Unleashing Rural Women’s Potential Critical to Ending Global Poverty, Hunger, Speakers Say as Commission on Status of Women Opens Fifty-sixth Session

27 February 2012
WOM/1890

Unleashing Rural Women’s Potential Critical to Ending Global Poverty, Hunger, Speakers Say as Commission on Status of Women Opens Fifty-sixth Session

27 February 2012
Economic and Social Council
WOM/1890
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Commission on the Status of Women

Fifty-sixth Session

2nd & 3rd Meetings* (AM & PM)

Unleashing Rural Women’s Potential Critical to Ending Global Poverty, Hunger,

Speakers Say as Commission on Status of Women Opens Fifty-sixth Session

 

Keynote Speaker Highlights Disparities, Social Constraints,

As Deputy Secretary-General, Gender Entity Chief Participate in Discussion

Unleashing the potential of rural women — a quarter of the world’s population — was critical to ending global poverty and hunger, high-level speakers said today as the Commission on the Status of Women opened its fifty-sixth annual session.

“Empowering women is not just good for women, it is good for all of us,” Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), told the first meeting of the two-week session, which concludes on 16 March.

Focusing in particular on the issue of women’s participation in public life, she said it was crucial to women’s social and economic advancement.  That would also require the enactment and enforcement of laws, including trade and economic policies, that had gender equality as a priority aim, she said, noting that such wide-ranging reforms were under way in some countries, although progress remained slow and uneven.

Indeed, “none of us can afford to leave [rural women] out of decision-making”, she continued, emphasizing that incremental measures were not enough.  Structural, cultural and social barriers that prevented women from participating fully in public life must be removed, she said, adding that rural women should have the chance to participate in public life at all levels, from village councils to national forums.  From India to Costa Rica to Rwanda, women were gaining new rights and lobbying for their needs to be met, she pointed out, calling for the financing of agricultural and other programmes that made women’s equality a top priority.

Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro agreed, noting that while rural women and girls made up one fourth of the world’s population, “their contributions and priorities have been largely overlooked”.  Their economic empowerment must be accelerated, not least because it would have an immensely positive impact on development indicators across the spectrum of society.  “If rural women had equal access to productive resources, agricultural yields would rise and hunger would decline,” she said, pointing out that women nonetheless had only restricted access to land, finance, technology and other resources.

The Deputy Secretary-General reiterated that the international community must re-examine the financing of rural development, agriculture and climate-change mitigation and adaptation, to ensure that it prioritized women and girls.  In 2008 and 2009, only 3 per cent of official development assistance (ODA) designated for the agricultural sector had gone to programmes in which gender equality was a principal objective, she recalled.  “We must do better,” she emphasized in that regard.

Ann Tutwiler, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), delivered the keynote address, also on behalf of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), noting that the three Rome-based United Nations agencies were most directly responsible for achieving a world without hunger.  Citing the 2011 State of Food and Agriculture report, she said that if women had equal access to productive agricultural resources — land inputs, training, credit — their farm productivity would increase by 20 to 30 per cent, total national agricultural output would rise by 2.5 to 4.0 per cent and 100 million to 105 million fewer women would be hungry.  “Essentially, because rural women’s economic potential is squandered, 100 to 150 million people are still hungry and a significant share of agricultural production is missing,” she explained.

“We know what to do.  It’s time to do it.  We ask you to join us,” she said, stressing, however, that feeding a world population set to hit the 9 billion mark by 2050 meant acknowledging that it would not be enough to produce more food.  Indeed, FAO data suggested that even if the world produced 60 per cent more food, “we still could be faced with 320 million chronically undernourished people by 2050” unless poor people had a means to acquire affordable basic necessities and commodities.  Since growth in the agricultural sectors of developing countries was six times more likely to reduce poverty than growth in the industrial sectors, solving poverty and hunger problems meant that agricultural sectors — especially small farms and small- and medium-sized agricultural enterprises — must not only produce more food, but also generate employment.

“Neither of these goals can be achieved without women,” she continued, stressing that women played an important role in both food production and in small- and medium-sized enterprises.  They made up 46 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries; they were crucial decision-makers and managers all along the agricultural value chain; they were active economic agents who could unleash major advances in hunger eradication and development if they were able to participate equally in the agricultural economy.  Yet, the gender gap in assets, inputs and services imposed a cost not only on women, but also on agriculture sectors and the wider economies of the societies in which they lived and worked.

The gap in agricultural production and productivity existed not because rural women were incapable of farming, but because of the social constraints placed on them, she said.  In addition to earning less from informal employment, women spent a staggering amount of time carrying out non-paid tasks, she noted, citing African women who spent about 40 billion hours a year collecting water.  Due to such trends, women were also twice as likely to give birth to children who would be malnourished and uneducated, she warned.  It was against such a backdrop that the Rome-based agencies focused a significant portion of their work on rural communities, tackling the challenges surrounding hunger from different angles, she said.  “Together we have been working to ensure rural women are central agents in the fight against hunger.”

Miloš Koterec (Slovakia), President of the Economic and Social Council, said that in many respects, rural women faced the most significant challenges when it came to finding and holding productive and decent jobs that enabled them and their households to break out of poverty and contribute to sustainable and equitable national economic growth.  “Unleashing the potential of rural women will make a major contribution to ending poverty and hunger and achieving sustainable development,” he said, calling for comprehensive strategies that would help to address the many obstacles that rural women faced.

Elisabeth Atangana, Chair of the Pan-African Farmers Organization, in another keynote address, pointed to the effect that empowering women could have on society, noting that empowered rural women were able to use their savings to invest in microcredit enterprises, thereby making a deep and lasting impact.  When they had more income, they would be able to get more deeply involved in community projects and decision-making.  One way to help empower rural women would be to bring them together in cooperatives and collective organizations that would help them increase their production capacity, market their own outputs and negotiate partnerships.

