Q&A with Marie Randriamamonjy

Marie Randriamamonjy, the Director of FAO's Women in Development Service, discusses FAO's Plan of Action and problems facing rural women today. The Women in Development Service (SDWW) is located in the Women and Population Division of the Sustainable Development Department. The work of this department focuses on key dimensions of sustainability: research and technology, extension and training, natural resources monitoring and management, agrarian transformation, mainstreaming of women in development (WID) and people's participation. Within this department, SDWW focuses on the implementation of the FAO Plan of Action for Women in Development in order to address the major goals of FAO and Member Nations in relation to agricultural and rural development.

What will be the concrete results of the FAO Plan of Action for Women in Development (1996-2001)?

We already had the first Plan of Action for the 1989-1995 period following the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi. After the Fourth World Conference in Beijing and the Platform of Action adopted there, we drew up a second Plan of Action for the 1996-2001 period. The Plan represents the intervention framework of FAO and member countries for the systematic integration of women in activities and programmes, both at headquarters or in field projects. This document is a summing up of the 24 Programmes of Action proposed by all the divisions of FAO. Every division has its own Programme of Action. Each takes into account the function of the division, the proposals for implementing the Plan in the framework of their work programmes and budgets, and the instruments and methods for achieving their objectives.

So here are we talking about a Plan of Action that is basically a restructuring or a reorganization?

The Plan of Action s a thorough reorganization of the programmes submitted by the respective divisions to integrate women in development. And it is certainly a revolution because our first plan was, in fact, drawn up by our unit. We simply asked them all for advice, since in this case the divisions themselves made the proposals while we made the compendium after providing the general framework for our strategy. Moreover, they assume total responsibility for the implementation, with technical assistance from us, if requested.

Are all the divisions of FAO working on precisely the same lines?

They have many points in common because all the divisions are working towards the same objective, i.e. to provide access to development for everyone, both men and women. They were consulted on a participatory basis. We worked with them for a year, all through 1995, during which we held seminars to set up a process of dialogue and planning. After that they gave us their definitive documents and we made the compendium. Follow-up is assured through an internal committee: the Interdepartmental Committee for the Role of Women in Development (COWID). It is made up of representatives from all departments. It advises the Director-General on policies and strategies for the integration of women and related questions within the Organization. In each division, or unit, there are special "Women in Development" groups or focal points. For example, the Committee holds discussions on the situation of women within the Organization on topics such as: how could the United Nations' objective of 35 percent female staff, which should have been met in 1995, possibly be reached when the female proportion of FAO staff is now only at 18 percent? The Committee met four times last year and is functioning well, but it is still too soon to draw up a balance. There is a good level of representation and participation, as well as real commitment towards concrete action.

Do women play a fundamental role in the household?

On a sociological level, the mother is the basic element of the household. This is becoming more and more evident today. When the social framework starts to disintegrate the mother remains the mainstay of the family structure, physically and psychologically; whereas the father, for various reasons, has to migrate or else places all the responsibility in the hands of the mother. At the cultural level, she is obviously the one who transmits all the cultural and social values to future generations; it is part of her role as mother. As a depository of these values she assures reproduction of the generations, not only in giving life but in maintaining it. Everywhere it has been found that where there are improvements in women's earning capacities there is every chance of improving the family's living and nutrition standards. When men's earning capacities are increased there is every risk that the extra money will be spent on a display of lifestyle or else outside the family circle.

Do women really have a right to their own earnings?

This is a very serious problem because while women certainly contribute to economic activities they do not always receive the income they deserve, i.e. in proportion to their efforts. This is where we come in. We claim that women should be paid according to the value of their work. It means we must promote education. It also means a thorough reorganization of the legal system, for one thing. This can be done by offering a choice of productive activities because when it comes to land management, particularly in the case of irrigation, development agencies tend to assign ownership to men. So women are automatically excluded. They receive no rights and no credit, no access to technology or any other assistance such as training. Here we have to change the mentality of the people organizing development so that women can be granted ownership on an equal basis.

Are there any signs of governments willing to cooperate?

This varies considerably according to the country. Tunisia is a good example. It has the best legislation in favour of women in North Africa and, relatively, the best statistical system accounting for women's participation. There has been marked improvement in applying these laws, although the situation is still far from perfect. In theory, women now enjoy the same rights as men. It is another matter when it comes to practice. Under pressure from powerful, influential feminist movements in the country, and thanks to decisions at the top, there has been a general improvement from the point of view of legislation. Once again the Beijing Conference has insisted on the legal obligation for women to learn to read and write, so that they will understand their rights and know how to benefit from them.

Are there any other problems women must face in the course of development?

Indeed there are. Quite a number of problems. But the two most serious ones still need to be solved: access to land and the problems involved in training and extension services.

Access to land is really an enormous barrier, because without the ownership of land, regarded as capital for production, it is almost impossible to carry out extension courses in agricultural technology. A woman without land cannot be expected to show any interest in improving somebody else's property. So she will not know how to use imputs to improve her own production. Moreover when she has to apply to the bank for credit she will be asked what security she can offer. They normally ask for land as security. In some cases this problem can be solved by the support of certain groups who will provide security on her behalf, but much remains to be done in this field. Apart from the problem of access to land there is also the problem of its availability. Once again it all depends on the country. Some countries have more land than others. In Bangladesh, for example, you find plots the size of a pocket handkerchief, whereas some of the African countries have far more space for cultivation and the possibility of planning irrigation and contour farming.

FAO carried out a global study in 1989 regarding access to training and extension courses. The results showed that only 5 percent of extension resources were available to women, although, in some cases, particularly in food production, African women handled 80 percent of the work. In Asia, women contribute 40 to 50 percent of the work in rice production, and, in Latin America, between 30 and 40 percent of the agricultural work. So here we have a huge problem. How is it that extension services cannot be effectively applied to women? For number of reasons. For example, in many parts of the world women are refused access to male extension workers. The answer to that should be the formation of groups of women extension workers. Of total extension agents at work in Africa today, only 17 percent are women. This is mainly due to cultural and religious customs. But there are other reasons: the lack of a serious study of this situation at field level. For example, extension workers usually arrive at times when the women are miles away from the meeting points because they have gone to look for water, or else they are hard at work in their own fields and cannot get to the demonstrations or take part in training courses. Then the extension workers organize courses several miles from the homes where the women are busy looking after their children or their husbands, etc., and have no time to attend. The whole system will have to be improved. A large-scale movement must be promoted, seriously promoted, if we want to bring about an evolution that will allow a proper distribution of extension resources among men and women.

13 March 1997

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