Although both women and men contribute substantively to agricultural and rural development, women are assuming an increasingly prominent role. Women farmers are responsible for half of the world's food production and, in most developing countries, produce from 60 to 80 percent of the food destined for household consumption. They play an important role in fisheries and forestry and constitute an important labour force for cash crop production. They are also responsible for providing food for their families. Moreover, civil strife, rural-urban migration of men in search of employment, and the growing number of mortalities attributed to HIV/AIDS have led to an increase in female-headed households in the developing world.
This "feminization of agriculture" has placed a considerable burden on women's capacity to produce, provide and prepare food in the face of already considerable social, economic and cultural constraints. Despite their essential role in achieving global food security, the contributions of women are often underestimated and overlooked in development strategies - they remain the "invisible" partners in development.
Rural women are key actors in solving the major issues on the development agenda for the coming century, including the need to manage the environment in a sustainable manner, the exploding rate of population and urbanization, food security, human needs with regard to health, education and literacy, and the elimination of poverty.
Women are economic agents, although their work is often not accounted for and so their development potential is grossly neglected. Rural women are a major force in environmental protection because they live and work in close contact with the ecosystem, possess an intimate knowledge of local biodiversity and can help safeguard natural resources for the future by practising sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Women are also key agents of human development; they can improve the quality of life in rural communities by helping to reduce maternal and child mortality as well as birth rates, improving family nutrition, ensuring the use of safe drinking water and sanitation, and teaching their daughters good health practices as well as other skills at home.
Given equal access to opportunities and resources, women, like men, have proved to be efficient, dynamic and indispensable partners in development. Their empowerment through the exchange of knowledge and information is crucial for enhancing rural living conditions and achieving development goals.
Notwithstanding efforts made over the past decades to improve the status and opportunities of women, urgent action is still required to overcome the following critical issues:
Increasing poverty and declining food security
Women constitute the majority of the world's poor. Information, knowledge and skills can help decrease women's vulnerability to poverty in crisis situations.
Unequal access to land, credit and agricultural support services
Women are denied both ownership and effective use of productive resources. Knowledge of their rights and opportunities can enhance women's contribution to production.
Unequal access to agricultural inputs, tools and technologies
New technologies and inputs are channelled primarily towards cash crops, the domain of men, and women lack the money required to purchase inputs as well as the knowledge and skills to apply them.
Unequal access to education, training and extension
Women receive less education than men and constitute the majority of the illiterate population. Their vocational and technical training is even more neglected than their general education, and extension is primarily directed towards men.
Insufficient knowledge about access to marketing outlets
Illiteracy as well as capital and legal constraints limit women's access to modern markets. Women need to acquire skills in marketing, accounting and business management.
Negative impacts of structural adjustment policies and economic globalization
Globalization and structural adjustment policies have brought unemployment and undermined social services. Information on their rights and opportunities can help women to overcome the negative impact of these policies.
A lack of gender-disaggregated data from rural areas prevents policy-makers from including womens' concerns in development programmes. Accurate gender information is crucial in the formulation of agricultural development and food security strategies.
Poor working conditions and unequal wages
Women tend to work longer hours than men, and for less or no reward. Women need to be informed of their right to organize themselves and take advantage of social services, training and other opportunities.
Ignorance of women's indigenous knowledge
Women farmers' wealth of accumulated experience and knowledge often passes unnoticed. Planners and policy-makers need information about womens' potential and actual contribution to agriculture.
Problems related to nutrition, health and violence
Women and girls are subject to food discrimination and damaging cultural practices such as genital mutilation, and they lack information on nutrition and health. Information and education to promote changes in social and cultural behaviour are crucial to help overcome these problems.
Resource-poor women farmers are driven to adopt practices that are harmful to the environment. They must be alerted to the threats that environmental degradation poses to food security, and need to learn to use technologies and inputs that are less damaging to natural resources.
To overcome these "questions of difference", and thus improve the status and living conditions of rural women, there must be a change in attitudes and behaviour at all levels - above all, through the sharing of knowledge, information and skills.