However, even as they sought better access to markets and financing, rural women still suffered from discrimination at various levels and were unable to advance their social and economic status as entrepreneurs, she pointed out.  They needed access to medium-term credit, as well as greater access to markets and inputs, more technology, more professional development and other types of training.  Among other critical components, “win-win partnerships” with the private commercial sector were needed, she said, adding that international community must make use of the potential of rural women’s organizations.  “This is a way of ensuring that the work of rural women is actually taken into account and valued,” she said.  “We have to act, as women, together.”

A number of other speakers — representing United Nations agencies, regional groups, Member States, non-governmental organizations and other entities — also took the floor during the general discussion.  Algeria’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, expressed deep concern over the persistent gender-specific constraints that hampered rural women’s access to land, finance, information, extension services and technologies.  Empowering rural women depended on their ownership of land, access to all types of employment and income-generating activities, and access to education, public services and opportunities, among other things, he said, calling for the full and speedy implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, and for international organizations and developed countries to support national programmes for women.

Chile’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said labour legislation should focus on creating a social-protection floor based on access to decent work and tailored to rural women.  He also appealed to industrialized nations to keep their agricultural markets open, eliminate export subsidies and domestic support, lower their agricultural tariffs and provide differentiated and special treatment for goods and products from developing countries.  Noting that middle-income countries — a category encompassing nearly all Caribbean and Latin American States — still faced significant challenges in the area of gender equality and women’s empowerment, he requested UN Women and the wider United Nations system to provide them with the appropriate strategic support.

As several speakers described national gender-equality and women’s empowerment programmes, Gambia’s Vice-President and Minister for Women’s Affairs said her country had registered significant increases in the participation of women in politics.  Parliamentary bills on gender-based violence and sexual offences were being finalized for enactment, she said.  In 2011, thanks to their participation in a joint project of the Government, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the non-governmental organization TOSTAN, more than 100 communities had collectively made a declaration on abandoning female genital mutilation.

In the afternoon, the Commission held two parallel high-level round-table discussions, where ministers and other senior Government officials described specific national policies and programmes relating to rural women’s empowerment.  Led respectively by Marjon V. Kamara (Liberia), Commission Chair, and Carlos Enrique García González (El Salvador), Vice-Chair, the round tables heard about such wide-ranging national experiences as the “unique challenges and opportunities” that rural women faced in Canada’s remote northern areas, Pakistan’s successful cash-transfer programme and Sudan’s efforts to involve women in peacemaking processes.  Several ministers also described efforts to redefine long-standing national laws that had inhibited women’s access to financing or prohibited them from owning land.

Meanwhile, the Commission earlier elected Ana Marie Hernando (Philippines) and Filippo Cinti (Italy) as Vice-Chairs of its Bureau for the fifty-sixth and fifty-seventh sessions by acclamation.  Mr. Cinti was also designated Rapporteur.  They joined the previously elected Irina Velichko (Belarus) and Mr. García González (El Salvador).

The Commission also appointed the following as members of its Working Group on Communications on the Status of Women: Fatima Alfeine (Comoros); Gregory Lukuyantsev (Russian Federation); and Rubén Armando Escalante Hasbún (El Salvador).  They joined Li Xiaomei (China) and Noa Furman (Israel).

The Commission also adopted the provisional agenda for the session (document E/CN.6/2012/1), and heard Sylvia Pimentel, Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, present that body’s report.

Also participating in the general discussion were Government ministers from Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group), Denmark (on behalf of the European Union), Argentina (on behalf of the Southern Common Market), Samoa (on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum), Angola (on behalf of the Southern African Development Community), Swaziland and France.

The Commission on the Status of Women will reconvene at 10 a.m. 28 February, to hold a panel discussion on “Economic empowerment of rural women”.

Background

The fifty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women opened this morning with discussions around its priority theme — the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, sustainable development and current challenges.  For more information, see Press Release WOM/1889 of 24 February.

Opening Remarks

MARJON V. KAMARA (Liberia), Chair of the fifty-sixth session, said it was for good reason that the body’s annual sessions were “must attend” events for the global gender-equality community.  As the Commission addressed its priority theme, it would examine the many contributions of rural women to the economy and their communities, and the challenges they faced.  The subsequent outputs should feed into other intergovernmental processes, such as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”), to deliver on international commitments to advance the rights of women and girls in all spheres of human endeavour.

She went on to say that several key premises must guide the Commission’s work, one being that the normative work on gender equality was not yet complete, as contexts changed and required fresh responses, and as new challenges emerged and created opportunities for progress.  A second key premise was the Commission’s strong emphasis on bridging the gap between commitments made at the global level and their accelerated implementation at the national level.  Finally, the Commission must operate on the premise that gender-equality efforts were not the responsibility of women, or of any particular group of stakeholders, but that of Governments, civil society, grass-roots organizations, the private sector as well as men, women, girls and boys everywhere.

MILOŠ KOTEREC (Slovakia), President, Economic and Social Council, said that, as the key United Nations forum for discussing global socio-economic development issues and shaping international policy frameworks in those areas, the Council benefited greatly from the contributions of all its functional commissions.  The Women’s Commission had a key role to play in monitoring implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and as a forum for building consensus and reaching agreement on new measures and further actions to be taken by Governments and other stakeholders.  It also acted as a catalyst for the mainstreaming of gender perspectives into the work of the United Nations and its intergovernmental processes, including the Economic and Social Council.

