Celebrating International Women’s Day 2017

To celebrate International Women's Day 2017 officials from the UN Rome-based agencies 
spoke about the importance of closing gender gaps in rural communities.

By Claire Ferry

The yellow mimosa was a badge of honour last week—sold on the streets, pinned onto lapels, attached to chocolates. Italy's iconic symbol of International Women's Day reminded us all of how much there is still be done before we reach gender equality. 

I was greeted with that same yellow flower as I walked into the Food and Agriculture Organization Headquarters (FAO), where the United Nations' Rome-based Agencies—FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP)—hosted a panel to mark the worldwide celebration. 

The opening session consisted of addresses by José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of FAO; Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of Climate and Natural Resources of FAO; Michel Mordasini, Vice-President of IFAD; and Amir Abdulla, Deputy Director of WFP. Following their remarks, a panel of four experts discussed the topic of "Women in the Changing World of Work." Evident throughout both sessions was this year's overall theme, "Step It Up Together with Rural Women to End Hunger and Poverty."

"The need to step up our work with rural women is urgent and vital," Vice-President Mordasini explained in his address. He called for a "deliberate and unambiguous focus" on improving the lives of rural women, outlining the many challenges they face in the workforce and at home. Mordasini made an important connection between gender equality and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

 "At IFAD, we have learned from our experience in the field that overcoming gender inequality is integral to transforming rural areas," he said. "We know that achieving sustainable agricultural development and resilience to global risks such as climate change or water scarcity would be 'mission impossible' without fully involving rural women, capitalizing on their knowledge, skills and engagement."

During International Women's Day, IFAD's Vice President called for a "deliberate and unambiguous focus"
on improving the lives of rural women, outlining the many challenges they face in the workforce and at home.

Mordasini's emphasis on women and their role in improving rural communities was echoed by the other speakers as well. As Abdulla stated in his address, "There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women."

The day's events focused on closing the gender gap in rural communities, but the messages still resonated with me.  As the experts rattled off statistics about rural women and relayed stories from the field, I found myself invested in the conversation as more than just a bystander—as a woman, I had a personal stake in this topic.

Kostas Stamoulis, Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Development Department of FAO, served as the moderator. In a welcome change from common practice, the panel was made up of four women.

Valeria Esquivel, Economist and Gender Specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO), first laid the groundwork of women's presence in the workforce. She explained that with 27% fewer chances to participate in the labour market, women are put at a disadvantage from the start.  

The ILO predicts the proportion of people working in agriculture will decrease only slightly by 2030, dipping from 31% to 28% for women and from 28% to 24% for men. This means targeting the gender gap in rural sectors, especially in agriculture, will remain key in reducing world hunger and poverty.

With the facts established, Marzia Fontana of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London took a closer look at the specifics of gender inequality within rural communities. She provided a list of numbers about the gender gap, but Fontana's main point was the many disadvantages rural women face, even within their own communities and households: older women might not have the education necessary to break through barriers;  mothers are obliged to sacrifice incoming-earning opportunities to take care of children and the elderly; and women rarely have access to land or resources. And women of all ages work from dawn till dusk and beyond, with a huge burden of labour that leaves them neither time nor energy to change their lives.

Wafaa El Khoury of the Policy and Technical Advisory Division at IFAD echoed the statements of the other panellists, especially the importance of addressing the multi-dimensional problems of gender equality. What struck me most, though, was her emphasis on involving men in the process. 

"They [men] will either be the gateway or the obstacle," she said. 

Gender gaps in the workforce, forced responsibilities as caretakers, inadequate leadership presence—these issues are not exclusive to rural women, and in that, we can find common ground. The message that comes through time and again, however, is that only by empowering rural women will we win the battle against poverty and hunger.

The final panellist, Enrica Porcari, Chief Information Officer and Director of IT at WFP, closed the discussion with a personal message to all the young women in the room. She told her story of finding unlikely success in the IT industry and explained how she defied the odds. Porcari listed learning the difference between confidence and competence, never compromising oneself and the importance of humility as her pillars of success. 

"Pave the road for others who want to break the [glass] ceiling," she encouraged.

The yellow mimosas are no longer pinned to lapels or sold on the streets, but Porcari's message still rings loudly. IFAD experts are attending the Commission on the Status of Women at the New York United Nations Headquarters from 13 to 24 March, together with representatives of UN Member States, civil society organizations and UN entities. The meeting will continue the discussion of women's economic empowerment in the changing world of work, with a particular focus on the challenges faced by indigenous women. 

One day a year is set aside to celebrate women, but the work towards gender equality is year-round.

"If we are seriously committed to this vision, then 'step it up' means to employ every possible resource at our disposal for the cause," Mordasini said. "It means devoting ourselves to this issue not only on International Women’s Day, but every day."

Young or old, rural or urban—no matter our differences, we all deserve an equal shot at self-fulfilment.