Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations (FAO)

Viale delle Terme di Caracalla,
00100 Rome, Italy
Telephone: +39 06 5705 1
Fax: +39 06 5705 3152
Telex: 625852/610181 FAO I /



Curriculum vitae of Dr Jacques Diouf


Celebration of World Food Day
Rome, Italy, 16 October 1998

Mr Under-Secretary of State,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we mark today the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I would have wished to announce that we had finally succeeded in eradicating chronic hunger and malnutrition from this planet. That would indeed have been a noble and appropriate cause for celebration at the end of this millennium.

Instead, World Food Day 1998 serves to remind us of the tragic fact that more than 800 million people still do not enjoy the most basic of human rights, the right to food, and that urgent and drastic measures must be taken on several fronts, if we are to achieve the World Food Summit objective of at least halving the number of hungry people by the year 2015. The short- and long-term impacts of this morally unacceptable situation are devastating in both human and economic terms.

On this World Food Day, I would like to pay tribute to a large group of invisible heroines &endash; namely the women who "feed the world" - by echoing the world leaders from 186 countries at the World Food Summit, who declared: "We acknowledge the fundamental contribution to food security by women, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, and the need to ensure equality between women and men".

This recognition of the role of women in ensuring food security was translated into concrete commitments in the Plan of Action adopted at the Summit, specifically calling for the promotion of women's full and equal participation in the economy, and providing women with secure and equal access to and control over productive resources including credit, land and water.

Why is this important? I am personally convinced that the goal of food security for all cannot be reached unless the voice of the silent majority of humanity is heard. The enormous contribution made by women in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and thereby in achieving household and national food security, must be recognized and valued. We must all make the effort to enhance our understanding of and responses to the daily challenges women face in accomplishing their tasks as food producers and providers.

Throughout history, the role of women in feeding the world has been celebrated by poets and artists. The generous and fertile land is often represented by a woman holding products of the land in abundance in her hands - hence the old adage "Mother Earth".

At the end of this millenium, this image is more real than ever, especially in the developing world, where women's labour ensures a large share of food production for household consumption and food processing activities and marketing of food products. In many of these countries, we are actually witnessing a trend towards the feminization of the agricultural sector - a phenomenon mainly due to the rural-urban migration of men in search of better-paid economic opportunities. Since this is most evident in low-income food-deficit countries, where most of the world's food insecure live, the feminization of agriculture appears to go hand in hand with a feminization of poverty.

Rural women's strategies for coping during the severe droughts and ensuing famines of the 1970s and 1980s in Africa are testimonials of their resilience and ingenuity in the face of crisis. Many families survived thanks to the secondary food crops produced by women. In addition, their knowledge of medicinal plants helps to secure the health of their families when imported medicines are too expensive or are scarce due to economic austerity measures.

This invaluable contribution won wider recognition when the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, acknowledged and stressed the role of local communities, especially women, in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. In this domain, FAO is working to document the wealth of knowledge rural women possess about the biological diversity of their immediate environment, particularly agro-biodiversity. Indeed, women farmers are particularly keen to maintain crop diversity and wild plant species, since they are often the ones to use these genetic resources to develop new varieties according to changing needs and preferences. In Africa, women cultivate as many as 120 different plants in the ground left alongside the cash crops managed by men. This ingenious diversification of production helps to ensure better nutrition and food security for their families.

Women's home gardens are often models of sustainable land use. They also perform many food processing activities and are actively involved in the trade of food products. Their marketing activities translate directly into improved family nutrition. Women are nearly universally responsible for food preparation for their families and, through this activity, are often the first to suffer from environmental degradation: when trees and shrubs are felled, it is the women who have to walk farther and farther from their homes to find the fuelwood needed to maintain their families.

Last year, on the occasion of World Food Day, I stressed the importance of increasing investment by the private sector in food security by supporting the efforts of millions of small farmers, traders, village artisans and entrepreneurs. I particularly mentioned the fact that the majority of those in need of investment support are rural women and those who earn less than the equivalent of US $200 per year.

There are countless encouraging examples of what women can achieve when given access to financing, though limited in scale. They have proven to be credit-worthy and reliable and return rates from their activities of food processing and marketing are usually very high. Their traditional saving schemes can be turned into modernized financial services, using local savings and deposits to ensure sustainable financial intermediation and reduce dependence on external resources.

Despite the pivotal role carried out by women in the continuous struggle to ensure food security, their contribution to food production, processing and marketing is simply not accounted for in national statistics, or in agricultural censuses. The widespread ignorance of the actual division of labour and respective responsibilities and contributions of men and women in the agricultural sector hampers the achievement of optimal agricultural productivity. Most countries still adopt a gender-blind approach to agricultural planning and policy-making.

Although many developing countries have legally affirmed women's basic right to own land, they rarely exercise actual control of the land. The most problematic aspect of women's customary land rights is the lack of security, as secure land rights are important for access to credit, membership of rural organizations, extension assistance, technology and information.

An FAO survey showed that women farmers receive on average only 5 percent of all agricultural extension services worldwide and that only some 15 percent of the world's extension agents are women. Indeed, these services often target cash crop production and large scale farming, dominated by men, while subsistence farming by smallholders, dominated by women, tends to be overlooked or regarded as of secondary importance.

Thus, there is a prevailing gender inequity in access to and benefits from new agricultural technology. Indeed, we have seen that in situations where new technology is introduced without regard to its gender-differentiated impact, the effects on women's workloads or income-generating activities may in fact be negative.

Since its early days, FAO has acknowledged and consistently worked with rural women as natural partners in activities related to nutrition and household food security. Over the past 53 years, the admiration and institutional understanding of FAO for the multiple roles rural women play throughout the entire food chain has grown. In its current normative activities, FAO addresses the concerns of rural women in their various productive roles in farming, forestry and fishing.

One of the main lessons that can be drawn from FAO's experience is that, when women are given the opportunities and access to resources and services, they become dynamic partners in the development process. However, too often, women's participation is limited to their continued provision of free labour instead of playing an active role in identifying priorities and designing solutions that directly affect their livelihoods.

As part of the follow-up to the Word Food Summit, and as a supplement to its Regular Programme activities, FAO is implementing a Special Programme for Food Security which is now operational in 37 low-income food-deficit countries and under formulation in 35 other countries. The Programme's guidelines foresee the use of analysis of constraints to food security, with special attention given to the analysis of socio-economic constraints, by gender and by specific groups, in particular with regard to access to technology, land, input, storage, marketing, processing and credit facilities.

The importance of women in overcoming poverty and hunger will be brought to worldwide attention in this year's TeleFood event, which will take place from today until the 18th of October. Television and radio programmes and broadcasts of related events will span the globe with images and information, highlighting women's contributions to the fight against poverty and hunger, and urging solidarity to achieve the goal of Food For All.

To win the war against hunger and malnutrition, a revolution in people's thinking, attitudes and behaviour is required. We must commit ourselves to conceptualizing and implementing development policies and programmes that are far more gender-responsive than has been the case hitherto. The question is not whether this is possible, because we know that it is, but rather when will we have the collective political will to invest in both women and men as equal partners in development?

On this World Food Day, let us take the opportunity to thank all the women who contribute to universal food security and help "feed the world".


Search | FAO Home | Arabic | Français | Español

[ Comments?: ]