Since 2007, the Council had been convening Annual Ministerial Reviews to assess progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, as well as other international commitments, he said.  The 2010 Review had focused on implementation of the internationally agreed goals on gender equality and women’s empowerment, and the Council’s resulting Ministerial Declaration recognized, in particular, the persistence of the gaps in achieving gender goals.  As such, the Council had agreed on a series of strategies to help close implementation gaps across all areas, he said, adding that there would be further opportunities this year to demonstrate the strong synergies between the Commission’s work and that of the Council.

He said the Commission’s focus on the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges was highly relevant to the focus of the Council’s 2012 Ministerial Review, on “promoting productive capacity, employment and decent work to eradicate poverty in the context of inclusive, sustainable and equitable economic growth at all levels for achieving the [Millennium Development Goals]”.  In many respects, rural women faced the most significant challenges when it came to finding and holding productive and decent jobs that would enable them and their households to break out of poverty and contribute to sustainable and equitable national economic growth.  “Rural women constitute one fourth of the world’s population,” he said, pointing out that they were farmers, traders and entrepreneurs, as well as construction workers and health-care providers.  All those roles were essential to the economic fabric of the societies in which they lived, as was their unpaid domestic and care-related work.

“Unleashing the potential of rural women will make a major contribution to ending poverty and hunger and achieving sustainable development,” he continued, emphasizing that it was critical that their contributions be recognized and their voices heard in decision-making processes at all levels of government and within rural civil society organizations.  Participatory approaches, stakeholder consultations and support for rural and women’s organizations could help ensure that rural women’s priorities were reflected in macroeconomic policies and rural development and agricultural programmes.  “The empowerment of rural women demands comprehensive strategies that address the many obstacles they face,” he stressed, adding that policymakers must therefore adopt a systematic approach to the empowerment of rural women and ensure that the broader policy environment was responsive to the rights and needs of rural women and girls.

ASHA-ROSE MIGIRO, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, recalled the emphasis that the Secretary-General had placed on gender equality throughout his tenure, stressing: “The theme of this year’s Commission could not be more appropriate.”  While rural women and girls made up one fourth of the world’s population, “their contributions and priorities have been largely overlooked”, she said, noting that rural women had been hit hard by the economic and financial crisis, volatile food prices and the impacts of climate change.  It was therefore necessary to focus greater attention on protecting and empowering them, she emphasized.  “Unleashing their potential will make a major contribution to ending poverty and hunger, and achieving sustainable development.”

Detailing four key ways in which that potential could be tapped, she said the international community must first recognize rural women as key agents of change, including through participatory approaches, stakeholder consultations and support for rural and women’s organizations, as well as temporary measures such as quotas and benchmarks.  Second, their economic empowerment must be accelerated.  “If rural women had equal access to productive resources, agricultural yields would rise and hunger would decline,” she added, noting, nonetheless, that women faced restricted access to land, finance, technology and other resources.

Third, she continued, the international community must re-examine financing for rural development, agriculture as well as climate-change mitigation and adaptation, to ensure that it prioritized women and girls.  In 2008 and 2009, only 3 per cent of official development assistance (ODA) designated for the agricultural sector had gone to programmes in which gender equality was a principal objective, she noted.  “We must do better,” she stressed before going on to make her fourth point: stakeholders should acknowledge that ad-hoc interventions were insufficient, and the broader policy environment must be responsive to the rights and needs of rural women and girls, rather than sporadic and limited.

MICHELLE BACHELET, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), introduced some of the many topics to be considered during the session, noting that the situation of rural women was a matter of human rights, equality and justice for all.  “Listening to and supporting rural women is fundamental to ending poverty and hunger, and establishing peace and security that is sustainable,” she added.  “Empowering women is not just good for women; it is good for all of us.”

The “Arab Spring” uprisings and other recent movements had illustrated the need to reduce inequality across the board, she continued.  “Every human being should be able to shape their own future,” she said, adding that realizing that goal required unleashing the potential of women across the globe.  Indeed, “none of us can afford to leave [rural women] out of decision-making”, she said, pointing out that incremental measures were not enough.  Increasing women’s participation required the creation and enforcement of laws, including trade and economic policies.  While such reforms were under way in some countries, progress remained slow and uneven.  The structural, cultural and social barriers preventing women from participating fully in public life must be removed, she emphasized, adding that financing for agricultural and other programmes should reflect the goal of women’s equality as a priority.

This year, UN Women would use its global voice to expand opportunities for women and work towards the empowerment of rural women around the world, she said.  Rural women should participate in public life at all levels, from village councils to national forums.  Pointing to examples around the globe, from India to Costa Rica to Rwanda, where women were gaining new rights and lobbying for their needs to be met, she said the United Nations “must lead by example”, and called for gender parity at all levels of the Organization.  She also called for increased land rights for women, as well as greater access to resources, technology, transportation, health care and other services.  Reducing the heavy burden of rural women with regard to unpaid work was also essential, she said, noting that social protection and social services were both important in empowering women and promoting economic growth.

Full use must be made of existing treaties and agreements, she said, citing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Beijing Platform for Action.  Greater progress must also be made towards ending violence and discrimination against women and girls.  Finally, she announced that, on the eve of the June Rio+20 Summit, UN Women and the Government of Brazil would co-host a high-level meeting on the role of women in sustainable development.  While warning that achieving a new and better future would take time, she reiterated, however, that it could be accomplished through the collective efforts of all stakeholders.  “Let us never forget that this dream is possible.”

SYLVIA PIMENTEL, Chair, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, introduced that Geneva-based body’s annual report on monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Highlighting the Committee’s main activities during its forty-ninth and fiftieth sessions, she recalled that it had held its first session in 1982 and would be celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in New York at its fifty-second session.

