Economic empowerment in the spotlight on International Day of Rural Women 2012

Woman waters seedlings in the Lake Tana area of Ethiopia's Amhara Region. ©IFAD/Petterik Wiggers
Woman waters seedlings in the Lake Tana area of Ethiopia's Amhara Region. ©IFAD/Petterik Wiggers

ROME, Italy, 5 October 2012 – Rural women and girls represent about a quarter of the world's population. In developing countries, most of them are smallholder farmers. Each year the United Nations recognizes their achievements and challenges on 15 October, the International Day of Rural Women. This year the day takes on added significance with the inception of an inter-agency UN programme on accelerating progress toward the economic empowerment of rural women.

The joint programme is a five-year initiative of UN Women, the Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO), IFAD and the World Food Programme ( WFP). It will be implemented initially in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda. The initiative's goals are to improve food and nutrition security, increase women's incomes, strengthen their leadership position in rural institutions, and foster a more responsive policy environment for rural women's empowerment at the national and international levels.

Ensuring food security

Melanne Verveer, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, speaks on panel moderated by WFP chief Ertharin Cousin. © UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

On 27 September, the four partner agencies launched the joint programme at a special event during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. A roster of distinguished speakers stressed the fact that women in developing countries play a vital role in the agricultural labour force, and in ensuring global food security.

As UN Women Executive Director Michele Bachelet noted, rural women provide sustenance not only in the household but far beyond. "What they provide – water, fuel, food and income – sustains their families, their communities and their nations," she said.

"When women are empowered and can claim their rights and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices," Bachelet added, "economies grow, food security is enhanced and prospects are improved for current and future generations."

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at launch of the UN joint programme. © UN Women/Catianne Tijerina
UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at launch of the UN joint programme. © UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

Basis for sustainable development

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia echoed Bachelet's message, arguing that women's empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable development, especially in agriculture. "If you're dealing with women in Africa, clearly, you have to deal with rural women," she said. "The bulk of our women live in rural areas. They feed the nation. They do most of the farming, most of the marketing of food products."

Yet too many rural women still lack access to the tools and inputs of agricultural production, and to land itself, Sirleaf said. And despite the expansion of microcredit in recent years, she pointed out, most women smallholders don't have the capital they need to expand the production and marketing of their crops.

Sirleaf called for more information and assistance for rural women, including training in literacy and leadership development. "We've come a long way in ensuring their role in society, but we still can do more," she said.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva thanked Sirleaf for participating in the launch event and went on to underscore her final point. "Of course we can do more," he said, "and exactly that is what this programme is about."

Time for action

Kebeh Sumo, a rural entrepreneur from Liberia, took the podium next to speak forcefully and personally about overcoming the obstacles that women smallholders face. Their economic empowerment, she said, "begins with an open door for us to speak for ourselves, and voice our concerns and our needs."

Elisabeth Atangana, President of the Cameroon-based Regional Platform of Farmers' Organizations in Central Africa, followed with a statement on the importance of challenging gender stereotypes and involving rural women in agricultural cooperatives.

"Women are dynamic. They produce, and transmit cultural and educational values," Atangana observed. But although rural women are deeply engaged in food production, processing and marketing, she said, they are under-represented as decision makers in the agricultural sector.

"Women are working, but when it is time to take a decision, women are out," Atangana said, stressing the urgent need for action to increase their leadership role – from the household and community levels to the political arena. To succeed, she suggested, it will be necessary to "change the political and institutional landscape" and include both women and men in rethinking gender roles.

A promise to keep

Many of the steps needed to effect such sweeping change were covered in an ensuing panel discussion, which featured high-level representatives from the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Brazil and Spain. The panellists welcomed the concept of the UN joint programme and agreed on the importance of inter-agency coordination.

"What we're doing as the four agencies is committing to cooperate for action and change," said the panel's moderator, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. Rather than creating a new bureaucracy, she asserted, the programme will bring "more benefits for women on the ground."

The launch event concluded with remarks by IFAD's Head of Corporate Services, Lakshmi Menon, who expressed confidence that UN Women, FAO, IFAD and WFP "have built a partnership through which we can achieve transformative change that reshapes the lives and livelihoods of rural women." She continued: "Let us move forward, working together, to fulfil our promise to rural women and to support them in their role as providers, producers, decision makers, change agents."

The four partner agencies will follow up the New York launch of the joint programme with another inaugural event at FAO headquarters in Rome. It will take place, appropriately, on the International Day of Rural Women.

Watch the full video, below, of the 27 September event in New York launching the UN joint programme on the economic empowerment of rural women. The programme's Rome launch will take place in the Red Room at FAO headquarters from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. on Monday, 15 October.