Madam Elisabeth Diouf, First Lady of Senegal,
Madam Angela King, Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to welcome this assembly of high-level representatives of FAO Member Nations, the United Nations system and other intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society. The focus of this Consultation is information and especially the fundamental - yet too often unrecognized, when not forgotten - role of rural women in food production and food security.
It was in this very hall, in November 1996, that the Heads of State and Government and representatives of 186 countries, gathered here for the World Food Summit, declared it unacceptable that over 800 million human beings should still suffer hunger and malnutrition on the eve of the third millennium, when humanity was experiencing the most formidable technological progress of its history.
If the immediate objective of the Summit to halve this figure by the year 2015 is to be achieved, and if - in 30 years' time - an additional world population of just over 2 billion people is to be fed, then the contribution of rural women will be crucial. They already in fact account for a large proportion of food production: 80 to 90 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 50 to 90 percent in Asia, 30 percent in Central and Eastern Europe.
We can therefore affirm that there will be no food security without rural women. So we need to know and understand the precise conditions in which they work and the specific problems they are up against. How are we to discover this so that the technical experts and policy-makers can take the right decisions? How are we to make sure that the role and difficulties of rural women in agricultural production and food security are understood by the general public, particularly in the large urban areas and developed countries? How are we to see that all this information is available and that it reaches those that need it? Those are just some of the issues you will be discussing.
FAO chose Women Feed the World as its theme for World Food Day in 1998 to draw attention to the multifaceted role of women in agriculture and food security, and to encourage consideration of this role in national and international policies and programmes.
Not so very long ago, the term "invisible half" was often used when referring to the contribution of women to social and economic development, even more so in the case of rural women. Now, however, thanks to the efforts of policy makers, researchers, development workers, journalists and women activists, the vital contribution of rural women to social and economic development has been widely documented. So what we now need to do is to translate this broader knowledge into tangible acknowledgement and removal of the problems obstructing their further contribution to food production and food security.
Today's meeting falls within the executive framework of the FAO Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development, which was adopted in November 1995 in the wake of the World Conference on Women in Beijing.
This Consultation is also taking place at a time when the whole United Nations system is preparing to celebrate, next year, the fifth anniversary of the adoption in Beijing of the Platform for Action in favour of women. In this connection, the General Assembly will be holding a special session to examine related progress. The Conference of Beijing, and in fact the World Food Summit one year later, recognized:
I am sure that these observations have been - and will continue to be - taken to heart by those responsible for gathering, collating and disseminating data and information, and by the end-users.
As regards statistics, the Beijing Platform for Action advocates specific actions for the collection of sex-disaggregated data on poverty and all aspects of economic activity. It also recommends the selection of qualitative and quantitative statistical indicators to measure the impact of development actions and policies.
The compilation of valid statistics on women will provide a clear and accurate picture of their contribution to the economy and society. Such a task is notably difficult in rural areas where this is usually a non-remunerated informal sector, often confined to the domestic sphere and difficult to apprehend. This is where there is wide disparity in participation of women and men in decision-making and in their respective access to production resources. But this is also where there is huge potential, on condition that constraints are removed and that gender specificities are integrated into a new vision of development policies and programmes.
Gender-disaggregated information is essential if appropriate policy recommendations are to be made. The household was long considered the unit of analysis, on the assumption that its members enjoyed equitable distribution of food and income, and equal access to resources. Unfortunately, such an approach results in major conceptual and operational deficiencies. A gender-based differentiation of allocation of labour and resources must be taken into account if technologies are to be developed, targeted and transferred appropriately.
This invisible veil distorting our vision of the world needs to be lifted if we are to accept a plurality that calls for differentiated strategies. A number of basic elements can already be put forward for the rural sector:
These are just some aspects that reflect the need for urgent and systematic intervention to secure gender-disaggregated information. FAO is already working on these inadequacies, notably by formulating methodologies that will help countries gather and collate such information.
However, having the information is not enough; it also needs to be disseminated. Databases need to be made accessible to the widest possible audience, using all the means provided by the information revolution. This is another area where FAO has made significant progress, by setting up an information system that makes all its statistical and textual databases readily accessible to users throughout the world, and which will facilitate the dissemination of information on the role, problems and condition of rural women.
At the same time, we need to consider the fundamental role of the media. We need to make sure that communication with these powerful instruments of dissemination functions effectively, and that information is disseminated in a language and format that is accessible to everyone, including policy makers. And the media have an impact on public opinion, which is essentially urban, and therefore a not insignificant influence over policy formulation. So the media can help inform public opinion, in a correct and balanced manner, of the conditions of life and work of the rural population, and in particular of the contribution of rural women to the economy and food security.
The Organization has drafted a Strategy for Action which is before you for discussion. This is a contribution to the debate and FAO will no doubt benefit richly from your ideas, comments and experiences. Two technical panels have been organized as part of the meeting to provide in-depth discussion of the concrete aspects of information on rural women and its dissemination. These panels will comprise leading international experts in the fields of development, social sciences, communication and the media. I attach great importance to these panels and am convinced that your contributions and those of our guest experts will be very useful to the continuation of FAO's work in this area.
I cannot conclude without first paying tribute to Ms Elisabeth Diouf, First Lady of Senegal and Chair of the International Steering Committee on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women, who honours us with her presence here today. Ms Diouf and the other members of the Steering Committee have long been urging governments and international organizations to be alive to the essential role of rural women in food security.
I also extend my greetings to the representatives of the first ladies, members of the International Steering Committee on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women, who honour us with their presence at this event.
I also thank Her Excellency Ms Laura Balbo, Minister of Equality of Opportunity of Italy, who readily and enthusiastically supported this initiative and who also honours us with her presence here today. May I take this opportunity to reiterate - through her good offices - my appreciation to the Italian Government for its unstinting support to the Organization.
I am also indebted to Her Excellency Ms Margareta Winberg, Minister of Agriculture and Equality of Opportunity of Sweden, who has agreed to chair one of the technical panels and who, despite engagements that prevent her from being with us at this inauguration, has managed to arrange to be with us from this evening. My thanks also to Ms Angela King, special adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on gender issues, who has agreed to chair the other technical panel. I know that the expertise and experience of both Ms Winberg and Ms King will lead to fruitful discussions.
Finally, I should like to thank the ministers and representatives of the Member Nations who have accepted to participate in this Consultation, as well as the representatives of the United Nations agencies, other intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, whose active presence at this meeting demonstrates the importance they attach to the question of information on the role of rural women.
I am sure that these three days of discussions will be rewarding to all those working towards food security, and wish to convey to you my deepest gratitude for having agreed to share your expertise and experience for the enhancement of the condition of rural women.
I hereby declare open the High-Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information.