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Food security exists, according to the World Food Summit Plan of Action adopted in November 1996, when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. In other words, food security depends on the availability accessibility, adequacy and acceptability of food. In each of these areas women's contribution is critical: as food producers, as income earners who purchase food for their households, and as processors and prepares of the foodstuffs required to keep their families healthy and active.

In the Rome Declaration on World Food Security, signed at the World Food Summit, governments proclaimed that it was intolerable and unacceptable that more than 800 million people throughout the world, and particularly in developing countries, did not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Although food supplies have increased substantially, constraints on access to food and continuing inadequacy of household and national incomes to purchase food, together with instability of supply and demand, as well as natural and human-caused disasters, prevent basic food needs from being fulfilled. The problems of hunger and food insecurity have global dimensions and are likely to persist, and even increase dramatically in some regions, unless urgent, decisive and concerted action is taken to provide for the anticipated increase in the world's population and the stress on natural resources.

It is universally recognized that women are the majority of the world's agricultural producers, with decisive roles in the management of fishery, forestry and farming resources. Worldwide, women produce more than 50 percent of the food that is grown. Moreover, in many places women are responsible for providing most of the food required by their families, if not by producing it then by earning the income for its purchase. Finally, women are almost universally responsible for food processing and preparation. They do all this in the face of constraints and attitudes that conspire to increase their daily workload disproportionately, underestimate the economic contribution of their labours and hinder their participation in decision- and policy-making.

At the World Food Summit, governments acknowledged the fundamental contribution of women to food security, particularly in the rural areas of developing countries, and the consequent need to revitalize rural society in order to enhance social stability and help redress the excessive rate of rural-urban migration confronting many countries.

Governments agreed to promote women's full and equal participation in the economy, and for this purpose to introduce and implement gender-sensitive legislation providing women with secure and equal access to, and control over, productive resources including credit, land and water. Furthermore, they agreed to promote investment in food security programmes that benefit small-scale food producers, especially women, and their organizations, as well as to strengthen their own capacity to design and implement these programmes.

The implementation of these commitments requires a greater understanding of the current and changing roles of women in food security in the different regions of the world. This document provides an overview of these roles with emphasis on women as key actors for sustainable rural development, as food producers and consumers, in the context of global and regional agricultural trends. It looks at the major macro- and microlevel factors that affect women in their efforts to produce and provide food. Finally, it outlines steps that need to be taken in order to remove these constraints and to create new policies and institutional environments to generate these changes and promote conditions that contribute more effectively to food security.

This document is based on and synthesizes the regional papers on "Rural women and food security: current status and perspectives" from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Near East, prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW) of FAO as part of the preparatory activities for the World Food Summit.

The data presented come from these sources unless otherwise stated. The unevenness in information from the regions and countries is primarily caused by gaps in, or lack of, gender-disaggregated data and indicates that further information and data collection are needed.

Henri Carsalade
Assistant Director-General
Sustainable Development Department

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