Regarding the Committee’s work, she said that through its constructive dialogue with States parties, progress had been made towards the realization of women’s human rights.  At the same time, much work remained to be done.  Full equality for women, in law and in practice, had not been achieved worldwide, and women continued to suffer “profound and pervasive” human rights violations.  Moreover, in some parts of the world, recent developments had raised concerns that achievements made over the years were now under threat, she noted.

In response to the transitions in North Africa, the Committee had addressed letters to the Governments of Egypt and Tunisia, she said, adding that it was preparing one for the Government of Libya to highlight the importance of women’s participation in the democratization process at all levels of decision-making.  Not only was that essential for their empowerment, but also for the advancement of society as a whole, she stressed.  She also took the opportunity to express the Committee’s ongoing concerns about the situation of human rights, including women’s rights, in Syria.

Keynote Addresses

ANN TUTWILER, Deputy Director-General, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), spoke also on behalf of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), noting that the three Rome-based United Nations agencies were most directly responsible for achieving a world without hunger.  The 2011 State of Food and Agriculture reporthad revealed that if women were given equal access to productive agricultural resources — land inputs, training, credit — their farm productivity would increase by 20 to 30 per cent, total national agricultural output would rise by 2.5 to 4.0 per cent and 100 million to 105 million fewer women would be hungry.

“Essentially, because rural women’s economic potential is squandered, 100 to 150 million people are still hungry and a significant share of agricultural production is missing,” she explained.  The Rome-based agencies believed the international community could make a significant contribution to eradicating hunger and poverty by working together to realize rural women’s economic potential.  “We know what to do.  It’s time to do it.  We ask you to join us,” she said, stressing, however, that feeding a world population set to hit the 9 billion mark by 2050 meant acknowledging that it would not be enough to produce more food.  Indeed, FAO data suggested that even if the world produced 60 per cent more food, “we still could be faced with 320 million chronically undernourished people by 2050” unless poor people had a means to acquire affordable basic necessities and commodities.

Everyone knew that most of the world’s poor people lived in rural areas and most of the world’s poor were small farmers, she said.  It was also known that 92 per cent of the world’s hunger was not due to emergencies, but to poverty.  Since growth in the agricultural sectors of developing countries was six times more likely to reduce poverty than growth in the industrial sectors, solving the poverty and hunger problems meant that agricultural sectors — especially small farms and small- and medium-sized agricultural enterprises — must not only produce more food, but must also generate employment.

“Neither of these goals can be achieved without women,” she continued, stressing that women played an important role in both food production and in small and medium enterprises.  They made up 46 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries; they were crucial decision-makers and managers all along the agricultural value chain; they were active economic agents who could unleash major advances in hunger eradication and development if they were able to participate equally in the agricultural economy.  Yet, the gender gap in assets, inputs and services imposed a cost not only on women, but also on agriculture sectors and the wider economies of the societies in which they lived and worked.

She said the gap in agricultural production and productivity existed not because rural women were incapable of farming, but because of social constraints placed on them.  Indeed, female farmers produced less than their male counterparts because they lacked access to seeds and credit.  In addition to earning less from informal employment, women spent a staggering amount of time carrying out non-paid tasks, she noted, citing African women who spent about 40 billion hours a year collecting water.  Such trends not only affected women and the communities in which they lived, but they were also twice as likely to give birth to children who would be that malnourished and uneducated, she warned.

Against such a backdrop, the Rome-based agencies focused a significant portion of their work on rural communities, tackling the challenges surrounding hunger from different angles, she said.  For instance, FAO promoted knowledge generation and policy, IFAD promoted rural investment programmes and WFP provided food and nutrition assistance, emergency response and safety nets.  “Together, we have been working to ensure rural women are central agents in the fight against hunger,” she said, adding that the agencies were also providing operational support and capacity development to accompany a range of policy and research analysis.

She went on to say that the pervasive and entrenched disparities between men and women required efforts on multiple fronts, including through the promotion of better designed policies and programmes with more accurate data.  Those disparities could also be addressed by ensuring that women had full economic rights to buy, own, sell or inherit land; open bank accounts, borrow money, sign contracts, set up businesses and sell produce.  Women and girls must have the same access to training, education and information, and extension services as men, she said, emphasizing that rural women in particular needed access to essential public services, infrastructure and improved technology to free up their time and enhance their productivity.

Simple investments in water pumps could save women billions of hours a year, and with more time available, they could engage in better remunerated or more rewarding activities, she continued.  Rural women also needed to develop their capacity to participate actively in decision-making processes affecting their individual and collective lives and livelihoods.  “We need to make investments in well-targeted safety nets for the most vulnerable women and girls that promote health care, education and school feeding,” she said, stressing that scaling up investments in the nutrition of women and girls would break the generational cycle of malnourishment and was essential to their economic empowerment.  Unleashing the abilities of rural women would increase agricultural productivity, increase national outputs and bolster rural and farm communities.

ELISABETH ATANGANA, Chair of the Pan-African Farmers Organization, said the network comprised largely of rural women’s organizations, which played a crucial part in pursuing gender equality, sustainability, food security and other goals.  Since women were crucial to rural economies, their organizations were increasingly engaged in advocating for women’s empowerment and their involvement in decision-making, she said.  Among other ways, that goal could be accomplished by bringing women together in cooperatives and collective organizations that could increase their production capacity and help them market their own outputs and negotiate partnerships.  When empowered, women would be able to use their savings to invest in microcredit enterprises in their communities, making a deep and lasting impact, and when they had more income, they would also be able to be more involved in community projects and decision-making.

