Calls for the establishment of a National Rural Women's Network were overwhelmingly endorsed at the first ever National Rural Women's Conference. The Conference entitled 'Women's Contribution to the Future of Rural Regeneration' highlighted the critically important role of women to rural economies and communities, examined challenges and constraints faced by rural women and kick-started the process of developing a National Action Plan for Rural Women.
Some 200 delegates, from across the UK gathered at Carlisle Racecourse on 20 & 21 April 2005. They heard presentations from a host of national and international speakers including: the Right Honourable Jenny Shipley (former Prime Minister of New Zealand) who gave an international perspective on women's roles and contributions to rural economies; Tim Allen (Rural Funding Division with DEFRA) updated delegates on the future of rural development funding; Chris Collier OBE (former Chief Executive of the Cumbria Tourist Board and now Chief Executive of Cumbria Vision) informed delegates about the situation in Cumbria; Pam Warhurst (Deputy Chair of the Countryside Agency) spoke of the contribution of women to rural communities and economies; Dr Marilyn Waring (Associate Professor in Public Policy at Massey University, New Zealand) informed delegates of the hidden work of rural women and the contribution of unpaid labour to the UK; and Freda Shaw (Vice Chair of ACRE and Vice Chair of the Association of Local Councils) gave a presentation on equality and diversity in decision making from a personal perspective.
A series of workshops enabled delegates to break into smaller groups for more focussed discussions on the following issues:
Numerous issues, concerns, opportunities and proposed actions came out of the Conference's presentations, workshops, question and answer sessions and plenary. However, these coalesced around the following five key action points:
1. Securing Appropriate Representation for Rural Women
The conference drew attention to the urgent need to substantially increase the numbers of rural women playing an active role on committees and other fora, which regularly make decisions affecting their lives, livelihoods and communities. Professor Marilyn Waring spoke of how the 'invisibility of women is writ large' on DEFRA's website and how, ironically, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Programmes to support rural communities abroad have to demonstrate participatory consultation at all levels and yet, within the UK, there is no express requirement to consult rural communities, only experts. Jenny Shipley spoke of the change taking place across the world in rural areas and encouraged women to embrace this change and to try to influence and be part of it. She asked 'Why would you not embrace, enhance, encourage and use half the population's skills and abilities?' to develop rural communities and urged rural women to become effective lobbyists. Pam Warhurst echoed this frustration by stating that 'the under valuation of a prime resource cannot go on, unchallenged, any longer'.
She added that making the best use of rural women's skills and resources had nothing to do with altruism, but was simple economic sense. Freda Shaw (Vice Chair of ACRE and Vice Chair of the Association of Local Councils) told the conference of her early days in public life some twenty five years ago and the preponderance of male representatives on Parish Councils and the like. She bemoaned the fact that change was only happening slowly and urged other women to become involved.
2. Increased Rural Women's Visibility and Profile
The Conference underlined the pressing need to, and importance of, making visible women's contributions to rural economies - making explicit the implicit through case studies, role models, press and publicity and awareness raising campaigns. Helen France of the Northwest Regional Development Agency told the conference that enterprise is higher in rural areas than urban areas and how women contribute an estimated £50-70 billion to the UK economy. She also explained how the longest hours worked are by women in agriculture and that women themselves underplay the fact that their activities often enable farm diversification and survival. Chris Collier, formerly Chief Executive of Cumbria Tourist Board now Chief Executive of Cumbria Vision, spoke of how 'women underpin the tourism industry in Cumbria' and Pam Warhust stated that women's activities are a 'constituent part of rural regeneration' and questioned why UK Plc did not seem to recognise the role of rural women in terms of society's socializers and being the glue that binds.
3. Enhancing Networks, Partnership Working and Collaboration
Greater and more effective collaboration between different agencies and sectors to ensure joined up thinking and delivery to meet rural women's needs was supported by all. There was recognition that resources are finite and that economies of scale, synergies and sharing best practice were needed. Pam Warhust spoke of the importance of valuing vibrant voluntary and community sectors within rural economies and was supportive of the need for rural women's support networks.
4. Researching Rural Women
The Conference identified the need for systematic research into rural women's issues, and into their socio economic impact within rural communities. There was support for working across sectors and with academics to do such research which could then help frame future activities and policy discussions. It was recognised that much of the evidence to support women's contributions to rural economies was anecdotal or limited in scope or geography. Helen France of the NWDA identified rural women's 'significant impact on the rural economy' and how many of the region's farms only survived the Foot and Mouth disaster because of women's efforts at diversification and enterprise. Pam Warhust alluded to research in the South West region which was looking at the role of rural women in developing businesses. The Conference also recognised the need to identify best practice models in the field of support for rural women, through research, and to support the replication or mainstreaming of such models rather than the endless drive to innovate and re-invent the wheel.
5. Resourcing Rural Women
The Conference called for increased resources (financial and otherwise) for proven practical initiatives which support rural women. Suggestions were made around 'rural weighting' to funding regimes and programmes to ensure appropriate resources went to rural areas. Flexible and long term funding packages and plans were called for to avoid the stop/start nature of many projects.
Establishing the National Rural Women's Network
Over 93% of delegates surveyed endorsed the proposal to establish a National Rural Women's Network (NRWN) to represent the interests of rural women and the organisations who work with them and 96% of delegates surveyed called for a repeat conference in the future. The NRWN would:
Organisers, Sponsors and Supporters
The Conference was organised by the Rural Women's Network, a project of Voluntary Action Cumbria, and sponsored by:
Additionally the Conference was supported by the National Farmer's Union (NFU).