Five years down the road from Beijing - assessing progress

Hanging peppers to dry in the sun

A woman farmer picking chaya - a marrow-like vegetable

Preparing land for rice cultivation

Women farmers carrying sacks of harvested tea
Sri Lanka/17022/G. Bizzarri
Gradually, rural and farm women in developing countries around the world are gaining a face and a voice. These invisible workers who, without rights or recognition, produce the bulk of the food in the developing world, are finally beginning to figure on national and international agendas.

Taking stock for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly, five years after the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, FAO has reported that a growing number of countries are writing these women into their policies and national actions plans. "Governments and decision-makers are finally realizing that women, particularly rural women, are active players in the economy and important agents for social transformation," says Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Women and Population Division.

The parliaments of Ghana, Hungary and Tunisia, among others, have passed legislative packages specifically for rural women. Nicaragua has announced a draft resolution to implement policies favouring women in the distribution and purchase of land. The government of Benin is incorporating gender policy in its national plan of action for rural development. With such changes, rural and farm women are finally being seen and heard.

The UN Special Session on "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century" opens 5 June in New York. Informally called Beijing +5, the five-day event will review progress made since September 1995, when more than 180 countries adopted the ground-breaking Beijing Platform for Action. Up to 15 000 participants are expected from member countries, the international community, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

FAO studies confirm that women constitute the backbone of the small farming sector, producing 60 to 80 percent of food for household consumption in developing countries and 50 percent worldwide. Despite the progress being made in some countries, the majority of these women remain highly disadvantaged and isolated.

One crucial area of disadvantage regards land. Historically, women have been denied rights to control the land they farm. Access to land - not just private ownership, but the right to lease public land and use community-owned property - is a vital component of gender equality for these women. The Platform for Action underlined this, and FAO has been encouraging countries to include land issues in national plans of action to follow-up after Beijing. Agrarian reform benefiting women is a growing trend. In addition to Nicaragua, countries such as Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Malaysia, Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda have all enacted laws recognizing women's right to own land.

At FAO, the importance of gender equality was highlighted during the 1996 World Food Summit, at the 1998 celebration of World Food Day/TeleFood with the theme "Women Feed The World", at last year's High-Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information held at FAO and at the International Women's Day celebrations on 8 March.

According to Ms Ekaas, one of the biggest achievements since Beijing has been the growing international response to gender issues in all sectors of the economy. This is largely due to the availability of more and better quality information disaggregated by sex.

"But the challenge now is to focus on gender equality as an integral element in the strategy to address rural poverty," says Ms Ekaas. FAO is meeting this challenge by giving policy advice and technical assistance to member states and by disseminating information through its international network.

Beijing+5 will identify the achievements so far and look at the obstacles to progress. At the same time, the way to full gender equality, development and peace will be further mapped out.

2 June 2000

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