She said that her organization sought to promote women’s participation in decision-making at the national, regional and international level.  It sought strategies to mobilize resources to promote their empowerment.  Moreover, while rural women themselves had sought better access to financing, they still suffered from discrimination at various levels.  They were not able to advance their social and economic status as entrepreneurs.  They needed access to credit over the medium term, as well as greater access to markets and inputs.  None of that, however, could be accomplished by local women’s groups on their own, she cautioned, calling for support from institutional partnerships.  There should also be greater investment in agriculture, with a target of 10 per cent of investment, as per the commitments made in Maputo in 2003.  Rural women also needed greater access to technology, professional development and other types of training.  “This is a way of ensuring that the work of rural women is actually taken into account and valued,” she said, emphasizing: “We have to act, as women, together.”

General Discussion

MOURAD BENMEHIDI (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, welcomed the session’s priority theme on rural women and their role in eradicating poverty and hunger for providing an opportunity to “focus on this large segment of the population”, whose empowerment would have a major impact on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and other international targets.  The Group of 77 was deeply concerned that rural women and girls still faced gender-specific constraints that hampered their access to land, finance, information, extension services and technologies.  The empowerment of rural women depended on, among other things, ownership of land, access to all types of employment- and income-generating activities, access to education and public services, opportunities to participate in public life and the design of relevant policies and programmes.

With that in mind, he said, the Group of 77 urged the speedy and full implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome of the General Assembly’s twenty-third special session, known as “Women 2000”.  Implementation would go a long way towards overcoming such challenges as poverty, gender-based violence, the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as widespread unemployment and the lack of access to health and education services.  “We also recognize the need to expand and coordinate all necessary actions to address these important issues at the national and international levels, and we call on international organizations and developed countries to support national programmes for women,” he said.

Alongside with persistent obstacles, new threats were emerging, he warned, while stressing the importance of adopting appropriate measures to identify and address the ongoing negative impacts of the global economic and financial crisis, including food and energy shortages and price fluctuations, and the challenges posed by climate change.  He also called for more efforts to address the situation of women and girls with disabilities, and for the designing of “stimulus packages” that would ensure gender-sensitive budgeting.  The Group of 77 and China believed that all national activities must be supported by international efforts to create an environment where all States could meet their commitments under the Beijing Platform for Action, he said.

SIHEM BADI, Minister for Women and Family Affairs of Tunisia, spoke on behalf of the African Group and associated herself with the Group of 77 and China.  She said the African Group recognized the important role of rural women in food security and combating poverty, she said.  In line with the Beijing Platform and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, African Heads of States had adopted 2010‑2020 as the African Women’s Decade, so as to accelerate commitments to improve the lives of rural women.  Ten themes had been adopted as priority themes for the Decade, including agriculture and food security, HIV/AIDS education, sustainable development, peace and security.

In 2011, the African Union had also adopted a decision requesting a General Assembly resolution on ending the practice of female genital mutilation, she said.  The Union had also put in place a practical methodology and governance structures for the Decade, she said.  Africa had registered some progress in improving school enrolment for girls and the availability of health-care services, and increasing the participation of women in the economy and in governance structures.  However, as food prices rose around the globe, challenges already facing women were compounded, she said, pointing out that the economic and financial crisis had had a further disproportionate impact on women and girls, who were already struggling to survive.  The situation could not be improved except by providing the necessary resources, she stressed.

MANU SAREEN, Minister for Gender Equality of Denmark, spoke on behalf of the European Union, saying that women had the right to be equal members of society and part of their countries’ futures.  Further, the success of their countries was dependent on ensuring their equal role and right to participate in political and economic decision-making, as well s in social, civil and cultural life.  “Gender does not matter when striving for political change, nor should it be an excluding factor in the political processes that follow,” he said.  The European Union called for ensuring the rights of women in constitutional reforms and in the new political structures of countries that had recently undergone political transition.

Even though women’s rights were fundamental rights, women and girls continued to face discrimination, he said.  Rural women were at a particular disadvantage and, as such, policies and programmes must aim to eliminate the multiple discrimination and other challenges they faced.  Such policies must also address the needs of women and girls with disabilities, since some 70 per cent of them lived in rural areas.  Gender equality was vital to economic and social cohesion as well as sustainable development, and mobilizing the full potential of women was essential to fighting poverty and hunger.  Building the capacities and potential of rural women was perhaps even more necessary since they comprised the backbone of community-level and national food and nutrition security in many countries, he noted.

Empowering rural women had been shown to increase production and productivity, raise household incomes and facilitate adaptation to the impacts of climate change, he said.  Speaking more broadly, he said all Governments must act to end policies that hampered women’s ability to sell, own and work land.  The aim must be to promote gender equality at all levels, and the European Union was helping its partner countries ensure that their education systems had access to and maintained adequate gender-disaggregated information on students, as well as teachers and administrative staff.  The European Union was also helping its partners to implement effective, targeted programmes to address women’s equality in access at all levels of education, as well as the elimination of gender stereotypes in vocational training and career choice, as a vital step towards tackling inequality.

OCTAVIO ERRÁZURIZ (Chile), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said the group was convinced that the social and economic development of its member countries and the achievement of full democracy would be possible only in conditions of genuine equality between men and women.  Recalling that UN Women had marked its first anniversary on 1 January 2012, he stressed that resources for its important work should not be reduced due to macroeconomic considerations.  He noted that middle-income countries — a category encompassing nearly all CELAC member States — still faced significant challenges in the area of gender equality and women’s empowerment, and requested the United Nations system, particularly UN Women, to provide those countries with the appropriate strategic support.

Listing some of the many challenges facing women around the world — including violence, trafficking in women and girls, and the feminization of HIV/AIDS among others — he appealed for enhanced international dialogue, consensus and cooperation, including regional, North-South and triangular cooperation, for the identification and implementation of additional actions to meet the needs of women and girls.  CELAC was committed to the Brasilia Consensus adopted at the eleventh session of the Regional Conference on Women of Latin America and the Caribbean, which called for greater economic empowerment of women and equality at work, among other goals.  He announced, in that context, that the Dominican Republic had offered to host the upcoming twelfth session of the Regional Conference.

