In the twenty-first century the pursuit of food security remains a critical challenge for Asia and the Pacific region. In spite of considerable economic growth and improvements in human development across the region during recent decades, the lack of availability and stability of food supplies and access to them continue to be of key concern. Indeed, increased population pressures, environmental degradation and emerging regional trends beg the question: “Can the world produce enough food at reasonable prices, provide access to food by the poor and not destroy the environment in the process?” (Falcon, 1996). The challenge is particularly applicable to Asia and the Pacific region nations that still have 497 million of the world ’s 777 million hungry people. “On an average, two out of every three malnourished children in the world live in South and Southeast Asian countries. To reach the World Food Summit goal, the number of hungry people in the world must be reduced by 20 million every year, and 14 million of them in Asia-Pacific countries ” (FAO, not dated). Girl children and women in poor households are included in the hunger vulnerable group in the region. Most of the poor in the region live in rural areas depending on land based livelihoods, mainly agriculture (IFAD, 2001). Nutritional deficiency among women and children in South Asia is seen as a major crisis in the making.
“Girl children and women in poor households are included in the hunger vulnerable group in the region.”.
Sustainable food security is defined as “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life without compromising the productive capacity of natural resources, integrity of biological systems, or environmental quality ” (UNDP, not dated). The 1996 Rome Declaration on Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action recognized that although the availability of food has increased substantially during past decades, serious constraints in access to food, coupled with the continuing inability of households to purchase food, the instability of supply and demand and natural and human-induced disasters, prevent many people from fulfilling their basic food needs (FAO, 1996). In this context, the 1996 World Food Summit reiterated the importance of poverty eradication through the full participation of women and men in order to achieve sustainable food security for all. Renewed commitments related to food security, poverty alleviation and empowerment of women in the declarations of the World Food Summit: Five Years Later (FAO, 2002) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2002) as well as in the United Nations Millennium Declaration validate the urgency for global action to surmount the persisting gender disparity. Furthermore, 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).
Rural women across Asia and the Pacific region play a critical role in supporting 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 as well as during periods of stress. However, their roles generally are constrained and undervalued (Laier et al., 1966), and usually executed in the face of enormous social, cultural and economic constraints (Quisumbing et al. 1995). At the local level, food security depends on the capacity of individuals and households to produce their own food or buy and use food of sufficient quantity and quality all through the life cycle and varying seasons. Understanding the relative status and different roles of women and men within the household is essential to comprehend the different strategies households pursue to access resources and promote food security. The majority of households and communities in Asia and the Pacific region manage their rural production systems based on socially accepted gender divisions of labour that affect food security achievements. In the Pacific Islands, the semi-subsistence and communal nature of local economies, in which women and girls play an integral role in family production and resource management systems, has traditionally provided the foundations for family food security, ensuring the production of food and essential items for family use. However, a lack of awareness and lack of appreciation of rural women ’s productive roles in many developing countries in the region have historically undervalued their contribution. The result is enduring discrimination in women ’s access to resources and opportunities, which is reflected in significant deficits in female educational and health indicators.
“Rural women across Asia and the Pacific region play a critical role in supporting 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 as well as during periods of stress. The majority of households and communities in Asia and the Pacific manage their rural production systems based on socially accepted gender divisions of labour that affect food security achievements.”
Until now, the development and academic communities have generally paid scant attention to the situation of rural women. Indeed, Sachs (1996) has noted, “feminist theorists, as well as rural social theorists, remain inattentive to rural women ’s concerns. Their urban focused, theoretical work inadequately addresses the context of rural women ’s lives. ” Yet given the role of women in achieving food security for their families, meeting the world ’s food needs in the year 2020 will depend even more than it does now on the capabilities and resources of women (Brown et al. 1995). Sustainable food security can only be achieved with the full participation of women as equal partners and, as such, it is essential to fully understand women ’s roles and responsibilities in the household, community and local economy, as well as the range of constraints and inequalities they face on a daily basis. However, the lack of current sex-disaggregated data that reflect urban-rural and gender-differentiated considerations is a critical impediment in this regard. In this context, it is essential that FAO examines the situation of rural women in Asia and the Pacific region, and. 3 identifies and pursues opportunities to analyse and integrate gender dimensions and strategies to empower rural women in all aspects of agricultural and rural development.