Rome UN agencies celebrate rural women and girls as agents of change

Yvette Azane Ngwemetoh, from north-
west Cameroon, speaks at IFAD on
International Women's Day.
At least two things are certain about the millions of women who work as smallholder farmers worldwide. First, they are among the hardest-working people on the planet, and second, they are woefully under-appreciated and under-compensated for their daily, uphill struggles.

For most of those women, and the daughters who work alongside them, yesterday was probably just another day of rising early and tending their fields or herds. But their achievements and challenges were in the spotlight at IFAD headquarters, where the three Rome-based UN food and agriculture agencies – IFAD, FAO and WFP – jointly celebrated International Women’s Day.

The event illustrated the complex dynamics of gender, food security and poverty. As various speakers pointed out, women and girls do more than 40 per cent of all farming and virtually all household work in rural areas. Yet they don’t share equally with men in the resources needed for productive agriculture. Research suggests that women’s crop yields would increase by 20 to 30 per cent if they had access to such resources. In turn, the number of hungry people in the world would decline by 100 million to 150 million.

Participants in yesterday’s event focused on how rural girls and young women figure into this global equation. The question at hand was how they can fulfil their potential as agents of change. In broad strokes, the answer was starkly simple: Give rural girls and women access to the right tools, and they will change the face of agriculture.

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze started off the discussion. Dr. Nwanze called gender equality and rural development “inseparable,” adding that “women hold the key to food and nutrition security” by virtue of their untapped capacity for higher yields. FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva followed, announcing the launch of his agency’s new gender-equality policy. He said the policy cuts across all FAO programmes and “underscores the organization’s commitment to addressing gender and women’s issues to eradicate hunger and poverty.”

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze (right) and FAO
Director-General Josè Graziano da Silva listen to
WFP Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu.
The dialogue continued as a succession of influential women took the floor.

WFP Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu weighed in with an appeal for the Rome agencies to take their lead from the grass roots. “The first thing we need to do,” she said, “is listen to rural women.” Sisulu noted that even in industrialized countries, women are the main processors and preparers of food for their families. Women’s voices, she said, are central to any discussion of food and agriculture policy.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, called for redoubled efforts to educate rural girls, who lag behind boys in school enrolment, especially after the early grades. Motshekga cited the “tremendous multiplier effect” of girls’ education, which generates far-reaching economic and social benefits. Once rural girls gain equal access to the classroom, “the world will never be the same,” she said.

Ertharin Cousin, US Ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome, echoed Motshekga’s call for parity. “A plant doesn’t know if it was planted by a woman or a man,” observed Cousin, who will become WFP’s Executive Director next month. But because rural women and women’s organizations start at a point of material disadvantage, she said, they need technical and financial support to enhance their productivity and to compete in the marketplace.

A lawyer by training, Cousin said history would judge the international community’s liability for continued gender inequality on the basis of three basic queries: “What did you know, when did you know it and what did you do about it?” She argued that the obstacles faced by girls and women in rural areas – such as poor access to land and credit, and a disproportionate burden of household labour – have been well known for years.

From left: Ertharin Cousin, US Ambassador to the UN
agencies in Rome; Angie Motshekga, South Africa’s
Minister of Basic Education; and youth representative
Yvette Azane Ngwemetoh.
“The question is, what are we doing about it?” she asked.

Of course, history is not the only judge. Young rural women themselves are obviously well positioned to assess the pace of progress on gender equality. Yvette Azane Ngwemetoh spoke yesterday on their behalf.

Originally from north-west Cameroon, the young woman just recently arrived in Italy to join her husband. She grew up in the countryside and worked on the family farm with her mother. Unlike many rural girls, she managed to complete her secondary education. She was unable attend university for financial reasons, however, and migrated to an urban centre, where she lived and worked for three years.

Ngwemetoh was soft-spoken but firm in her conviction that farming can and should be a viable livelihood for young women. Given access to machinery and modern technology, as well as adequate rural health and education facilities, she said she would welcome a career as an agricultural entrepreneur.

“The land has a lot to offer,” said Ngwemetoh. “You just have to improve on the land.”

Watch the recorded webcast: 
Part 1: Speakers
Part 2: Panel discussion
Part 3: Experiences from the field