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Key note address given by
Her excellency Ms Laura Balbo,
Minister of Equal Opportunities of Italy

It seems to me the most appropriate to locate our discussion within the framework of what is called Beijing +5, the stage of revision of the five-year process following the 1995 Beijing Conference on women, which provides an opportunity to assess the current situation and to address what lies ahead, in other words, developments and trends and policies affecting women worldwide. Allow me to begin with a few general remarks.

In the perspective of building a sustainable world order, one I wish to add in which conditions of food security be improved, women have a crucial role to play, and both the Beijing Conference and the World Food Summit of 1996 have strongly made this point. Women have always had a primary role in producing food, though their economic contribution has never been given adequate recognition and actually rural women have been assigned a low status in all societies. As in the past, the living and working conditions they experience are very harsh. The majority of those living in poverty are women in rural areas; in a great many regions of the world it is rural women who most directly have to face the negative effects of environmental decay; growing numbers of women in too many countries are affected by the consequences of war, displacement, processes of reconstruction. One additional element is that increasingly the migration of men towards urban areas leaves women as head of families and main breadwinners; war sickness from HIV and AIDS have also reduced male rural populations. In short: in many parts of the world today there is an increasing trend towards the "feminization of agriculture" and this takes place under extremely difficult conditions. The daily lives of billions are affected.

Behind these processes, the international dimension is a key factor, both because of the growing interdependence of financial, economical and trading practices and of the fact that the main political decisions are made by a very limited number of countries.

Now: the international conferences of the nineties have stressed that it is crucial that governments and international agencies give recognition to the role women play and will continue to play under the prevailing circumstances and specifically, in face of the growth of the world population. According to the State of the World Population Report 1999 released last week, the world's population is expected to top six billion next month and once more we read that "most of the growth is going to occur in the poorest regions". The report states that demographic shifts will need to be accompanied by policy shifts so that developing regions can offer jobs and services to their growing populations.

What we see at present is that the world is faced with dramatic environmental problems, widening inequalities in access to education and health facilities, in short, the devastating effects of the uneven distribution of basic resources.

Let me say at this point that I welcome this occasion as it gives us the opportunity to suggest a future agenda in which:

Certainly this has not been the case in the past and is not the case at present in a great many situations.

In the light of such background considerations, and from the point of view of a gender analysis, the following priorities should be addressed:

Let me at this point stress that I consider the specific focus of the Consultation, participation and information, extremely important. It should lead into two directions (as the background document indicates).

We must on this occasion, commit governments and international agencies to raising the educational levels of girls and women, to making information available through appropriate agencies, and, not less important, information is needed in such forms that the many issues women are confronted with are not ignored:

Coming now to a few final comments. We increasingly recognize that looking at rural women (or women in general if I may add this) as passive recipients of assistance and as low-skilled, non-competent, marginal workers is biased and misleading.

The success of the Grameen Bank now given recognition as a good practice in a great many countries throughout the world, has proved that a fundamental contribution to economic development and the social well-being of a community is provided by women, given appropriate conditions. The engendering of the national budget in South African is also an extraordinary initiative that may radically change our perspective and policies.

Other significant changes follow from the experience of projects in developing countries specifically involving women as productive workers in agriculture (this approach has been put forward in the Italian experience of international cooperation by the Directorate for Development Cooperation and our Department). And I wish to point to the fact that the contribution of women's informal and reproductive work to the wealth of society is being made visible in economic and statistical analysis (again refer to initiatives in my country, I would like to mention that a study on women entrepreneurs in agricultural activities, providing us with new interesting information, has recently been completed. There is also a strong commitment to provide sex-disaggregated statistics in all sectors of employment and economic activities).

Although extreme violence continue to be perpetrated against women in too many parts of the world, there is increasing attention to human rights of women, including civil and political rights. Women and especially younger women and girls who are educated, informed and given opportunities of adult learning are indeed "new" actors in the society. The commitment to develop policies aiming at gender equality ought to be stated in these very general terms. In a new vision of future society we must address issues of equity and social justice, finding ways to improve upon our "unbalanced" models of leadership and decision-making and to promote "good governance" through a widening participation of women as well as a genuine partnership between political and economic institutions and civil society.

The UN system has played a fundamental role in making such issues central to our vision and in giving women new opportunities. I am persuaded that if FAO makes a commitment to promote women's rights worldwide and to ensure fuller participation of women in decision-making and leadership, we shall see positive results in many countries. In this perspective I would like to highlight one final point: the Alliance for Agricultural Development and Food Security can be an effective tool to join efforts in fighting poverty. It is for this reason that the Italian government is fully committed to make the Alliance a success.

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