Shocking statistics released yesterday show that a quarter of the population depends entirely on state grants for a living.
And 7million of them are children.
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, addressing delegates in Durban at the opening of the 4th World Congress of Rural Women, said millions of children were born to poor young mothers, who themselves were not ready to be mothers.
"Our duty as the government is to ensure that poverty does not go down to the next generation in these families," she said.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said the statistics were as shocking for the rest of the continent.
"The majority of rural women are poor and in a desperate situation. They work hard, but earn so little," she said.
"The HIV-Aids pandemic is also ravaging them, leaving young girls to look after the families."
Sheila Sisulu, an ambassador of the World Food Programme, said that more than 350million rural women were hungry - "a catastrophe we should all be ashamed of".
Maria Xulu, from Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal, said: "People on farms suffer exploitation that can't be matched and I believe we should come out of the conference having clear resolutions on how to address such problems."