World Food Day interview with the Director of FAO's Women and Population Division - Sissel Ekaas

Sissel Ekaas, the new Director of FAO's Women and Population Division

The theme for this year's World Food Day - the celebration of FAO's founding on 16 October - is Women feed the World - a tribute to the work that women worldwide do in the fields, the forests, the factories, the storehouses, the markets and in their own homes to feed the world's community of 5.9 billion people. This year's TeleFood, the second annual global telecast in support of Food for All, celebrates the same theme.

We spoke to the new Director of FAO's Women and Population Division, Sissel Ekaas, about the multiple roles that women play in food production and how we can all support them.

"Women feed the world" sounds very much like a celebration. But it's also a reminder of the huge workload that women carry and the many barriers that they face, especially poor women in developing countries. If you had to pick out the one thing that could make the biggest difference to these women's daily lives, what would it be?

I will echo the response given by women in rural India when they were asked a similar question during a survey. Their answer was: "We want land, arable land, everything else is humbug."

However, let me hasten to say that land alone is not enough - without the power to decide on and control the use of the land, and without access to knowledge, and associated agricultural support services, women will not be empowered to reach their full potential as farmers. Nor will they enjoy their rightful share of the benefits derived from their efforts in cultivating the land.

Singling out only one thing is really a bit difficult, because there are many things that rural women need in support of their role as farmers and development actors. The second top priority listed in surveys is often labour-saving tools. Why are these so important? Because the total workload of a typical rural woman is truly daunting, when you combine both domestic and agricultural work. Labour-saving tools would allow them to free up time for other priorities, such as education, training, or other income-earning activities.

The materials produced for this year's World Food Day flesh out the slogan "Women feed the World" to help people see the reality behind the words. But none of it is news to the millions of women around the world who do the work. If you had a message specially for them, what would it be?

My message on this occasion to all women farmers is that you have a right and a reason to be very proud of your work. Yours is a noble cause. Feeding the world - there could hardly be any nobler cause than that. The fact that you carry this heavy responsibility on your shoulders with dignity and against a host of obstacles, but without much recognition or reward, makes your contribution to food security even more remarkable. So, be proud of yourself and your contribution to humanity.

How can women in developed countries express solidarity with the women in developing countries?

One feature of the so-called women's movement has precisely been the strong solidarity among women from all corners of the world and the universality of their cause. This was amply illustrated at the 1995 Beijing conference on women. Naturally, women's priorities may differ depending on the cultural circumstances and the level of socio-economic development where they live.

One way in which women in the so-called developed world can show solidarity is to fight indifference, to use every opportunity to listen and learn about the situation of women elsewhere in the world and to act on this knowledge in whatever capacity they may have. This may include membership in non-governmental organizations working on issues of concern to rural women. Or, women who are in positions of influence, for instance in their parliaments, in government, in media, or in development cooperation agencies - they can work to ensure that their country give priority to supporting policies and programmes in agriculture and rural development in developing countries which address the priorities of both women and men in rural areas.

At the international level, organizations like FAO and its sister organizations the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), together with international NGOs have a role to play in making sure that the rural women who cannot always come to the table, have a voice, through us. Our role is to document the contributions made by rural women to development and make sure that issues of concern to rural women are put on the global political agenda and given due attention.

Do you have a message for men on World Food Day?

Yes, I wish to reassure them that when we focus this year's WFD on the role of women in feeding this world, the point is not to denigrate or underestimate the contributions of male farmers towards this same objective. The objective is rather to enhance the visibility and recognition of women farmers, who are rarely counted in official statistics as farmers in their own right.

I would urge the men in the household to treat your women and daughters in the family as your partners in the management of the household, as well as in the management of the farm. Only when the full potential of both women and men are realized, can sustainable development and food security for all be achieved.

And to decision-makers and legislators, most of whom are still men, I would appeal to you to listen and learn from both women and men farmers and agro-entrepreneurs and act accordingly. This would mean that you develop policies and legislation that promote gender equality in agriculture and rural development and recognize and support the respective roles and responsibilties of women and men farmers.

In fact, it makes perfect economic sense to invest in rural women, as well as men. Let me use the example of an environmental conservation project in northern Pakistan where project staff - through the use of very innovative interactive communication tools - have managed to mobilize and involve illiterate rural women as true partners in development - not because they felt sorry for them, or as a matter of charity or welfare, but because feasibiltiy studies for the project showed that the women held the key to the very success of the project. Therefore it made perfect sense from a project management point of view to invest time and resources in finding ways and means of involving women to the fullest extent possible, despite the existence of socio-cultural barriers to such involvement of the women in the project area.

To private businesses and banks, I would say - invest in rural women.

For instance, studies have shown that agricultural tool producers hardly ever do market surveys that involve women farmers in terms of what kinds of tools they need for the tasks they have. This goes back to one of the top priorities that women often mention - better tools which are adapted to their physical needs and to the actual tasks they carry out.

A recent study on agricultural tools for women published jointly by IFAD and FAO, revealed that when new equipment is made available, men pass on the broken or used tools, to the women, while the men keep the new ones. (Go to Agriculture 21 Spotlight on Women and farm tools)

Another example given is weeding, which is a back-breaking task traditionally the responsibility of women. If a maize plot of one hectare is weeded by hand, it takes women 2 to 4 weeks to do the job. If animal traction is used, the job is done in 2 to 4 days. However, in none of the six countries studied, were women allowed customarily to use animal traction. Rather, they depended on men to show their good will to use their animals for this purpose.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

This week we are marking two important events of direct relevance to women farmers: Rural women's Day on the 15th October and World Food Day on 16th October. In this connection, the Women and Population Division of FAO has taken the initiative, in collaboration with all other technical departments and divisions in FAO, of bringing together a wealth of information on the role of women and gender issues in agriculture, food security and rural development. This information is available in a new corporate webpage, as well as in a CD-ROM, for those who do not have easy access to the Internet (Go to Women feed the World webpages).

We hope that this information will be useful to decision-makers and development practitioners at all levels, including NGOs and women's groups who promote a more gender-responsive approach to agriculture and rural development.

16 October 1998

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