During these last decades of the twentieth century, the world has witnessed the emergence of a new political, social, technological and economic environment. There have been major changes in the role of the state, and governments have withdrawn from certain functions that are now being taken over by civil society and the private sector. Societies are demanding new forms of governance, allowing greater scope for democracy, decentralization, popular participation and pluralism. New institutional frameworks are being formed, and more responsibilities are being assumed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), rural institutions and local leaders.Globalization is shaping the world economy, and the current information revolution is resulting in a knowledge-based society. New communication technologies are being developed rapidly and made more widely available, although their transfer is taking place through private investment - global media markets are now dominated by a mere handful of transnational companies.
For communication to give a voice to rural women, they need access to communication channels and media as well as the knowledge and skills to use them.
At the same time, poverty and social inequalities still prevail, especially in rural areas. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow as a result of disparities in access to resources, knowledge and technology. Most major issues on the development agenda still represent a challenge for the global community. Among them are: managing the environment in a sustainable manner; curbing the exponential rates of population growth and urbanization; ensuring food security; fulfilling human health and education needs; increasing literacy; alleviating poverty; and achieving gender equality. Although it is widely recognized that both women and men have a critical role in agricultural and rural development, efforts to improve opportunities for rural women have met with limited success. Sustainable development is hindered by the restricted access that rural women have to land, credit and legal provisions as well as to education, training, extension and other support services.
Information, knowledge and participatory processes of social change are essential if women and men are to respond to both the opportunities and the major challenges of the coming century.
This is the age of communication, and the current information revolution is dramatically increasing the potential for sharing information across the globe. The information revolution we are witnessing today has been compared to the invention of moveable print in the fifteenth century or to the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in the nineteenth century. Economic liberalization has concentrated ownership of the global media in the hands of a few large companies, but the communication environment in developing countries is changing nevertheless. Technologies and media are becoming more appropriate for conditions in rural areas. Democratization, government deregulation policies and pluralism have encouraged the decentralization of information production away from central governments while horizontal, people-to-people processes are replacing vertical, traditional lines of communication. Participatory approaches have paved the way for community-based ownership and use of various communication media, for example rural radio.
Gender-sensitive communication processes that facilitate learning and social change can empower women to take more control of their lives and participate as equals with men in promoting food security and rural development for the present and future generations.
In today's climate of political and socio-economic change, communication can play a decisive role in promoting development. By fostering a dialogue between rural people and other sectors of society, communication processes can empower both women and men to provide information and knowledge as a basis for change and innovation, take decisions concerning their own livelihood and thereby increase their overall involvement in development. More specifically, communication processes can give rural women a voice to advocate changes in policies, attitudes and social behaviour or customs that negatively affect them. The same processes can help women exchange experiences, find common ground for decisions, take more control of their lives and add value to their role as active partners in rural and sustainable development.
Given that women and men play different roles in agricultural and rural development, communication media and strategies should reflect their diverse needs and priorities. For communication to give a voice to rural women and help them realize their potential, they must first have the means to be heard. In other words, they need access to communication channels and media as well as the knowledge and skills to use them.