A Comprehensive Response to Rural Women and Girls’ Economic Empowerment


More coverage and photos of Ms. Bachelet's activities at CSW56 »

Speech delivered by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet's at CSW Side Event on ‘Accelerating progress towards the economic empowerment of rural women', co-organized by UN Women, FAO, IFAD and WFP, Tuesday 28 February 2012.
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Excellencies, Honourable Ministers, Heads of Delegations, Colleagues and Friends,

Let me start by thanking FAO, IFAD and WFP for co-organizing the event. My thanks also to the Governments of Bangladesh and Canada for co-sponsoring today. Let me also acknowledge the work of the Government of Canada in leading the informal ‘Contact Group for Rural Women' here in New York. I am sure we all appreciate the work of this group, and the contribution we know it will make to ensuring that rural women's empowerment remains high on the global agenda beyond this year's CSW session. I am thinking in particular of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, to be held in June this year, since rural women are impacted by climate change and unsustainable forms of agriculture, but there are many other opportunities ahead of us to make this important point.

And while it has been said many times already here at this CSW, and before, it is an important point and one that bears repeating. Because the world still does not fully acknowledge what we know to be an essential truth of development and human progress. Simply put, women are key agents of change, and this is as true for rural women, if not more so, than for any women anywhere. Their leadership and participation are essential in shaping the responses to development challenges and recent global crises.

This truth is everywhere we turn. For example, as global recovery slows, we increasingly realize the need for inclusive growth, to tackle inequalities, and to aspire to a fairer outcome than has become, and unchecked will increasingly become, the norm. That commitment to equality, to inclusion, starts with women, and with rural women as among the most disadvantaged, and with empowering them to play their proper role.

In reality, it is not just that we fail to realize the potential of rural women. We also fail to protect them from the range of challenges they face on a daily basis, from threats to their personal security, to difficulties accessing basic services such as healthcare and education, to hurdles and obstacles to overcome if they wish to be economically active, to barriers that stop them when seeking to be politically active.
We need to consider these challenges in the broadest context. Insufficient attention has been given to the impact of economic policies on rural women. For example, in many countries, investment in agriculture for exports has dominated agricultural policies to the detriment of investment in production for local markets. How often have you heard anyone consider what the implications of such a decision are for women? As so often, policy makers assume that there are gender-neutral policies, when we know that there is no such thing.

Because we recognize the imperative of empowering rural women, UN Women and the United Nations Rome-based agencies—FAO, IFAD and WFP—are coming together to join forces and develop a comprehensive response in support of rural women's and girls' economic empowerment. This will be founded on providing support to the scaling up of successful initiatives and strengthening partnerships with local partners in a number of countries.

Our joint action plan leverages the advantages each of us possess. As the convener on gender equality and women's empowerment within the UN system, UN Women will address a wide range of dimensions of rural development in a holistic, coherent and coordinated manner and draw on its expertise in the areas of women's economic empowerment; women's political participation; aid effectiveness and gender-responsive governance systems, institutions and budgets; women's human rights and women in the context of post-conflict settings; as well as violence against women and HIV/AIDS.

Allow me to share some of the concrete elements of the action plan. We will support Governments in unlocking the bottlenecks for women's economic empowerment, poverty reduction and food security—whether legal or administrative. We will promote participatory approaches, stakeholder consultations and support for rural and women's organizing to ensure that rural women's priorities are reflected in policies at all levels: macroeconomic, rural development and agriculture. And we will build on concrete initiatives already being carried out by our four agencies at the country level, such as the initiatives ‘Purchase for Progress' and ‘Food-for-work'.

This event provides an opportunity for us all to engage in a discussion and make concrete suggestions on initiatives that work for enhancing women's economic empowerment. I want to assure you that we are genuinely listening, and what you say here today will be used to help us make our joint action plan stronger

I would like to conclude with some comments on the ongoing discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals envisaged as coming out of Rio. I think it is not disputed that the climate change, environmental degradation and climate shocks, including droughts, desertification, deforestation, natural disasters, toxic waste and pollution, place particularly heavy stresses upon women and men smallholder farmers. These go alongside the ongoing and deepening problems of food insecurity.

This makes it important to ensure that we forge a strong link between what we discuss here at CSW and what we will discuss in Rio. Rural women have the potential to contribute fully and substantively to sustainable development, from natural resource and environmental management, to conservation, protection and rehabilitation. They have a role to play as leaders and participants in economic policy formulation and decision-making institutions. They have much to contribute to designing and implementing rural infrastructure investments and using environmentally sound technologies and methods.

Here today, as so often during the CSW, I am struck by how energized and determined a constituency we are. Surely there is no other event in the calendar of the UN that enjoys such energy and passion as this one. The challenges of rural women are immense, the scale of wasted potential and opportunity daunting. But it is at events such as these that I am reminded that we face those challenges with a truly unique constituency. I look forward to our discussions today, and to our ongoing collaboration.