Rural women fight hunger and poverty

Women feed the world but lack access to key inputs and have little voice in decision making

ROME 12 June 2002 -- "According to an old Chinese proverb, 'women hold up half the sky.' In the battle against hunger and poverty, women, especially rural women, most certainly hold up the heavier half," Mr David A Harcharik, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said today at a meeting on the decisive role rural women play in feeding the world.

On the third day of the "World Food Summit: five years later" heads of state, ministers, high-ranking officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations from around the world gathered to learn more about "Rural women: crucial partners in the fight against hunger and poverty." The purpose of the meeting, organized by FAO's Gender and Population Division with the financial support of Sweden, was to gain recognition for women as farmers in their own right and to mobilize increased political will and resources to remove persistent gender inequities.

His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, opened the meeting by saying that rural women bear the brunt of underdevelopment. "In the present day and age, we must recognize the fact that women should have the right to land, access to credit, the right to share the benefits of agricultural output, the right to inherit property and the right to education." He also stressed the importance of rural women having equal rights to participate in the policy process, adding that rural women must be nothing less than equal partners in the fight against poverty.

Rural women constitute the majority of the 1.5 billion people who live in absolute poverty. Even though women head about one fifth of rural households -- and in some regions more than one third -- women only own around 1 percent of all land.

The two keynote speakers at the meeting -- Rosalina Tuyuc of Guatemala and Vandana Shiva of India - talked about rural women's lack of access to resources and lack of influence in policymaking.

Ms Tuyuc is Coordinator of the Guatemalan National Organization for Widows (CONAVIGUA), former Vice President of Guatemala's Congress, a human rights activist and a Maya. She said: "With our hands we work our land and make it productive, but this has not been sufficient to ensure food for all. Our land does not yield much, as the best land is in the hand of those who do not work."

Her comments were supported Ms Shiva, Director of India's Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, who is also a physicist, environmentalist and author of many books. "It is time to take stock of who really feeds the world," she said. "It is rural women. They are more in numbers, they produce more and they do it with fewer resources." And, she added, "Rural women are the guardians of biodiversity. They don't need patriarchal support. They and their knowledge are the resources of the future."

Statistics show that almost 70 percent of economically active women in low-income food-deficit countries are employed in the agricultural sector. But in spite of their crucial roles in assuring food security, rural women battle hunger and poverty on increasingly marginal land with meagre resources. Their voices are seldom heard among those of the decision-makers. To raise their voices and expand their choices, action is needed to ensure that women have equal access to resources, such as land, water, credit and technology, and that they can participate fully in policy making.

"Poverty reduction and establishing food security and gender equality must be seen as one coherent undertaking," said the chairperson of the meeting, Margareta Winberg, Swedish Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and for Gender Equality. "This has, so far, not been the case." She added: "let us send the clear message from this seminar and this Summit to all other decision makers, to the delegates of the Johannesburg Summit later this summer and to the international community -- that genderequality is a prerequisite for the eradication of poverty and hunger and for promoting growth and sustainable development for all."
Women harvesting rice in Tanzania

Women harvesting rice in Tanzania

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FAO, 2002