Last Thursday, UN Women and the World Food Programme co-hosted an event called Empowering Rural Women for Food and Nutrition Security. With opening remarks from WFP head Josette Sheeran, a keynote from Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, closing remarks from UN Women head Michelle Bachelet, and a panel including all of the previous plus various public and private actors hosted by Christiane Amanpour; the two hours were highly informative and concluded with the announcement that the two UN organizations will be collaborating to support women in agriculture.
"If women are given the same access as men in agriculture, we can see a 20 to 30% increase in farm production," said Bachelet as she introduced the initiative. Panel members Anne Itto, Farmer and Former Caretaker Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, South Sudan; and Reema Nanavaty, Director, Self- Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India; provided anecdotes earlier to highlight how they have seen programs that target women in their respective countries lead to successful agriculture improvements.
Nanavaty, through SEWA, has been able to create a network of 1.3 million Indian women. "Women should no longer be seen as just workers," she said, "They are producers, managers, and owners; all who can take charge at any point in the supply chain." Most notable of her remarks was her insistence on enabling work opportunities for women before thinking about nutrition. Income security, she argued, is necessary as it will always be the top priority for a family. So, discussing proper nutrition when the women is unable to buy food is ineffective. Later in the discussion, when Sheeren discussed trying to accomplish both, Nanavaty jumped in to disagree by making the same point as she previously stated.
Itto was even more direct with her remarks and discussion points. To her, the obstacle is action. "We need to know what we are doing or what we are not doing enough." This lies on the premise that women are capable of anything. "I have seen women learn how to make soap and start selling it in the market in two days," she used as an example. Not that what she said was revolutionary, but it was clear that she wanted to move away from discussing capability and towards how to provide support. So, policies and programs need to be evaluated. One example that had her particularly fired up was over how local food cannot compete with imported food. Seeing food wasted that is locally produced due to the inability to compete is something she feels is in need of a solution.
The WFP is doing that to some extent by committing to purchase at least 20% of their food aid locally. People applauded, but overall I think 20% has to be thought of as a pretty low threshold. For nations like South Sudan and Somalia it might be a challenge to source a lot of food locally as both nations continue to build their agricultural capacity, but that is not the case with Kenya where nearly all food can be sourced in country. Sheeran seemed to have indicated that the hope is to move the 20% mark upwards and openly admitted that the short term costs from buying more expensive food locally will lead to lower costs in the long term.
In the end, Bachelet admitted that many of the problems are political when looking at food security and nutrition. The two organizations will work together to address these problems by improving food and nutrition security, supporting women lead food programs, look directly at school nutrition programs, and increase the enrollment of girls in school.
The event featured a lot of excitement, but little in terms of actionable plans. UN Women and WFP are at the point, so it appears, that they have identified the commonality of addressing women in agriculture. The concept note (PDF) produced by the two included much of the same information discussed in the event and pointed towards future events where the discussion will continue. If the data is right and increasing access to women will lead to higher agricultural production this is good news, but it is not a complete solution. With more people moving into cities agriculture will become an income generating opportunity for fewer and fewer people. The next step will be to keep prices down and give women the opportunity to enter the workplace outside of the agriculture field.
Listen to Bachelt's full closing remarks: