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Investing in gender equality at the heart of food security

©FAO/G. Napolitano

Gender equality was discussed as a prominent factor of food security at FAO’s celebration of World Food Day 2011 and throughout the 37th session of the United Nations Committee on Global Food Security (CFS), held at headquarters 17-22 October.

24 October 2011, Rome - Gender equality was discussed as a prominent factor of food security at FAO’s celebration of World Food Day 2011 and throughout the 37th session of the United Nations Committee on Global Food Security (CFS), held at headquarters 17-22 October. The week-long event kicked off with a launching ceremony headlined by Michele Bachelet, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, and featured a round table policy discussion on gender, food and security and a presentation of the recently released World Bank World Development Report 2012 (WDR), dedicated to gender equality and development.

"Food prices - from crisis to stability," was chosen as the World Food Day theme for 2011 following five consecutive years of unstable and rising food prices that have pushed millions of people into hunger and threaten to affect millions more.

What is the Committee on World Food Security (CFS)?

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is an intergovernmental body that was established in 1974 to serve as a forum in the United Nations System for review and follow-up of policies on world food security. The CFS strives to be the most inclusive international and intergovernmental platform and brings together UN Agencies, Civil Society and NGOs, research and financial institutions and the private sector to work together to ensure food security and nutrition for all. For more information, visit CFS Home  

In attendance at the launching ceremony were the Heads of the United Nations Rome-based agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) and high level dignitaries including Michelle Bachelet and Franco Frattini, Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Discussions were opened by FAO president Jacques Diouf who offered an overview of the current state of global food insecurity and its causes, including low levels of food stocks, greater demand for food in emerging economies, the growing use of biofuels, climate change and speculative trading, and underlined that despite these factors, with the right measures “the world has the knowledge and resources to ensure food security for all.”

In her keynote address, Michelle Bachelet emphasized that unleashing women’s potential to better contribute to agricultural production is key to achieving food security. She deplored the fact that only 5.6% of aid is currently targeted to women in agriculture even as women make up the bulk of smallholder agricultural workers in the world and produce about half of its food, and reminded the audience that, as stated in The State of Food and Agriculture 2011 (SOFA), if women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, the resulting gains in agricultural productivity could lift as many as 150 million people out of hunger. “Since women are in the frontline of food security, we need to put their rights and needs at the forefront of trade and agricultural policies, an investment to move from crisis to stability,” she said. “It is time to make sure that women are at the table where decisions are made, where policies are crafted, and funds are disbursed.”

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran added that the world should not forget the picture is not all bleak and that the tables can be turned on hunger as number of countries including Ghana, Chile, India, Mexico and Brazil have demonstrated. She also concurred with Ms. Bachelet that “women are the secret weapon in the fight against hunger.”

The World Development Report 2012: progress and gaps in gender equality

The CFS featured a presentation and panel discussion around the findings of the World Bank’s recently launched flagship publication, The World Development Report 2012 (WDR) dedicated to gender equality and development with the participation of Ana Revenga, World Bank Poverty Reduction Group Director, World Bank Senior Economist Markus Goldstein, FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem, IFAD Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Region Josefina Stubbs, Dame Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, Isatou Jallow, Chief of the World Food Programme’s Gender Unit and Esther Penunia, Secretary General of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA).

The WDR 2012 takes stock of the state of gender equality, and demonstrates that in some aspects, gender equality has evolved positively over the past 25 years with gender gaps having significantly decreased in education and health services, leading to better outcomes for women and girls. However, women’s economic opportunities continue to lag behind men’s, with women still largely segregated in lower paying, more precarious occupations with less access to resources and less decision making powers at all levels of society.

Ms. Revenga acknowledged the close collaboration with FAO and the SOFA team to produce the WDR and explained that the report, which articulates itself around three main questions--Why do gender gaps matter, why do they persist and what can be done to eliminate them?—analyzes the different ways in which formal institutions, social norms and markets treat men and women and how these differences lead to gender inequalities.

Panelists discuss the findings of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development during the 37th session of the United Nations Committee on Global Food Security (CFS) at FAO. © FAO/A. Pierdomenico.

“The cost of gender inequality to societies is getting larger,” explained Ms. Revenga. “And economic growth will not solve the problem. We need actors and initiatives.” She added that implementing gender equality was rarely a question of increasing resources, but of redistributing them more equally among men and women, and that the relatively low costs incurred in doing so would be amply covered by the long-term benefits.
Among other pressing measures, the WDR cites the need to relax time constraints on women through better access to childcare and other facilities as paramount to enabling their greater participation in economic activities, as well as the need to implement legal reforms to improve their access to land and credit.

Mr. Ghanem underlined the importance of gender equality as a means to improve life for everyone: “I think that it is very important that men enter this discussion because what the World Development Report does, and what we try to do in our State of Food and Agriculture Report, is to show that bridging the gender gap, achieving gender equality, is not an issue just to improve women’s lives, it is an issue to improve everybody’s lives,” he explained. “As the WDR shows, when you end discrimination against women, you increase growth, you increase development, and as we have argued in the SOFA, if you end discrimination against women, you will increase agricultural production and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by about 150 million. What FAO, the World Bank, IFAD, WFP and others are saying is that gender equality is central to development and that anybody who is interested in fighting poverty and hunger has to address the issue of gender equality.”

Ms Stubbs added that IFAD saluted the WDR as a benchmark and emphasized the need to not focus exclusively on rural women’s agricultural activities but also to support their non-farm economic activities, and Ms. Penunia and Ms. Stocking both underlined the importance of supporting women to organize in order to gain leadership skills, claim their rights and become increasingly empowered at the economic, political, cultural and social level.

Ms. Villareal added that the fact that the latest editions of the WDR and the SOFA focus on gender equality will change “The way many countries, many institutions, many ministers of finance appreciate gender issues within development. We need these reports to land on the desks of the decision makers, the people who allocate budgets--I am confident that these reports will help bring the issue of gender equality back on countries’ agendas.”

Placing women at the heart of the global food system

Also part of the CFS programme was a multi stake holder round table policy discussion on gender, food and security that brought together development experts from the UN and other entities and FAO’s Member Country Representatives. The Roundtable furthered the discussion on the role of women in ensuring food security and in guaranteeing adequate levels of nutrition for their families and communities.

Ms. Sheeran opened the discussion by sharing the latest findings on nutrition and the particularly crucial importance of good nutrition during the first two years of life, without which a child runs considerable chances of long lasting health problems, including brain damage and stunting. “This is the burden of knowledge,” she explained. “We know that the damage of malnutrition in the first two years of life cannot be repaired.”

Elisabeth Atangana, President of Pan-African Farmers Forum (PAFFO) and of the Regional Platform of Farmers Organizations of Central Africa (PROPAC) reminded the audience of the many crucial roles women play in the provision of food, from cultivation to food processing and marketing, and the panelists discussed the recognized fact that when women have greater decision making power and greater access to resources in their households and communities, investments in children’s nutrition and education increase, leading to better life chances for future generations.

Ms. Stocking spoke of the resourcefulness of women in the face of food insecurity to ensure good nutrition of their children and of their ability to instigate many positive changes when empowered. “In a village in Ethiopia, the women managed to create a cooperative of savings and loans,” she explained. “They were successful and started diversifying. Thanks to the greater power they had gained through this activity, they managed to stop the practice of excision and that of polygamy, successfully curtailing the spread of HIV in the community.”

Mark Cackler, Manager of the Agriculture and Rural Development Department of the World Bank, explained that when women have a greater voice in decision making at the higher levels including in parliament, policies are shaped differently with better outcomes for women and children, and Ms. Stocking added that if women were more amply consulted in the creation of policies to remediate price volatility and to prepare for disasters, they would have much say and would contribute valuable new ideas.

All the speakers reiterated the need to support women’s better access to resources across the board, to facilitate their greater participation in decision making, to free up their time through technologies and services, and to support their organization into networks to improve global food security, and called for greater action on the part of governments and a stronger application of their commitments to gender equality.

“Is there the political will to place women at the heart of the food security system?” asked Ms. Stocking—a question indeed at the heart of the future of global food security.

  • For more information of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the outcomes of its 37th session, visit CFS Home
  • Listen to the keynote address given by Michelle Bachelet, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, during the World Food Day 2011 ceremony.
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