Leaving no one behind: FAO special event highlights rural women’s role in achieving global food and nutrition security

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is central to FAO’s work in eradicating hunger and poverty, as it is to the entire 2030 Agenda. This was a key message among several discussed at the recent Special Event on “Leaving no one behind: Achieving gender

© FAO / Carlo Perla


The Special Event, held at FAO headquarters on 5 July 2017, during the 40th Session of the FAO Conference, brought together a panel of representatives from government, civil society and the private sector to share experiences and highlight examples of FAO’s work in gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.

Building on a series of events held at FAO within the last year (in December 2016, the High-level Event “Step It Up Together with Rural Women to End Hunger and Poverty” and in March 2017, the celebration of International Women’s Day), last week’s Special Event underscored the crucial role that rural women play in ending hunger and poverty as agents of change in their communities and families; the need for policies and programmes to accelerate rural women’s economic empowerment; and the importance of promoting transformative approaches to tackle the root causes of gender inequality in rural areas.

In his opening remarks, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva reaffirmed the Organization’s commitment to support member countries in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, and unlocking the full potential of rural women to achieve global food and nutrition security.

The Event featured a presentation by Kostas Stamoulis, Assistant-Director General of FAO’s Economic and Social Development Department, highlighting FAO programmes, projects, and initiatives that prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment, including in the context of mitigating climate change and managing natural resources, building the resilience of rural livelihoods, reducing rural poverty, promoting equal opportunities from farm to market, and attaining food security and nutrition.

“They are the ones...”

Among the first to speak from the panel was Hugo Martinez, Minister of Foreign Affairs of El Salvador. The Minister discussed the importance of gender for food and nutrition security not only for El Salvador, but also for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). He noted that El Salvador is currently incorporating a gender dimension into its national food security and nutrition policy and that, with technical support from FAO, UN Women and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), it is also defining a national policy for rural women, farmers and indigenous peoples. From a regional perspective, he cited the CELAC Plan for Food Security, Nutrition and Hunger Eradication 2025, for which a specific gender strategy was recently approved. The implementation of this gender strategy began this year with an initial pilot phase, through which it is being mainstreamed in five countries: Bolivia, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay.

This was followed by a recorded statement from Néziha Labidi, Minister of Women and Family Affairs of Tunisia, who gave a brief overview of strategic national initiatives to empower rural women and promote gender equality. These included a new multi-sectoral national strategy, approved by Tunisia’s Council of Ministers earlier this year, which aims to improve women’s financial and economic autonomy, for example through better access to credit and through the use of a website that will enable them to sell their products online. The Minister noted that rural women make up 33 percent of Tunisia’s population, and closed by underscoring their importance for generations to come. “They are the ones who will ensure our bright future,” she said.

National strategy documents were also a key focus for Ty Sokhun, Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Cambodia, who highlighted his government’s commitment to gender equity and improving the status of women. In this context, he noted the value of FAO’s work in the country, citing for example a Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) on “Enhancing Gender Equality in Agriculture and Rural Development,” as well as technical support to the Ministry for the recent national census of agriculture, which provided decision-makers, development planners and policy-makers with gender-disaggregated information.

Next on the panel was Fatimata Dia Sow, Commissioner for Social Affairs and Gender of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who shared some examples of ECOWAS’s work for rural women in agricultural production and natural resource management. These included the distribution of multifunctional platforms and support to women in cross-border trade, and a range of programs for women entrepreneurs (focused on training, competitiveness, business incubation and ICTs).

Among the most important initiatives for ECOWAS, however, is a project conducted jointly with FAO, on “Gender Responsive National and Regional Agricultural Investment Plans (NAIPs) for Meeting the Zero Hunger Challenge in the ECOWAS Region.” Key deliverables of this project include an ECOWAS Gender and Agriculture Action Plan (along with a roadmap for implementation), National Gender Assessments of agriculture and rural development in all ECOWAS states, an ECOWAS-FAO publication on gender and agrifood systems, capacity building on gender mainstreaming, and much more.

