Economic Empowerment

“Your education is the only wealth you can carry with you throughout your life”, (Dr. Song Pok-Shyn)

I once went to an anthropology conference on European peasants in a Swiss village on the remote slopes of a beautiful mountain. In the heart of industrialized Europe, a hearty, traditional, peasant way of life had survived—or so we thought. The small Swiss house where I stayed was run by an elderly woman whose cheek colors matched the reddest strawberries I had ever seen, piled high on the breakfast table. Strawberries were among the few cash crops that made it out to the cities. The rest of the fruits and vegetables were destined for old-fashion home cooking. Madame served us vegetables that she grew in her backyard. She also produced cheese and fruit products that were often used for friendly barter. Her vineyards were outstanding examples of artisanal care.

I thought this was idyllic living until I noticed something strange a few days later. I rarely met a young person. The statistics were right. Like poor villages throughout western Europe, the migration of rural youth in Switzerland to cities had resulted in a serious drain of labor from rural areas. Higher education and jobs expanded opportunities for youth in cities, but they also meant that newer generations were abandoning villages. What escaped the eyes of policymakers is that these children also left their parents behind.

The UN needs to pay attention to the plight of rural women, particularly older rural women because their numbers are increasing. In agricultural communities where retirement exists only if children take over responsibilities, older women must now work longer hours just to survive. Globally, the situation is worse because only 10 to 20 percent of all landholders are women.[1] When disasters strike, such as prolonged droughts, older women find it harder to access credit and other resources to rebuild their farmlands. This is a loss for the whole of society. The FAO estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, contributing to end to world hunger.[2]

Even in wealthy, developed countries, women farmers live in the south of the north. Like many of their counterparts in developing countries, these women have lower rates of literacy, poorer health, and less access to modern communications than the average citizen. We would learn a lot if the older women of this Swiss village were invited to sit among us at the United Nations and judge progress from their point of view.

[1] FAO, The State of food and Agriculture: Women in Agriculture, closing the Gender Gap for Development, Rome 2011 and

[2] Ibid