From women to gender - a new plan of action

Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Gender and Population Division


An FAO Gender and Development Plan of Action for 2002-2007 is being submitted for approval by member countries at FAO's biennial Conference, 2-13 November.

Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Gender and Population Division, talks about the achievements made so far, the key issues affecting gender and development now and the new plan.

What do you think are the most important achievements made from 1996 to 2001, the period of FAO's previous Plan of Action for women in development?

I will point first to the growing awareness within FAO and among member states of the importance of including gender and socioeconomic considerations when dealing with agricultural and rural development.

Over the past six years, we have made considerable progress in training and developing guidelines for staff of FAO and member states to help them integrate a gender perspective in their work. For example, more than 1 500 people in 50 member states have been trained under the Socio-economic And Gender Analysis Programme (SEAGA), and together with World Food Programme we prepared guidelines on gender in emergencies.

We have also raised the visibility of the different roles, needs and priorities of rural women and men -- through research and better collection and handling of information disaggregated by sex. The knowledge and understanding of gender relations has increased. Before, for example, the rural household was looked at as a whole, but now we know more about the division of labour within the family, differences between men and women's nutritional needs and differences in access to resources such as land, inputs and credits.

Awareness and recognition of women's role and responsibilities in relation to men is important in working towards gender equality. But without understanding the underlying structural causes of inequality, we cannot achieve gender equality -- nor, therefore, sustainable agricultural and rural development. We have to continue documenting and disseminating information about gender issues related to nutrition and agriculture and rural development.

Could you point to some important events that have taken place during the previous Plan of Action?

Some of the milestones were the 1998 celebration of World Food Day under the theme of "Women feed the world", the launching of the Gender and Food Security Web site on International Women's Day 1999 and the High-level Consultation on Rural Women and Information in Rome in October 1999. These events, together with a series of regional workshops, have been important steps in the effort to mobilize policy makers and other development practitioners to action.

What is FAO doing differently now?

We now have specific guidelines for incorporating gender considerations in all stages of FAO's programming, monitoring and evaluation processes. Promotion of gender equality and equity is one of six fundamental principles necessary for approval of all projects and programmes. Although these important achievements might seem invisible, they send a strong signal to all staff about the importance of gender considerations in development work. If we follow up with more training and information, we will succeed in raising gender issues with the member governments and influencing future agricultural and rural development policies.

Right now we are at what I call the 'how-to' stage. How do we translate greater awareness of gender issues into action, both within FAO and in member states? Now we have to develop ways of turning the lessons learned into action at all levels -- within FAO and government and in concrete projects around the world.

The previous Plan of Action referred to 'women in development', while this one uses the term 'gender and development'. Why this change?

The new title signals a conceptual shift. This change -- focusing on gender and gender relations instead of solely on women -- reflects the approach taken by most United Nations agencies since the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995. It also reflects the gradual change that has occurred within FAO over the past decade. Earlier we focused almost exclusively on women and on improving women's conditions, and with some success. However, we did not analyse the underlying causes of inequality -- social, political, economic -- between women and men. Such considerations are more explicitly addressed in the new Plan of Action.

The Plan points to some key emerging trends that can affect FAO's work. Which of these do you consider the most crucial?

It is very important to address globalization, including agricultural trade liberalization, the growth of modern information and communication technology and the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in rural areas.

Globalization has benefited some people and intensified the social exclusion and marginalization of others. The different impacts on men and women have been apparent, particularly in rural areas. Globalization and liberalization policies tend to favour large-scale commercial farming and export-oriented cash cropping over household subsistence production. In general, this will hurt small-scale farmers in low-income food-deficit countries. The majority of these farmers are women, and they already have limited access to markets, training and decision-making opportunities. We must address this in our conversations with governments and other development partners.

The information revolution is both a threat and an opportunity. FAO is concerned not only about the growing rural-urban digital divide, but also about the fact that rural women and girls usually have less access than men to information and new technologies. And if you don't have information, you can't make informed choices about what to produce, when to sell your products and so forth. Nor do you have influence within your community.

On the other hand, the new technologies also represent a chance to increase educational opportunities for women -- such as through distance education. Also, access to these communication tools provides a channel for better networking.

How does AIDS affect rural women?

The sickness and death of working adults in rural areas affects the supply of labour and the division of labour within families. When rural women, for example, have to take care of family members sick with AIDS, they can't work in the fields. And when the adults die, children are left to tend the fields. This not only affects current agricultural productivity, but also results in the loss of agricultural knowledge, which no longer gets transferred from one generation to the next. Further worsening the situation is the frequent exclusion of women from land ownership -- if her husband dies, the woman can't inherit the land and might have to move away. So, the AIDS pandemic calls for a re-examination of issues such as agricultural education and unequal access to and control over land and property.

We also have to take into consideration the increasing number of natural and man-made emergencies, which interrupts agricultural activity, increases pressure on natural resources and accelerates migration. Unfortunately, it will still take time and resources to achieve genuine gender equality in rural development.

I believe that no enduring solution can be found to world hunger if men and women can't equally participate in and benefit from agricultural and rural development. I hope the new Plan of Action will serve as a powerful mandate for FAO and its member states to redouble commitments and efforts.

05 November 2001

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