Speaking next, Ali Recep Nazli, General Director of Foreign Relations and EU Coordination of Ministry of Food and Agriculture and Livestock of Turkey, also noted FAO’s role in ensuring gender-sensitive approaches to policy and programme development. Reflecting on the first phase of the FAO Turkey partnership programme (from 2009 to 2016), he noted that there were two projects focused especially on gender, and that further such work is foreseen for the new, second phase of the programme (2017–2020), for  example, through a gender mainstreaming project for the region as a whole.

Another perspective

The final two speakers ensured that the panel finished not only with strong representation from civil society and the private sector, but with the individual experiences and perspectives of young, empowered women from the developing world.

First to speak was Haowa Bello, a young woman entrepreneur from Lagos, Nigeria. Ms Bello is the CEO and founder of Madame Coquette, a company that designs and manufactures a line of luxury leather bags produced locally and sold globally. She is also one of the many beneficiaries of the Youth Employment in Agriculture Programme (YEAP) that FAO is implementing in Nigeria, together with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Ms Bello noted that the YEAP award, which she received in 2015, was a key catalyst. “YEAP has done tremendous work for my business. Financially it allowed my business to grow,” she said, adding that “personally, it made me responsible for my work and it made me aware that I make a difference in what I do.”  

“It made me feel that I have a responsibility not only to my community but to my country. The government recognized me and invested in me and I felt I had to give back somehow.”

In addition to Madame Coquette, Ms Bello started Fula Farms, which now has a hundred dairy cows. She works with an informal cooperative of men and women from the area, but focuses especially on supporting the women. “I work predominantly with women to produce cheese and other dairy products. Fula Farms is committed to empowering women that otherwise have no source of income and no means of livelihood.”

Ms Bello reflected on the need to better recognize women’s contributions in society. “Especially in Africa, in the region that I’m from, I feel women are not valued as much as they should be. Women play such a big role in our societies and I don’t feel that they’re recognized for all the work they do.”

She offered her story as an example of what happens when women are empowered: “Being a woman, I know the importance of empowering women,” she said, and added in closing, that “if you empower one woman, you empower a generation.”

The final panellist, Jessica Vega Ortega, spoke not only from the perspective of youth, but as a representative of indigenous peoples, and particularly of indigenous women. Ms Vega is a Mixteca native of the Oaxaca region in Mexico, and has worked from a very young age as an advocate in different fora at local, national and international levels, making visible the challenges of indigenous youth. Today, she acts as Focal Point for the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, and is the Coordinator of the Yani Tundavii Dikuintií Collective of the Network of Young Indigenous Peoples of Latin America.

Speaking of FAO’s work for indigenous women, Ms Vega highlighted the Leadership School for Indigenous Women, a special capacity building programme spearheaded by FAO and the  International Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF, also known as the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indígenas, or FIMI), which empowers indigenous women leaders and activists to advocate for human rights, food security and nutrition. “I have been lucky enough to be one of the young pupils in that,” she said.

She also noted the importance of FAO support to indigenous youth. “We’re happy to see that FAO has taken our recommendations into account and is putting programmes in place for young indigenous people,” she said. “That’s had an impact, not just at the international level, but locally as well.” In particular, she cited the recent Indigenous Youth Caucus, which FAO hosted in Rome. “We were given a space,” she explained, which allowed the different groups of indigenous youth to prepare together for the upcoming annual session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “This was the first time that we had the opportunity to prepare ourselves before the [Permanent] Forum, to coordinate our voices, not just the voices of women, but also young men, so we spoke as youth as a whole.”

“In doing so we were able to really feed into the development of the movement, ensuring that our rights were respected and our voices heard.”

Looking forward to October 2017

The Special Event ended with brief comments from Elizabeth Ssendiwala, Senior Technical Specialist at IFAD, and Kawinzi Muiu, Director of Gender for the World Food Programme (WFP), and finally from Kostas Stamoulis, who concluded the session with a look forward to October 2017, when FAO will be hosting a forum on “Women’s empowerment in the context of food security and nutrition”, which will take place during the 44th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS).


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