The end of the second millennium has been strongly influenced by the "era of communication", which has increased the speed and range of information as a result of more powerful communication technologies. Information is becoming the basis of development and its absence or insufficient flow may in turn become a new dimension of poverty. In developing countries, rural areas remain outside the mainstream information channels, and the central government authorities therefore have insufficient knowledge of their conditions.
For two decades, the questions surrounding the recognition of women's roles in economic and social development and of equality between men and women have fostered increasing interest among members of civil society, international organizations and governments. However, despite a noticeable improvement in gender1 awareness worldwide, two contradictory phenomena are being witnessed.
On the one hand, information on women's contributions to development is far from comprehensive. Unfortunately, even when available, this information is not sufficiently utilized as a tool by planners and decision-makers in formulating their national development plans. This is especially evident with regard to information on rural women's contribution to agriculture and rural development. On the other hand, there is an increasing demand for gender-specific statistics at the national and regional levels, from researchers, academics and women's groups to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), all of whom are interested in addressing various socio-economic development issues and participating more actively in decision-making on such topics.
FAO has participated actively in the international effort to document, develop and disseminate information and data about the roles and responsibilities of rural women in the fields of agricultural production, food security and rural development. FAO's Plan of Action for Women in Development (1996-2001) (C/95/14-Sup. 1, Rev. 1) and the Progress Report on its implementation (C/97/INF/18) stress that, in order to make informed decisions, it is essential to have statistics disaggregated by sex,2 together with information and precise data on the roles and responsibilities of men and women and their respective constraints and needs as they strive to reach their full potential.
During the last 20 years, information on rural women has increased significantly, but its validity and relevance are still questioned, as is its usefulness in decision-making and planning. This stems partly from the fact that the information is often not sufficiently substantiated by reliable statistics. Notorious deficiencies and shortcomings of gender data include the absence of reliable sources, a lack of precision, and weakness of analysis. Quite often, these statistics are too limited in scope and coverage, and do not allow for generalization.
In general, gender-related information also suffers from a weak dissemination system. When data are available, they are usually diffused only partially and selectively without a real awareness of the target audience. Moreover, the generation and use of information on rural gender issues compete with many other priorities. Clearly, many of the agencies producing, using and disseminating such information are those that are most likely to examine issues relating to global development; these agencies may have little interest in disaggregating data available at the subnational level. Thus, important rural/urban, gender, age and other differentials at the subnational level are overlooked in research and evaluation. This makes it difficult for issues of social equity and the specific needs of male and female agricultural producers to be adequately addressed. With new challenges arising from political and economic liberalization processes, it will be of the utmost importance to make statistics available to a wider variety of users. This greater availability of data will help to empower rural women and men through better knowledge, representation of their interests, and more opportunities for collective action for development.
The main purpose of this publication is to sensitize policy-makers to the benefits that sex-disaggregated information can bring to policy-making, and - as the main recipients and seekers of such information - move them to action at the national level. In this capacity, policy-makers possess the ability to influence actively both the production and the quality of information.
While stressing the need for relevant statistics, this publication also shows the demographic structure and characteristics of rural areas in developing countries, most of which are dominated by agriculture. It presents the type of readily available data, albeit limited, that address gender issues in rural and agricultural development and, subsequently, methodological and measurement issues. Data gaps and action needed to improve the present situation are highlighted. Tables and figures illustrating gender disparities with respect to key socio-economic indicators (e.g. illiteracy rates, life expectancy at birth and school enrolment) are presented in the annexes.
1 Biological differences between men and women do not change but the social roles that they are required to play vary from one society to another and according to different periods of history. The term "gender" refers to the economic, social, political and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female.
2 Data disaggregated by sex refer to the collection of data by physical attributes. Gender-disaggregated data, however, are analytical indicators derived from sex-disaggregated data on social and economic attributes. The term "gender" in this context refers to a set of statistics derived from the results of social and economic analysis.