Improving women's access to education, and to higher agricultural education in particular, can contribute to improved food production at the household and national levels, improved nutritional status of families, and thus to the achievement of food security. Conversely, the failure to adequately address women farmers' needs for agricultural training and information is at the root of the failure of many agricultural development efforts and attempts to achieve food security. The 1996 World Food Summit acknowledged both women's fundamental contributions to food security and the importance of enabling women to have equal access to educational opportunities. It is insufficient to increase women's educational opportunities, however, without at the same time ensuring that women can benefit equally from these opportunities. Educational opportunities and the empowerment of women go hand-in-hand. Education contributes to the empowerment of women and the empowerment of women makes its possible for women to benefit from educational opportunities.
Women's contributions to food security can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Women are the majority of the world's agricultural producers, playing important roles in fisheries and forestry as well as in farming. It is often stated that women are responsible for more than half the world's food production overall and produce up to 60 to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs in Africa and the Caribbean and over 50 percent in Asia. In Latin America, women make a significant contribution to food production, particularly in horticulture and small livestock.
Women also make crucial contributions to food security as preservers of agro-biodiversity, as those who process and prepare food for the market and their families, and as those who have the primary responsibility in the household to provide food, if not by producing it then by earning the income for its purchase. Women are also responsible for providing the basic needs of their families such as water, fuel, child rearing and basic health care all of which are necessary to the well-being of the family and the ability to live healthy and active lives.
These contributions are made in the face of constraints and attitudes that undervalue women farmers' contributions and responsibilities, reduce their productivity, place upon them a disproportionate work burden, discriminate against them and hinder their participation in decision and policy making. Among the most serious of these constraints are:
· lack of appropriate agricultural research and technologies;
· lack of appreciation for the value of women's knowledge and roles in the area of biodiversity and environmentally sustainable practices; and
· lack of participation in agricultural policy-making and development bodies.
Given women's key roles in food security, the achievement of food security for the present and for future generations depends to a great extent on urgently and seriously addressing these constraints. This presents challenges to all areas related to agricultural and rural development, not least of these education and especially women's participation in higher agricultural education. Among the constraints on women farmers listed above, several are closely related to women's participation in higher agricultural education:
· lack of access to education, extension and training;
· inadequate attention by research institutes to the needs of women farmers;
· lack of appreciation of the value of women's knowledge and roles in agro-biodiversity and environmentally sustainable development; and
· low representation of women in agricultural policy-making and development bodies.
The World Food Summit Plan of Action recognizes, in the first of its seven commitments, the importance of the empowerment of women to the achievement of food security and the need to remove the constraints hindering them.
Box 1 - Commitment One, World Food Summit Plan of Action
"We will ensure an enabling political, social, and economic environment designed to create the best conditions for the eradication of poverty and for durable peace, based on full and equal participation of women and men, which is most conducive to achieving sustainable food security for all"
Among the objectives set to meet this commitment is: "To ensure gender equality and empowerment of women". To attain this objective, governments pledged, inter alia, to:
· Ensure that institutions provide equal access for women;
· Tailor extension and technical services to women producers and increase the number of women advisors and agents;
· Focus research efforts on the division of labour and on income access and control within the household; and
· Gather information on women's traditional knowledge and skills in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and natural resource management.
This paper will give an overview of women's access to education, both formal and informal, at all levels, and particularly higher agricultural education. It will examine how improving women's access to agricultural education and opportunities to benefit from this access are related to taking the actions outlined in the World Food Summit Plan of Action, particularly in the areas of extension and technical services, research efforts, women's traditional knowledge and skills and access to development planning and policy-making institutions, and thus ultimately to both the achievement of food security and the empowerment of women.
It will then examine case studies on women's enrolment in agricultural studies in Côte d'Ivoire, Jordan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the Caribbean Community, focusing on women's access to education and opportunities to use and benefit from this education, the constraints on women's educational access and employment opportunities, and recommendations on how to overcome these constraints.
Finally, it will draw some general conclusions and recommendations on improving women's access to higher agricultural education and their opportunities to use and benefit from it.