Women can be agents of change in the fight against poverty

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Women can be agents of change in the fight against poverty

Press release number: IFAD 12/03

Rome, 20 February, 2003 -- There can be little prospect of eradicating poverty and hunger until the status of women is improved in the developing world. That was the message from a roundtable discussion organized as part of the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) 25th anniversary session of its Governing Council.

One of the eight Millennium Development Goals, drawn up by the international community in 2000 and given a deadline of 2015, singles out the promotion of gender equality as a target.

But the advancement of women is also critical to the achievement of many of the other goals, including those on reducing infant and maternal mortality, achieving universal primary education and stepping up the fight against HIV/AIDS.

A fairer deal for women is crucial to the success of the first and perhaps most challenging target, that of halving the number of extremely poor people by the year 2015, the session heard. Gender inequality is a root cause of poverty, especially in the case of rural women who are among the most vulnerable and impoverished members of society. Women account for about 70% of the world’s poor.

Worldwide, rural women only have 2 percent of land. They have less access to education, health, water and credit services than men. This is a pattern that is repeated from generation to generation, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

Deeply entrenched cultural practices can impede women’s advancement, even when their rights are protected by law, said Dr. Armani Kandil, executive director of the Arab Network for Non-Governmental Organizations, based in Egypt.

“There is a gap between the legal framework and practice,” she said. “Culture is very important.” In Egypt, women have had the right to vote since 1956, she noted. Yet at the last general elections, in 2000, only 16 percent of women turned out at the polls.

The shift towards privatization taking place in many developing countries means new constraints for women, because the private sector is dominated by men, said Ms. Jocelyn Dow, President of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization in Guyana. So too does the growing trend for migration, as poor rural women seek jobs away from home. The result, in many cases, is the breakdown of the family, she said.

But experience has shown that women act as a catalyst in development. Focusing support on women often brings clear benefits for the entire community, the meeting heard. It has been shown that HIV/AIDS spreads more slowly in regions where women’s education is more widespread. The education of girls and women has a proven impact on improving levels of child nutrition and infant mortality.

Microfinance programmes targeting women have been shown to be more effective than those targeting men, said John Byakagaba, project coordinator of the Hoima District Development Support Programme in Uganda. Women used their loans more wisely and were more prompt in repaying them, he said.


IFAD is a specialized agency of the United Nations with the specific mandate of combating hunger and poverty in the most disadvantaged regions of the world. Since 1978 IFAD has financed 628 projects in 115 recipient countries and in the West Bank and Gaza for a total commitment of approximately USD 7.9 billion in loans and grants. Through these projects, about 250 million rural people have had a chance to move out of poverty. IFAD makes the greater part of its resources available to low-income countries on very favorable terms, with up to 40 years for repayment and including a grace period of up to ten years and a service charge of 0.75% per year.