women, in particular measures to encourage men’s involvement in the care of children, the sick and elderly, including in rural areas affected by HIV and AIDS.

Recognition and respect for rural women’s autonomy, freedom and sexual rights as a key means of empowerment
Accelerating access to universal primary and secondary education in rural areas to empower young women and equip them with the skills to participate in development, with a view to raising their income levels.

Respect rural women’s agency and mobilisation in local and national decision-making processes.

Strengthening of health and economic systems to ensure socially equitable and efficient care for women’s health and rights. Addressing the key underlying determinants of health, including sexual and gender based violence.

Training and meaningful involvement of community leaders in addressing gender inequality that fuels harmful practices (which are particularly prevalent in rural areas – where community ‘laws’ rather national laws often more progressive, operate);

Clear collection and disaggregation of data (along gender and rural-urban lines);


[i] ‘Universal coverage of health services: tailoring its implementation’; Guy Carrin a, Inke Mathauer a, Ke Xu a, David B Evans, WHO 2011available at:

[ii] Rural Poverty Report 2011, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) available at:

[iii]Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet at the opening session of the Fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Istanbul, 9 May 2011.Available at: