FAO’s 37th Biennial Conference: A commitment to women in agriculture at the highest Level

The vital role of women in agriculture and rural development was the theme of the thirty-seventh session of the biennial FAO Governing Conference (25 June-2 July 2011).

© FAO/A. Benedetti

27 June 2011Rome - The Conference, which brings together FAO’s Member Country Representatives including Heads of State, Ministers and Ambassadors, emphasized that pervasive gender inequality in agriculture has severe negative implications for the agriculture sector, food security, nutrition and society as a whole, endorsed the recommendations of FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2010-11 “Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development,” and committed to strengthening support to women in agriculture and to closing the gender gap in access to agricultural inputs, services and opportunities in order to increase economic growth and global food security.

The Conference also urged the elimination of all forms of legal and customary discrimination against women, particularly in access to land, financial services, rural employment, agricultural technology and extension services. It called on countries, donors and civil society to ensure that all agricultural programmes and projects take account of the different roles and responsibilities of men and women and the constraints they face in agriculture and rural employment, and recommended that gender be mainstreamed throughout FAO’s work.

A Strong Focus on the Recommendations of the State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11

The Conference’s discussions on women in agriculture opened with “A Dialogue on Women in Agriculture: Where to after SOFA?” a side event sponsored by the Rome Women's Network and co-hosted by Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. Ambassador of the UN Agencies in Rome, and by Josephine Wangari Gaita, Ambassador of Kenya to Italy and Permanent Representative to FAO, IFAD, and WFP, focusing on the positive impacts of closing the gender gap in agriculture on agricultural production and food security.

The event was moderated by Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and featured the participation of Dr. José Graziano da Silva, elected new FAO Director-General by the Conference on July 26, Ann Tutwiler, FAO Deputy Director-General for Knowledge, Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Minister of Agriculture of Rwanda, and Gloria Abraham Peralta, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Costa Rica.

In one of his first public presentations as FAO Director-General elect, Dr. Graziano da Silva opened the discussion by reflecting on his previous role as Brazil's Extraordinary Minister of Food Security and Fight Against Hunger, where he was responsible for implementing the country's highly-successful "Zero Hunger" programme that helped lift 24 million people out of extreme poverty in five years and reduce undernourishment in Brazil by 25 percent. “Zero Hunger” included a cash transfer programme to families to buy food and improve their purchasing capacity locally in order to sustain the stimulation of local production.  Dr. Graziano Da Silva related the fact that households benefited significantly more when the cash was entrusted to a female member: “The conclusion was very clear. The commitment to use the money to buy food by women was very much higher than men’s.”

Dr. Graziano Da Silva also stated that he would work to make gender equality in agriculture and rural development a priority for FAO under his tenure. “I would like to see this item reflected in the budget for three regions: Latin America, Africa and Asia, where the role of women in food is crucial. We should set this clearly in the budget. We should set this as priority.”

Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues for the United States of America Melanne Verveer.

Ambassador Verveer commended FAO for its work in advancing the understanding of the vital role of women in agriculture: “The SOFA focuses on women for the first time in its 27 year history and clearly sets out our challenge to end the gender gap,” Ms. Verveer said, emphasizing, as stated in the Report, that providing women working in agriculture with the same resources as men would increase agricultural productivity and improve the well-being of their families and communities.

Offering some hard facts to illustrate this point, Ms. Tutwiler, FAO Deputy Director-General, recalled the Report’s findings that if women were given equal access to productive assets, agricultural production would increase by 2.5 to 4 percent in developing countries, which could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.

“The message of this report is that closing the gender gap is not just the morally right thing to do, it is the necessary thing to do if we are going to meet the Millennium Development Goals and reduce hunger,” said Ms. Tutwiler, also announcing some of the new steps being taken to increase gender mainstreaming within FAO, including incorporating gender into the Organization’s performance-based system for the Director General, Deputy Director Generals and Directors, and formalizing the Organization’s gender focal point network. She also expressed FAO’s intention to intensify its policy work with Governments on gender mainstreaming and equality.

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources in Rwanda, spoke of the progress made by her country for women in agriculture and the way forward. In Rwanda, 86% of women work in agriculture, making policies affecting access to means of agricultural production especially impactful on women’s lives. The country has recognized in its Constitution equal opportunity for men and women, and the need for women’s empowerment. As a result, a policy was put in place that requires every public institution to have at least 30 % women at the management level. “We were pleasantly surprised that women took parliament was 56 %, making it the parliament with the highest proportion of women in the world. It is amazing what happens when women are shown what it is that they can do,” Minister Kalibata said.

Rwanda has also changed its inheritance laws to ensure the equal opportunity to inherit for male and female children and to protect the land ownership of women, and a programme was put in place to improve their access to technologies. Going forward, one of the country’s main priorities will be to improve the life chances of children living and often working in agricultural areas, especially those of girls, by raising the awareness and educating mothers to send their children to school to give them a better future: “We can talk all we want but unless we introduce knowledge systems that allow women to become empowered and to make the decisions that affect their families, we will not achieve much,” Minister Kalibata concluded.

Minister Abraham Peralta of Costa Rica added that gender inequality in agriculture does not only affect rural women but the entire agricultural sector, food security and society as a whole. She explained that in the case of Costa Rica, decent employment opportunitieffs for rural women are insufficient and much of rural women’s work is neither remunerated nor taken into account in the country’s economy.

Working Side by Side with Civil Society

INGO side event - "Women in agriculture: Microcredit, land tenure and cooperation". See the full slideshow here.

A discussion was also organized by Civil Society, bringing together the representatives in Rome of thfe AdHoc Group of International Non-Governmental Organizations (I.N.G.O.s) and focusing specifically on the issues of microcredit, land tenure and cooperation for women in agriculture.

Participants comprised representatives from a number of NGOs including Rotary International, Soroptimist International, Lions Club International, ICRA, the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), the International Federation of Women in Legal Careers, The International Association of Agricultural Economists (IAAE), the International Federation for Home Economics (IFHE), the International Federation of Business and professional Women (BPW Int), ActionAid, Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and NRM (Wocan), Fédération Internationale des Femmes des Carrières Juridiques (FIFCJ), CIDSE, as well as Member Country Representatives.  

The event was introduced by Ms. Cristina Gorajski Visconti, BPW Int Representative and Coordinator of the AdHocGroup, who lauded the Conference for focusing on the role of women in agriculture, an issue, she explained, that the members of the AdHocGroup consider crucial for closing the gender gap at the regional, national and International level. After speaking of the complementary role of N.G.O.s to that of the UN, Ms. Gorajski Visconti turned the floor to Ms. Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, who offered a review of the findings and recommendations of the SOFA 2010-11. The AdHoc Group expressed its agreement of the Report’s findings and each organization discussed the initiatives it had carried out over the past years to support women in agriculture, reiterating their long-term commitment to supporting gender equality in agriculture for greater and better development.