In the twenty-first century, the pursuit of food security remains a critical challenge for the Asian region. In spite of considerable economic growth and improvements in human development across the region during recent decades, the availability, access and stability of food continue to be of key concern. Indeed, increased population pressures, environmental threats and emerging regional economic and social trends point to development challenges of maintaining economic prosperity, ensuring sustainable livelihood, renewing the natural environment and achieving stable food security. The 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action (WFS PoA) recognised that the availability of food has increased substantially during recent decades. They also recognized, however, serious constraints in access to food coupled with the continuing resource inadequacy of households to purchase food, the instability of supply and demand, and disasters caused by natural events and human actions that prevent many people from fulfilling basic food needs. In this context, they reiterated the importance of poverty eradication with the full participation of women and men to achieve sustainable food security for all.
With renewed commitments at the WFS follow-up, the Global Summit on Sustainable Development and the UN Millennium Goals related to food security, poverty alleviation and empowerment of women address the urgency for global action to triumph over the persisting global economic and food security threats. The United Nations Millennium Declaration resolves, "To promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable" (United Nations, 2000). Furthermore, in the Year 2005 a UN Agenda will focus on advancement of women. The Beijing Plus 10 global review, coordinated by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (UNDAW), will be held in 2005. The objective of these regional and global processes is to review the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, signed by 189 governments at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995. In such an historical moment, it is also timely to assess the gender equality gains made among rural women in the Asian region, as the countries in the region are reviewing their achievements and impediments.
As relevant to the FAO mandate, rural women across the Asian region play a critical role in ensuring the three pillars of food security - food production, economic access to available food, and nutritional security - for the members of their households in normal times and during uncertain periods. However, their roles are generally constrained, undervalued and usually executed in the face of enormous social, cultural and economic constraints. Furthermore, a lack of awareness and appreciation of the productive roles of rural women in many developing Asian countries has historically undervalued their contribution. This situation has resulted in enduring discrimination in rural womens access to resources and opportunities reflected in significant indicators of female educational and health deficits.
Achievements in gender equality differ considerably throughout Asia reflecting the great diversity in economic and human development indicators both between and within countries. Within the regions complex resource environment, and amid the debate on food trade versus self-sufficiency for enhanced food security, the gender equity scorecard reveals enormous disparity. The progress achieved by a large number of urban women across Asia disguises the low human development indicators and extreme gender inequality experienced by rural women in the region. A macro analysis of women throughout Asia depicts a scenario of diversity, characterised by disparity in womens economic achievements, political participation, educational advancement and social articulation. Such regional diversity and prevailing urban-rural disparity reflect differences of national priorities for the advancement of rural women and differing resource commitments for interventions to support gender parity in development.
In the decades since 1975, the development community has witnessed investment in women in development by various stakeholders resulting in demonstrable success in mobilising women and implementing programmes to improve their opportunities. Yet, as we enter the post Beijing Plus 10 Era in development history, overall the situation of women in Asia could be summed up as "duality", characterised by the co-existence of gender equality gains and gender equality gaps, set in the dualistic economic context of new prosperity and persistent abject poverty. To sum up, the foremost challenge for the advancement of rural women in Asia is the constant struggle between promotion of gender equality norms supported by global development planners, and the persisting traditional perceptions of womens less important status that undermines gender equality in the national and local milieus. The "duality" aspect of womens advancement is marked by "rural inequality" in which rural womens access to resources including social, health and agriculture service systems frequently is accorded less importance in development planning. Furthermore, rural communities rigorously adhere to customary laws and norms of social stratification that perpetuate biases against rural women. Asian rural womens relative educational disadvantage constitutes a barrier to their learning and their access to external information. Collectively, these factors undermine rural womens capacity to take advantage of new agricultural technologies for productivity, natural resource management strategies for sustainability and emerging information and communication technologies for obtaining external information to improve their quality of life.
Recognising Asian rural womens contributions and acknowledging the unique constraints they face, policies and programmes should address the issue of gender equal access to resources and removal of constraints on womens advancement in all spheres of rural life to achieve the development objectives of food security and poverty alleviation. Hence, the FAO regional consultation focuses on the situation of Asian rural women in the context of the Beijing Plus 10 Era, explores policy and programme achievements to date for the advancement of rural women and examines the persisting constraints challenging rural womens progress.