“There is hope. Change can happen. It is happening. But there’s still a long way to go.” About two hundred people crowded into the room, everyone’s full attention on the bold and passionate woman speaking on the main panel. “Even though I’ve been jailed, confined in the smallest space you can imagine, and psychologically tortured at the hands of the state, I am still standing up today,” declared Kalpona Akter, of Bangladesh, accomplished workers’ rights activist and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. Sitting beside her on the panel were other renowned women leaders from around the world: Valentyna Legka, Ukraine, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Federation of Professional Accountants and Auditors; Yasmin Beczabeth Lopez, Honduras, Young Front Deputy Coordinator of Via Campesina; Orna Akad, Israel, Sindyanna of Galilee; and Evelyn Matsika, Zimbabwe, Provincial Agricultural Agronomist.
This event, entitled Empowering Women to End Hunger, took place on March 15, the second day of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—a week and a half set aside at the UN Headquarters and its surrounding area to host workshops and discussions regarding women’s empowerment and gender equality and their intersection with sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This particular event was hosted by the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger (WGFH), of which MCC staff serve as Chair and Coordinator, alongside United Methodist Women and Grassroots International. Also lending to the event by providing the opening remarks was the Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) UN Liaison Office, Carla Mucavi.
The collaboration with FAO in this event is a byproduct of the ongoing relationship between WGFH and FAO as well as other UN Rome-based agencies, as partnerships are often mutually beneficial within the UN community. In fact, a large part of the food justice advocacy work that the WGFH carries out involves building relationships with actors from these agencies and discussing each other’s goals and ideas on various subjects. The various activities and dialogues most often focus on supporting smallholder farmers, who act as better sustainable agriculturists than the often-lauded agro-industry, which utilizes too many fossil fuels, consumes too much of the world’s resources, and focuses on food as a for-profit commodity. Supporting rural women and men and providing them with a space to engage in the dialogue surrounding their food systems means coordination with our partners on the ground, discussion with country ambassadors, attending open meetings on food justice, and, sometimes, it means hosting events like this, where rural women speak directly to the UN community in New York.
Headsets went on, and the translators switched to Spanish as Ms. Lopez began her own panel speech in her native tongue. “Our vision is to achieve women’s equity, respect and dignity! We rural women are discussing and developing strategic demands and alternatives to change the patriarchal system that oppresses us. To achieve our vision, along with other peasant organizations and social movements, we at Via Campesina are creating the spaces to empower women through education, advocacy and mobilization.” The audience, composed of women, and a few men, from diverse countries around the world, and all leaders in their respective fields, burst into applause before the translator even finished communicating her last sentence.
One by one, the panelists discussed the power that rural women possess and the development they can facilitate and are facilitating despite the often numerous gender-based factors working against them. But they also talked about the difficulties of their experiences and the repression of women in leadership: the lack of acceptance they receive as business owners, their inability to secure ownership of land, and the complex and far-reaching systems of patriarchy which keep these rural women from utilizing their passion and expertise in all the sectors of their lives.
“Because large numbers of female Zimbabweans derive their livelihoods from agriculture, the performance of this sector determines the overall status of women’s living standards and the development of the economy,” stated Ms. Matsika in her speech. She continued, “Despite the fact that the majority of people working in agriculture are women, their access to and ownership of productive resources is very low.” These women spoke out against a broken food system on behalf of women of similar experiences across the globe. The reality is this: smallholder farmers provide the majority of the food in the world, and most small farmers are rural women, who own just 25% of the Earth’s agricultural land.1 Women are refused land rights, access to loans, agricultural education, access to markets, and much else, and even so are working to end hunger in a world where 800 million people are chronically undernourished.2
At the end of the panel, Kolton Nay, WGFH Coordinator and MCC UN Office Intern, along with Azza Karam, Senior Advisor on Culture and Social Development at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), divided the audience into five groups and placed one panelist in each group for roundtable discussions. For the next 15 minutes, each group tackled the question: What are the biggest obstacles to women’s empowerment and food justice, and what are the best practices for addressing them? Table leaders rose to report on what their group had discussed, many of which focused on root causes: end violence and occupation, address the patriarchal culture which limits women’s rights and access, lobby against private sector control of markets, and distance communities from consumerism. Each group fed off the others’ ideas, and all of them were recorded onto one document, to be distributed for reference.
The MCC UN Office and the WGFH believe, as David Nabarro, Special Adviser on 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, said the very next day, “Rural women are the professors of agricultural development. They teach the governments how to govern.” By providing these powerful women with the space and opportunity to collaborate and be heard, we guide the sustainable development agenda toward successful implementation.
Link to the Discussion Groups Results Document:
1 Oxfam International (2013). Promises, Power, and Poverty: Corporate Land Deals and Rural Women in Africa. Oxfam Briefing Paper 170. Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
2 FAO (2013). FAO Policy on Gender Equality: Attaining Food Security Goals in Agriculture and Rural Development. Rome, FAO.