At the current pace of change, it is going to take us over a century to close the global gender gap.

As recent research from the World Economic Forum has shown, women are still behind in areas such as economic participation and opportunity, health and education, as well as political empowerment.

Many countries that have the most ground to make up are in underdeveloped regions, where vast numbers of women live in rural areas. This number is growing as more men migrate for work. The empowerment of rural women will therefore be paramount to speeding up the rate at which we are able to close the global gender gap.

However, as Bill and Melinda Gates have noted in their annual letter this year, the data and research on rural women that we will need in order to take action is shockingly scarce. How much do they own? What do they earn? Does their income effectively empower them? Too often, we come up blank when looking to answer these questions. Data that does exist is outdated or inaccurate. Yet we know that quality data is critical for driving investment decisions and forming policies for any goal. Gender equality is no different.

Doubling down on research into what works to empower rural women will be a major step forward. Here’s how CGIAR is working towards these goals in three regions across the world.

Middle East and North Africa: 153 years to go

A major barrier to economic empowerment of women in the Middle East and North Africa, where gender equality is a startling 153 years away, is access to business financing.

When Egyptian mother of three Mariam Hussein Mebeid’s husband was sent to prison, she suddenly found herself at the head of her household. Her lack of capital and experience led her to become a shrimp-peeler, working arduous 12-hour shifts. She was in constant leg pain from the work. How could she finance a new start for herself and her family?

Data research from CGIAR centre WorldFish analyzed market interventions that could improve women fish retailers' access to market services, to strengthen their business skills and increase their net profits from $1 to $10 a day. The research revealed that village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) can provide a workable solution for women like Mariam. VSLAs are made up of between 10 and 25 people. Members save a portion of their income each week and then take turns to receive small loans from the group’s savings. Its activities run in cycles of three months, after which the accumulated savings and loan profits are distributed back to members. Unlike banks, VSLAs do not require proof of income or property ownership to grant loans.

Now, Mariam is able to purchase ingredients to cook and sell fish. She has paid back her first loan and is taking out another. “I feel independent. I dream of building a good reputation with my customers and maybe one day opening my own restaurant,” she told WorldFish.

Sub-Saharan Africa: 135 years to go

Fifty-three-year-old Mukampabuka Placidie used to struggle to feed her family and meet their basic needs. But when she received training from CGIAR initiative HarvestPlus to identify and sell beans biofortified with iron to urban markets, everything changed.

Known in Kigali’s Kabeza market as Mama Egide, Placidie educates the community – particularly other mothers – about the health benefits of eating iron-rich beans and how to identify them. Independent research conducted in Rwanda shows that regular consumption of iron-biofortified beans can provide 75% of a woman’s daily iron needs. It is important for women to get sufficient iron in their diet to avoid giving birth prematurely or having small babies. It also decreases their risk of dying during childbirth.

Placidie sponsors a prime-time advertisement of iron beans on the radio to popularize consumption of the beans among fellow market vendors and consumers. As a result, her sales have maintained an upward trend, topping 50kg of beans per day. Her economic empowerment goes hand in hand with improving the health of those around her.

“Consumers like the beans. Two pregnant women came back to thank me for the advice and the beans after their doctors confirmed that blood iron levels that were low had increased to normal just after adopting and consuming iron beans for about three months,” she told HarvestPlus.

South Asia: 70 years to go

The Eastern Gangetic Plains connecting Nepal’s Terai, eastern India and Bangladesh, a region known as south Asia’s poverty square, is home to around 600 million of the world's poorest. Research conducted by the International Water Management Institute shows that poverty here is accentuated by equalities by caste, ethnicity and gender.

Nepalese landless tenant farmer Janaki Devi Chaudary struggled to get by growing staple crops on rented land in the monsoon season. Half of her harvest went to the landlord, giving her little reason or money to improve production by investing in better seeds, fertilizer and irrigation equipment. Many men from her community have left to find work in cities, leaving Janaki and others to farm on their own.

So that she and women like her can successfully navigate this new era of the “feminization of agriculture”, IWMI and several partners piloted a collective approach for irrigated production of cash crops in the dry season. Working in small groups, farmers lease the land together, while sharing the costs and labour involved in micro-irrigation using solar pumps. Janaki and other members of her group (which consists of four women and two men) grow bottle gourd, cucumber and tomato.

A water-use efficiency test in which Janaki took part resulted in a score of 90%. She finds that the new system not only uses water more efficiently, but is easy to operate and saves time: “I fill the water drum connected to the solar pump, and then do other work or take a break while the field is being irrigated,” she explained to IWMI researchers. Furthermore, being part of a group provide Janaki with much more: solidarity, access to pooled resources, and a collective voice.

Mariam, Mama Egide and Janaki’s stories show that integrating gender into the design of rural development projects can have immediate effect. We cannot wait more than a century for the global gender gap to close. Instead, we must make this type of gender-sensitive approach the “new normal”. To do this, we need to find the gaps in evidence that still exist and tackle them head-on. As CGIAR launches its first standalone research platform into gender issues, we stand ready to take this challenge on, so that change can be realized within our lifetime.

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