Noting that women accounted for 20 per cent of the agricultural workforce in Latin America, he called for mechanisms to ensure the recognition of their contributions, as well as for effective public policies to prevent discrimination.  Women must be guaranteed equal access to and control over productive agricultural assets, including land, production, distribution and marketing, he stressed.  Labour legislation should focus on creating a social protection floor based on access to decent work and tailored to benefit rural women.  CELAC also appealed to industrialized nations to keep their agricultural markets open, eliminate subsidies for exports and domestic support, lower agricultural tariffs, and ensure special and differentiated treatment for goods from developing countries.  The CELAC States were ready to respond to the challenges facing rural women both “quantitatively and qualitatively”, he said.

GLORIA BENDER, International Special Representative on Women’s Issues, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Argentina, spoke on behalf of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), saying that the commitments set at Beijing provided a fundamental starting point for ensuring women’s rights by South America’s Governments, but also towards the promotion of civil society actors in that regard.

MERCOSUR’s specialized women’s forum had become one of the region’s principle arenas for debating socio-economic issues, she said, stressing the growing importance of that in the face of ongoing global financial uncertainty.  Equal access to resources, land and credit would bolster women’s ability to participate at all levels, and it was fundamentally important that central Governments and local authorities ensure support for women’s groups, particularly in terms of increasing their voice and visibility.

She emphasized that all efforts must aim to strengthen measures towards attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, including in areas such as labour and political participation, which were a top priority for MERCOSUR, as were the issues of violence against women and human trafficking.  On other issues, she urged all Member States to ensure that UN Women was able to fulfil its potential.  The central role of rural women must be guaranteed, including through the incorporation of their perspective into political agendas at all levels.

TOLOFUAVALELEI FALEMOE LEIATAU (Samoa), speaking on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum, said the region faced persistent issues such as gender-based violence, low proportions of women in decision-making at all levels, their underrepresentation in the formal economy and the unaddressed gender dimensions of natural disasters, climate change, food insecurity and access to clean water and sanitation.  Noting that Pacific island society was highly rural, he said women were most active in the rural economy, primarily the informal sector.  Agriculture and fisheries were the backbone of rural Pacific economies, and technical support as well as increased capacity would be needed if they were to play a key role in rural development.

In that context, he listed several initiatives undertaken to date with the aim of improving the situation of women in the Pacific region, including a specialized gender studies course to be offered at the University of the South Pacific in 2012.  Despite such initiatives, however, women, particularly those in rural areas, had become increasingly vulnerable to the effects of poverty, he said.  Their heavy responsibilities, associated with farming and in-shore fisheries, coupled with the increasing prevalence of female-headed households due to the rapid urbanization of rural men, were just some of the current challenges.  In response, Governments had launched a number of national initiatives in support of rural women in economic development, he said, adding that microfinance schemes and training in rural areas were important features of such plans.  However, Government machineries for gender equality and women’s empowerment were undermined by lack of capacity, commitment and resources, he said.

GENOVEVA DA CONCEIÇÃO LINO, Minister for Family and the Promotion of Women of Angola, spoke on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in reaffirming the Beijing commitments, the anti-discrimination Convention and the ILO conventions, among other agreements and instruments, as providing clear frameworks for the empowerment of women and the achievement of gender equality.  Southern Africa, like other parts of the world, was still grappling with the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS, identified as a critical problem for rural development, especially for rural women and girls, she said.

In that context, SADC would once again present to the Commission its resolution on “women, the girl child and HIV and AIDS”, she said.  Among other priorities, it would urge all measures to reduce gender-based violence and ensure a 50 per cent drop in new HIV infections by 2015.  It would also call for men and boys to become more engaged in scaling up voluntary counselling, male circumcision and HIV testing.  That would encourage them to become more involved in all initiatives aimed at “keeping mothers alive” and eradicating all HIV-related stigma and discrimination, she said, reiterating SADC’s belief in the importance of integrating rural women’s priorities into all strategies for combating HIV/AIDS.

She went on to say that the SADC member States had put laws and policies in place to help facilitate the right to ownership, access and control over productive resources by the subregion’s women.  There was nevertheless an urgent need to promote and protect women’s equal rights to property and inheritance through legislation, as well as the promotion of legal literacy and legal assistance to rural women.  It was also important to develop targeted programmes to provide women with capital, knowledge and the tools that would enhance their economic capacities.  “As a region, we place great importance on women’s full participation in decision-making,” she said.  That was especially true for rural women, who must be provided with the resources and tools to improve their lives, livelihoods and communities.

ISATOU NJIE-SAIDY, Vice-President and Minister for Women’s Affairs of the Gambia, said the priority theme was apt and timely as the clock ticked closer to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals deadline year.  The Gambia recognized gender equality, equity and the empowerment of women as an important prerequisite for sustainable development and progress, and had made significant advances in that respect, she said.  It had established the National Women’s Council, the Women’s Bureau and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in addition to having created the National Gender and Women Empowerment Policy 2010-2020, she said, adding that the Constitution paid special attention to gender-equality issues and women’s rights.

She said women made up about 65 per cent of the agricultural labour force, and more than 89 per cent of them lived in rural areas.  The Government had developed several policies and strategies to improve agricultural production, especially in support of rural women and to empower them to increase their level and quality of production.  Significant increases in women’s political participation had been registered, she said, adding that parliamentary bills on gender-based violence and sexual offenses were being finalized for enactment.  In 2011, thanks to their participation in a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) project, in conjunction with the non-governmental organization TOSTAN and the Government, more than 100 communities had collectively made a declaration on abandoning female genital mutilation, she said.

