International Women’s Day: Empowering Rural Women

by Sara Manzano-Diaz and Carol Pier on March 8, 2012 · 4 comments

ILO's International Women's Day Poster

Each year, on March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD).  The International Labor Organization’s theme, “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty,” recognizes the critical role and contributions of rural women both domestically and internationally. To commemorate IWD this year, the International Labor Organization is calling for new steps to empower rural women. 

In developing countries, most rural women work in agriculture.  Many are not paid, and those who are, typically work more hours and earn less money than men.  Social norms, discriminatory laws, and family duties often limit their opportunities to seek education or training, work outside the home, own property, or start businesses.  Yet, when these women are given a chance to succeed, they are just as productive as men.  Research has shown that educating and empowering women and girls is one of the best ways to fight poverty.  

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) and Women’s Bureau (WB) at the Department of Labor strive to maximize the potential of rural women and girls domestically and in countries around the world.  One of our goals at ILAB is to combat the worst forms of child labor.   We help build sustainable livelihoods so families need not rely on their children’s earnings to survive. 

Here are women in Uganda participating in a village savings and loan association. Women with children in primary school meet weekly to contribute to individual and group savings. They loan this money out for interest or within the group to cover medical problems, funerals, and other emergencies. The money saved also helps the women cover school expenses like books and uniforms and keep their kids in school.

Providing women with financial literacy and access to credit can make a real difference to these families.  In Madagascar, we link women to community micro-savings and micro-credit programs, offering low interest loans that women have used to grow crops and produce and sell home-made food, clothes and crafts, and open small shops.  Similar efforts in Uganda have helped women save, invest, and cope with family emergencies. 

In Egypt, our project has taught women to do budgeting and feasibility studies to identify market opportunities, and helped them buy essential tools, such as the ovens they need to make and sell bread. 

In El Salvador, mothers in female-headed households in the poorest communities can get vocational training, daycare for young children, and help starting small businesses.

In Egypt, this woman received entrepreneurial training and decided that she could start a viable business baking and selling bread.

And in Bolivia, we support groups of women farmers who are distributing fertilizer and a new type of potato seed and exploring ways to boost production of chickens, corn, and beans.  

These projects do more than augment family income.  They help women gain confidence, independence, and a greater voice in their families and communities.  Women can buy food and pay medical bills and school fees and cushion their families against economic shocks.  Children who might otherwise be laboring on farms, streets, in sweat shops and mines can go to school instead. 

Women have seized these opportunities.  In the Philippines, as part of one of our projects, poor, stay-at-home mothers signed up to go door to door, asking parents to send their kids to school.  Then, on their own, they began to form groups to do more.  They planted gardens to provide school children with healthy lunches.  They made and sold ginger tea and silk screen tee shirts.  And they pooled some of their earnings to create scholarships to help send poor children to school who were not even their own. 

In Madagascar, this woman has used money from the WORTH Program, a community-owned and community-run bank to open a small shop. Other participants in the program produce and sell products like chickens, ice cream, quilts, and second-hand clothing.

The Department of Labor also assists women, including vulnerable women, migrant women, and rural women, here at home.  This past year, WB along with ILAB participated in National Labor Rights Week, an annual event to promote awareness of worker protections under U.S. labor laws for migrant workers, regardless of a worker’s country of origin or legal status. The theme was “Women in the Workplace” or “Mujeres en el trabajo.” The WB has been instrumental in providing resources to women in the workplace and will continue to build upon these efforts.

Additionally, the Department of Labor has helped bring the plight of women working in agriculture to the forefront. The Women’s Bureau will delve into the issues faced by women in agriculture by dedicating a future Vulnerable Women Worker Briefing series to the issue of female migrant farmworkers. Through this next briefing, DOL will emphasize the working conditions and safety and pay equity challenges faced by female farmworkers and will highlight DOL’s work to address these issues. The Women’s Bureau is also coordinating live webcasts of these briefings that will be viewed in the 10 regional offices of the Bureau along with an audience of regional collaborators.

On this International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to women who have pushed beyond poverty, illiteracy, and limited choices and fought to give their children and their communities a better future.

For more information on the Bureau of International Labor Affairs projects to assist rural women workers and the Women’s Bureau vulnerable workers series, please visit or

Sara Manzano-Díaz is Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Carol Pier is the Associate Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leah March 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Thank you in the name of all women. It’s so sweet to read what effort you have put in celebrating Women’s Day.

2 Zach May 28, 2012 at 11:13 pm

What an incredibly program. It’s great to see that we are not only helping women, but helping financial literacy in other nations!

3 George August 6, 2013 at 9:06 am

Looks like you are making a positive impact on these women , but of late there has been a lot of controversy with regard to the benefits of microfinance. Its a good tool but has been manipulated by vested interests , the Government should moderate investments in MFI’s by american interests. Just my opinion

4 Abhay May 23, 2014 at 4:05 am

These pictures that you have posted are heart warming. Bettering the life of women one day at a time is the most inspiring work I have taken up.

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