UN Women, WFP, IFAD and FAO Partnership Launch Initiative to Economically Empower Rural Women

On Thursday, September 27th, 2012 I was privileged to attend the launch luncheon of a new partnership between UN Women, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This new partnership will focus on economically empowering rural female women. I specifically requested to attend this partnership launch because I have never personally worked on an initiative focusing on rural women, although I did do some research on human rights issues that rural women in China face. I am from a big city, and I have only lived in big cities. I knew that rural women around the world face many issues, and I wanted to learn about how new initiatives going forward would economically empower them.

When you get down to it, rural women are the most vulnerable group of individuals in the world. Rural women score the lowest on all the Millennium Development Goals, compared to women in urban areas and to rural and urban men. Their rights, contributions, and priorities have been largely overlooked by mainstream policies and institutions, as their participation in decision-making is very low. Yet rural women account for a significant proportion of the agricultural labor force, and indeed produce 60% of the world’s food supply. They have less access to productive resources, such as land, agricultural inputs, finance, and technology, and to public services. Of the 900 million people who are chronically hungry today in the world, 60% of them are women and girls.

Although various development partners have programs that target agricultural development, rural women have not been given a priority in these initiatives. Yet the correlation between rural women and food security is clear: the recent Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development highlighted the importance of empowering rural women as critical agents for enhancing agricultural and rural development, as well as food security and nutrition. Rural women can be the drivers within sustainable, community-led development – they are often the ones working the most hard to feed their communities!

This joint program to accelerate progress towards the economic empowerment of rural women had certain key messages:

1. Economic empowerment and political participation of rural women are two mutually supportive foundation stones for more food secure, gender equal, and ultimately stronger societies for all.

2. It is time to scale up investment in food and nutrition security in rural areas. Women need to have the same access to productive resources and assets as male farmers.

3. It is urgent to build systems and institutions that can deliver the range of financial services that rural women need (not just microcredit), and that can link them to remunerative and sustainable markets. Corporations can play a role here – they can help provide financial services and also expose rural women to markets that they would not otherwise be able to access.

4. Sporadic interventions are not enough to promote inclusive growth in agriculture. When rural women have no ownership or control over land and other productive assets, they need broader more inclusive policy that has policy, legal, budgetary and land reforms in support of rural women.

Key people in this movement attended the launch to offer their insight on the matter and experiences from the field.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner for her struggle for women’s safety and rights to participate in political peacemaking processes, keynoted the launch.

“As we begin the dialogue on the post-2015 agenda, again women focus very prominently as to what we do. And when you’re dealing with women in Africa, clearly you have to deal with rural women.

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, the storage, and then they also take care of their families by feeding them.


The four institutions that have come together – UN Women, FAO, IFAD, World Food Programme – have talked about how they focus on rural women’s participation and leadership. Our own example in Liberia is that we organize the rural women into association . They’ve had elections, and selected their own leaders. Those leaders have also recently gone and organized them at the community level to make sure that those leaders at that level also determine what kinds of programs that they will have. Much more of that needs to be done.


But today I am very pleased at what’s happening as regards rural women. Finally, they have their place in the development architecture. They have found their voice, and that’s one of the most important …. Things. Today, when we go into rural areas, and we meet with our women rural leaders who are there, they can stand up and say to us, “We now know what our rights are. We now know what our potential is. We now know what we can do. We can go into a meeting, a town hall meeting that’s usually led by men, but we can go there and we can stand up, and we can say what we want. We can tell them that we have a right.”

(Read her entire speech here). 

Rob Swarthol, Director General for International Cooperation, the Netherlands spoke about the importance of creating new data, “There is a model out that that says that if women had the same access to production means as men, the total production output of the country would grow 2.5-4% – the % of people who are hungry would decrease about 12%.Even if half of this is true, this is quite remarkable. In west africa, we have done some programs where the results are even better. If you want to convince people that this is the way, you have to have data. Data is aggravated. If you look for gender sensitive data, the data will be aggravated.

“In the Netherlands… more and more we think it is pivotal to include the private sector.” he said.

Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, was asked what has been instrumental in empowering rural women. She said that empowering rural women was a key component of the Obama administration – 3 billion US dollars are allocated to the new Equal Futures Partnership, which will focus on all four areas of gender inequality around the world, including economic empowerment and political participation of rural women.

“Stunning outcomes if we would enable women farmers (the great majority in many places around the world) if they had the same access – training, to fertilizer and seed – what that would do, not even in the immediate increased productivity,” she said.

Verveer mentioned that the Women’s Agricultural Index is first index to ever examine women’s inclusivity in agriculture. This index has enabled the impact of the Feed the Future program to be measured in Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda.

Margaret Biggs, President of the Canadian International Development Agency was asked, “Canada plays a big role in leveraging political support – as a member state. How can aid be made more responsive to rural women?”

“We have to put women at the top of the post 2015 agenda in terms of the post MDG architecture – women in general remain the face of poverty and hunger, particularly rural women.Women are invisible unless we can account them – we don’t have the data that we need – sex aggregated data is what we need to focus on those results. Micro credit is useful but only on a  subsistence level – we need to move them [rural women] up the value chain because they are very capable,” Biggs responded.

Fokko Wietjes, Director of Corporate Sustainability Development at Royal D.S.M. NV, remarked, “The problems that we have are too big for agencies to act upon them individually – we need partnerships. We think in building blocks, and an extremely important building block is rural women. If we think of the role of entrepreneurs – we can help in the process of technology transfer. At Corporate Sustainable Development Royal DSM N.V,  we can help fortify the technology transfer… The life cycle of nutrition starts with the mom. But she cannot give more than she has, so we need to make sure she is healthy. Healthy individuals = healthy economies. Forbes has clearly shown that investing in women is investing in the future.”

The moderator asked the panelists what challenges they foresaw for the new joint program.

“The toughest word in all of our institutions is cooperation. I think if coming together on this project – all overlapping mandates – if there can be a determination of a better way to ensure that each does his job well but also focuses on what the other is doing  to make sure that the gap is filled – more innovative ways to look at this cooperative model. We say this like we say coordinate: take it to scale! We find great things that work – and then we try to find other things that work. It’s not like the Netherlands has one model, Canada has another model – we need to put solutions that work to SCALE, ” replied Verveer.

“Unity of purpose and also unity of command will be challenges; if you are going to be working together, how do you deal with effectiveness on the ground?” pondered Biggs.

It is clear that there will challenges ahead for this new partnership between government agencies, nonprofits and corporations. However, I look forward to following the progress and setbacks of this partnership – I think that we are moving towards the right direction: a more collaborative, empowering, and impactful way to approach development issues.

I enjoyed learning about this amazing new initiative to economically empower rural women around the world and would like to think UN Women so much for allowing me to attend the launch. I was incredibly inspired by all of the panelists, and most of all, by all of the hardworking rural women out there who are feeding the world – and who can do so much more to create healthier societies if we only create systems and policies that serve them instead of marginalizing them. Please check out this new initiative here and about rural women and the MDGs here. 

What do you think about this new initiative? What successful programs have you seen in place for rural women? What other public/private partnerships do you think could be created to give women the resources and tools they need to be more productive farmers and more successful entrepreneurs?

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