If women farmers were given more tools and resources, the number of hungry people in the world could be slashed by 100 to 150 million. This was the message conveyed by Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), at an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Thursday to empower rural women for food security and nutrition. In October, the Committee on World Food Security will meet at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome, followed by the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) next year, both opportunities to increase the role of rural women in alleviating poverty and hunger. The event this week was co-sponsored by UN Women, the United Nations entity for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment, and WFP, among others. Representatives from government, grassroots community organisations and the private sector were on hand to embody the "new coalition that has to come together to make a difference", as Sheeran put it.
Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever, cited the new Project Laser Beam initiative in which the WFP and its corporate partners, DSM, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Kraft Foods and Unilever, came together to combat child malnutrition in Bangladesh and India. "Interestingly, in that programme, most of the focus is on women, agriculture, creating smallholder farmers, health and hygiene programmes, hand washing, women in school. It is not surprising to me because we have all discovered, businessmen as we are, that we will probably get a higher return from those investments than others we make," Polman said. UN Women and the Coca-Cola company also announced a new partnership this week to break down the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs through programmes on the ground that provide access to skills training and financial services.
The 2010-2011 State of Food and Agriculture report, published by FAO, found that women, when they have additional income, spend more of it on food, health, clothing and education for their children than men. This in turn has an impact on economic growth through improved health, nutrition and education. According to the FAO report, women across regions have fewer productive resources than men, such as education, land, livestock, technology, labour, financial services and more. "If women would have the same productive resources as men," the report noted, "this could raise the total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent" and "reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent". Anne Itto, a farmer and former caretaker minister of agriculture and forestry in South Sudan, spoke with IPS about women's food security in her country.
"There are people who don't have enough to eat and then immediate food aid may be necessary," she said, adding that the aid should be well-targeted so that the "food does not end up in the local market" where it depresses prices. "For those who still have capacity and you want to work long-term, number one is training, giving the necessary knowledge and the skills for women, and then creating access to agricultural inputs such as improved seeds, better technology and better equipment," she said. " (But) they can't get it unless they also have access to financial services." Itto underscored the importance of linking women to the market, as "most grain cannot store for more than two three months."
She said that enabling women to borrow money can have a positive impact on food security because then they can pay for better seeds, and tools, they can also produce more. "I believe that women have done their job," she said. "(Now) it is the job of governments, humanitarian actors, the private sector to come and really build a very strong partnership with them so that they can continue to feed themselves, their children, and also contribute to nation-building."