THEMBA MASUKU, Deputy Prime Minister of Swaziland, said his Government was working tirelessly to improve the lives and livelihoods of all its citizens living in rural areas, especially women.  Swaziland’s leadership, including the Queen Mother, passionately supported development for rural women, including through the promotion of entrepreneurship and, in the very near future, the launching of a women’s bank, which would be the first of its kind in the country.

He said the Government had also undertaken to ensure “even and balanced” development in all areas of the country, adding that its policies ensured that basic services were made available in rural and urban communities.  Local and rural communities were encouraged to form committees with a view to increasing their voices in the wider decision-making process.  Finally, he said that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister oversaw the work of both the Department of Social Welfare and that of Gender and Family Issues.  Women comprised 75 per cent of the senior management staff, while the Family Affairs Ministry was made up of “100 per cent women”.

ROSELYNE BACHELOT-NARQUIN, Minister for Solidarity and Social Cohesion of France, endorsed fully the statement delivered on behalf of the European Union.  She noted that while women around the world owned only 2 per cent of the land, they represented the majority of the poor.  “The figures tell the tale,” she said.  Rejecting all “cultural relativism”, she stressed that it was the right of every woman to control her own fertility.  France, for its part, was encouraging women in agricultural ventures, developing women’s networks and educating them about their rights, while instituting innovative public policies and combating violence against women, among other priority goals.

Additionally, France was committed to changing the portrayal of women in media and had instituted a policy aimed at punishing enterprises that did not respect gender equality, she said, describing the measure as the only one of its kind in Europe.  “Women’s rights are universal and are valid throughout time,” she said, adding that diplomatic tactics must not threaten those rights.  France would participate actively in the Commission’s work, particularly in support of women in conflict around the world.  In that regard, she cited the case of Syria, saying that women there must be involved in the peace process and in the transition towards democracy.

Round Table A

Ms. KAMARA ( Liberia), Commission Chair, chaired one of two high-level round-table discussions on the priority theme, “the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenge”.  During this morning’s opening plenary, she recalled, senior Government and United Nations officials had highlighted the timeliness of the topic, and drawn attention to the critical role that rural women played in their communities and national economies.  “There can be no doubt that rural women are key agents of change,” she said, stressing that their leadership and participation were needed to shape responses to development challenges and recent crises.

“Ad hoc interventions are not enough; the broader policy environment must be responsive to the rights and needs of rural women and girls,” she continued, adding that action on financing for rural development, agriculture and climate change should prioritize rural women and girls.  However, their participation in federal and local government, as well as in rural community organizations, remained limited.  They lacked access to productive resources such as land, agricultural inputs, finance and credit, technology and extension services, which in turn limited their agricultural output.  In light of such hindrances, strong action and accountability were needed regarding the rights, opportunities and participation of rural women, she said.

When delegations took the floor, many high-level participants from African countries stressed not only the diverse nature of rural populations, but also the importance of stepping up efforts to improve rural women’s access to land and to enhance their rights to inherit, own and designate uses for it.  What was required was the constitutional entrenchment of their basic rights and for equal property-ownership rights to be set out clearly in the laws.  Many speakers also called for improved inheritance laws and for the strengthening of the institutions and mechanisms responsible for implementing land legislation.

A senior Government official from Norway said that improving the situation of rural women — so vital to many national bottom lines — required the dedicated efforts of brave, innovative politicians working to ensure that they were able to enhance their capacities and mobilize their potential.  Bold, targeted policies and programmes were of key importance to such efforts.  She was also among speakers who stressed the importance of the upcoming “Rio+20” Conference, which, while not a women’s conference as such, would be a critical forum in which to shine the spotlight on the role of rural women in agriculture, and on how enhancing that role could have a positive impact on sustainable development.

Among those providing examples of national measures aimed at bolstering the situation of rural women was a minister from Canada, who recounted the “very unique” landscape-related challenges and “extraordinary opportunities” faced by rural women in the remote and northern areas.  She said rural women made up about 40 per cent of the labour force in remote regions, but suffered significant disparities in income, opportunities and access to services.  That situation was particularly acute for aboriginal women, so the Government was working to improve their access to the quality of the services available for rural women and girls, she said, adding that those efforts aimed to address their unique needs, including by reducing violence and increasing economic security.

“Rural women are actually time-poor,” said a senior official from Mexico, noting that when one considered the volume of work that rural women did from sunrise to sunset, and the multiple roles they filled within their communities, “what they really need is more time”.  As such, the international community must identify ways by which to help rural women deal with the real obstacles that kept them from pursing their own goals and improving the lives of their families.  Indeed, not all women wished to be entrepreneurs, so while microcredit schemes could alleviate some challenges, they might not be a good fit for all the women in a particular community, she said.  In such cases, it might be more important to improve rural infrastructure and transportation, for instance, so that women might devote more time to remunerated activities.

SHEILA SISULU, Deputy Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), wrapped up the discussion, observing that the “rich” conversation had revealed several themes, including that empowering rural women was a prerequisite for sustainable development.  Many speakers had stressed that change must be anchored in legislation, particularly land-rights laws, and in increasing women’s participation in decision-making.  Information sharing and South-South cooperation had also been highlighted, and calls had been raised for improved gender budgeting at both the national level and in ODA terms, she said, noting that several speakers had also raised the perennial challenge of eradicating violence against women.

However, one issue that had not been raised was the need to address the nutritional situation of rural women, she pointed out.  “This issue is critical,” she stressed, pointing out that the children of malnourished women were often likely to suffer malnutrition themselves.  Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women, she urged Governments and all other stakeholders to ensure that rural women and girls remained high on their agendas.  Statistics showed that they lagged behind in almost every sector, she said, citing huge disparities between rural women and urban women in education, training and access to basic services.  The Network called on all Governments and other stakeholders to ensure that the post-2015 development framework included gender-responsive indicators.

