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Press Release 99/57


UN conference underlines the need for more data on rural women, but delegates call for action on other fronts, too

ROME, 6 October - Addressing a "data gap" that leaves women's work largely uncounted in agricultural and other censuses in developing countries was the primary goal of a ministerial meeting convened here this week by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But while hardly a speaker disagreed with that idea, scores of delegates called for action on other fronts, too, including giving rural women a chance to speak out, and to be heard by their national leaders and by development agencies.

It is now an undisputed fact that women in the rural areas of developing countries work long hours, juggling agricultural chores, child care, food preparation and other tasks. Their workdays are fragmented, and bear little resemblance to those of their male counterparts, according to FAO. Yet little precise information about their economic contributions and needs is getting through to the people in government and development agencies - people making policy and planning projects that will have an impact on those women's lives.

The availability of statistics broken down by sex is taken for granted in most industrialized countries. In much of the developing world, though, data collection continues to be carried out by household, with no detail on the activities of individual household members.

"Information is the basic tool," said Ms. Margareta Winberg, Sweden's minister for agriculture and for gender equality affairs, who moderated a panel on gender equality in policies and planning. "Collecting gender-disaggregated data is an indispensable step towards making women visible as human beings and social actors - and in this case also as farmers."

FAO points to the pressing problem of food security for an expanding global population, especially in low-income developing countries where food needs are expected to rise the fastest. According to a recent World Bank report, food needs in the developing world could double over the next three decades. Since economic growth in developing countries is correlated with agricultural growth, according to FAO, the pressure on agriculture to increase its output will be enormous in the years to come.

"In development planning," said Ms. Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Women and Population Division and secretary of the ministerial meeting, "you need to define the target population - by sex, age, sector of agricultural production, and type of work." Higher agricultural productivity, and the achievement of sustainable rural development," she said, "will be impossible if rural planners continue to base their decisions mainly on data relating to physical inputs and outputs, while ignoring the perspective of human resources."

Yet statistics alone don't tell the whole story, panelists and delegates said repeatedly. They called for more decision-making power for rural women, in their households and communities and even in government; action to address a worldwide increase of violence against women; and challenging gender stereotypes and inequities that limit women's access to technology, education, training, land and credit.

In her keynote address to the Consultation's inaugural session, Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities Ms. Laura Balbo called for increased investment in education and vocational training for females. "We need to raise the educational levels of girls and women," she said, and to place women in decision-making and leadership roles. She also urged greater attention to the "human rights of women," including civil and political rights.

The problems of rural women and rural communities also have a global dimension, Mrs. Elizabeth Diouf, First Lady of Senegal, told delegates. She appealed to members of the European Union and other developed countries to give a boost to economic development in the poorest countries by following the recent example of U.S. President Bill Clinton and moving to forgive the long-term debt of those countries.

Some 110 countries participated in the Consultation, along with observers from other UN agencies, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.


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