Women play key roles in the development of their communities. If lasting progress is to be achieved, women and men must have equal access to the resources needed for development and to the benefits it produces.
There is no simple recipe to ensure successful communication in development efforts or for the advancement of rural women. Nevertheless, from best practices and lessons learned in communication for development over the past decades, the following guiding principles have emerged.
Historically, the international community has not regarded communication for development as a priority. Many agricultural and rural development projects have not included communication as a component; others have merely added it as a token input, often in the form of an audiovisual production. If projects and programmes for the advancement of rural women are to be effective, the planning phase should include a communication component, designed to reflect their perceived needs and special conditions and taking into account women's active participation in traditional communication networks. In addition, this component should be allocated sufficient resources to create sustainable national capacities for applying communication skills and tools to improve the status of women.
Communication efforts should begin with development planners listening to women and carefully considering their perceptions and needs, their knowledge and experience and their culture and traditions. Planners must take into account the reality of rural areas and the changes required to improve the livelihoods of rural women in ways that can be sustained.
Communication efforts should cover all the multifaceted aspects of life in rural areas affecting women, including agriculture, the environment, health, sanitation, family planning, education and literacy. A holistic approach should be used to ensure that women's concerns are integrated into research and extension programmes.
Success in achieving sustainable and equitable development is increasingly dependent on the acquisition of information and knowledge.
Communication programmes should make use of all modern and traditional media infrastructure and channels available in a country, and appropriate technologies and media should be applied according to the prevailing cultural, social and economic conditions. Programmes should be participatory and interactive, and special attention should be given to the communication channels most suited to women.
A concerted effort should be made to harness the potential of the new communication technologies for sharing information and knowledge with women in rural areas. Essential tasks include improving the quantity and accessibility of infrastructure, increasing the relevance of information to the needs of rural women, and training women in computer skills. Communication practitioners must act as information brokers, selecting the most appropriate channels for the transmission of information to rural audiences that do not have access to the new information technologies.
The training of women as communication specialists at all levels - from fieldworkers to trainers and planners - is an essential requirement for successful communication efforts carried out by and for women. Training in the production and use of communication tools should be provided to rural women's organizations and community groups so that they can participate in programmes for women and effectively communicate their own messages and concerns.
Change agents should be trained in participatory communication skills and the use of audiovisual training methodologies in the aim of establishing a dialogue with rural women, learning from their experience and improving the quality and outreach of training activities.
More applied research and evaluation studies should be carried out on the visual perception and understanding of audiences composed of illiterate rural women. The advent of new information technologies opens up a vast new field for evaluating the impact of communication programmes. Studies should include an evaluation of the impact of these technologies at the grassroots level, for communities that are without any form of connectivity and, especially, for female audiences that are hard to reach.
The use of communication for development must be placed on the agenda of governments, development planners and decision-makers, who need to promote an active and visible policy to mainstream gender perspectives and the requirements of women in rural communication policies and programmes. If the full potential of communication, and especially the new information technologies, is to be exploited for sustainable development, policy-makers must take rural women's specific needs into account and involve them in decisions regarding application of such technologies.
Communication is a powerful force for fostering learning, positive change and empowerment in the process of rural development. It has the potential to enhance people's quality of life, help protect fragile environments and create a knowledge-based society that is more responsive to change and development issues.
Effective communication can lead to the empowerment of women, enabling them to take control of their lives and participate as equals with men in promoting food security and rural development. Harnessing the potential of communication to help rural women improve their living conditions remains a challenge for the global community. Without communication the voices of rural women for change will not be heard.
"Empowerment is about people - both women and men - taking control over their lives: setting their own agendas, gaining skills, increasing self confidence, solving problems and developing self-reliance. It is both a process and an outcome"
Women in Development and Gender Equity Policy
For their contributions to the preparation of this publication, grateful appreciation is extended to Ms Silvia Balit, former Chief, Communication for Development Branch, FAO, who is the primary author. Mr Henri Carsalade, Assistant Director-General, Sustainable Development Department; Ms Louise Fresco, Director, Research, Extension and Training Division; Ms Sissal Ekaas, Director, Women and Population Division; and Ms Ester Zulberti, Chief, Extension, Education and Communication Service. Appreciation is extended also to the Communication for Development Group and to all others who made contributions to this publication.
Voices for change - rural women and communication was prepared as a background document for the FAO High-Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information, 4 to 6 October 1999, Rome, Italy. The voices of rural women are seldom heard in agricultural and rural development. It is hoped that this publication will help to break the silence.
L. Van Crowder
Senior Officer, Communication for Development