Also participating in the discussion were ministers and senior Government officials from Brazil, Luxemburg, Denmark, Mongolia, Germany, Portugal, Egypt, South Africa, Cuba, China, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Ukraine, Georgia, Zambia, India, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran and the United States.  A representative of the Dominican Republic also addressed the Commission, as did the Head of the European Union delegation.

Round Table B

During the second of the parallel round-table discussion held this afternoon, high-level Government representatives echoed the expressions of support for rural women’s social and economic empowerment that had resounded throughout the day.

CARLOS ENRIQUE GARCÍA GONZÁLEZ (El Salvador), Commission Vice-Chair, opened the discussion by stating that the broader policy environment must become more responsive to the needs of women and girls around the world.  Yet, the participation and leadership of rural women in decision-making processes at all levels remained limited.  They enjoyed only little access to productive resources, which restricted their agricultural output, he noted, adding that, due to social norms, they also faced greater challenges in accessing employment and basic social services.  Strong actions and greater accountability were needed to advance the rights of rural women, he emphasized.  He called on the round table to focus on experiences in leveraging rural women’s leadership and participation at all levels of decision-making, in both public and other rural institutions.

A Government minister from Tunisia said her country was now a better place for women socially, economically and politically.  Rural women had seen some improvements in access to basic services and financing, and there were programmes to address illiteracy.  She called for more surveys and data collection, noting that the previous regime had not collected enough data.  There was still insufficient participation by women in making decisions and policy, she said, adding that programmes to increase their participation would be in place later in the year.

Among the many national policies and plans of action outlined, was one presented by a minister from Pakistan, who said his country had launched a cash-transfer programme for women in the amount of $12 per month.  Access to basic services and education stipends for girls was also more widely available, she said.  Financial and technical services were provided through a rural support programme and aimed at helping women produce more food and reduce hunger in their families.  Women had access to loans and other empowerment actions.

A minister from Nicaragua said her Government had launched capacity-building and training programmes targeted at rural women with the aim of countering illiteracy, noting that education programmes had been particularly effective.

A senior official from Sudan said the Government was implementing cattle-raising programmes relating to empower rural women as part of a comprehensive project to improve their lives.  It entailed reducing maternal mortality rates, involving women in the peacemaking process, microfinance, as well as new ownership and training opportunities that allowed women to learn productive work, she said.  All recent projects were inclusive in nature, meaning that rural women had contributed to programmes that they wished to see implemented.  In addition, the Government was working to eliminate laws that hampered women’s access to bank loans, she said, adding that it was also tackling local traditions that prevented women from being competitive in business.

A senior official from Slovenia said the Government had adopted a number of initiatives aimed at gender mainstreaming, as well as measures intended to narrow the gaps between men and women when applying for financial assistance in the rural areas.  Activities ranged from training seminars to the improvement of women’s quality of life — in particular their physical health and well-being — to programmes aimed at preventing violence against women.

Meanwhile, a senior official from Thailand said the Government had redefined long-standing laws that once limited women’s economic and social empowerment.  The Government now worked to promote women’s involvement in decision-making, as well as the sharing of responsibilities between women and men.  For too long, women had lacked sufficient time for rest and leisure, she said, noting that only men had previously enjoyed such consideration.

A minister from the United Republic of Tanzania said the Government had revised national land laws, enabling women to own land on an equal footing with men.  Awareness-raising programmes were in place to provide education on the new laws, and credits had been provided to women through revolving funds.  The Tanzanian Women’s Bank had been established with a focus on helping women make the best use of their resources, she added.

Similarly, a minister from Kenya said the Youth Enterprise Fund and the Women’s Enterprise Fund helped women, young people and those from agricultural backgrounds to access commercial loans and cash transfers had been put in place for the most vulnerable.  Since August 2010, new measures aimed at the holistic empowerment of women had been enacted.  New legislation also mandated that no gender could hold more than a two-thirds majority in appointed bodies.  It was an exciting time for Kenyan women, as they were also able to gain access to more education than ever before, she said.

Still other speakers argued that a stronger overall gender perspective, rather than short-term solutions, should be the main focus of poverty eradication programmes.  In that regard, a minister from the Philippines discussed the insufficiency of many cash-transfer programmes in effectively countering poverty in the long term.  A true gender lens was needed in such investments, she stressed, noting that one of the big challenges before the Commission was finding ways to impress the urgency of the gender dimension upon private corporations.

Some speakers also addressed the most fundamental aspects of women’s empowerment and gender equality, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.  Highlighting the human rights dimension of the issue, a minister from France said women should take part in regional rural organizations, through labour unions or other assemblies.  They could be assisted by non-governmental and other organizations in other parts of the world, she added.

Women were also at the heart of the critical issue of food security, speakers noted.  A minister from C ôte d’Ivoire said rural women had largely been responsible for preventing the country from slipping into a food-insecurity crisis during the recent months of conflict.  Many Ivorian women, in both urban and rural areas, had been widowed in the conflict and had become heads of their respective families, which meant they were now solely responsible for the managing the family’s resources and overall well-being.

LAKSHMI PURI, Assistant Secretary-General ofUN Women, presented a message to the Commission’s fifty-sixth session from the Inter-Agency Network of Women and Gender Equality.

Also speaking throughout the dialogue were ministers and senior Government officials from Bangladesh, Republic of Korea, Finland, Swaziland, Italy, Niger, Guatemala, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Spain, Japan, Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, New Zealand, Colombia, Uruguay and El Salvador.

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*     The 1st Meeting was covered in Press Release WOM/1859 of 14 March 2011.

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.