Remarks by Ms. Michelle Gyles-McDonnough UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative for Barbados and the OECS

Mar 12, 2012

International Women's Day 2012, Roundtable:
"Empowering Women to End Hunger and Poverty: Feeding the Nations, Growing our GDP"

Thank you, Chair.

Distinguished Presenters and Participants,

Representatives and colleagues of UN and other development organisations,

Representatives of the media,

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Morning!

I take the opportunity of this occasion to wish you all happy International Women’s Day (IWD), even though the actual day has passed.

Before I deliver my remarks, let me first thank UN Women, for organizing this Round-Table on behalf of the UN System in the Eastern Caribbean in commemoration of International Women’s Day, and to thank you all, as well, for devoting the time to contribute and participate.  It is a great pleasure for me to be here.

By taking the time this morning to celebrate International Women’s Day, it connects us here in Barbados and the OECS with the wider UN family, development partners, and citizens across the globe. As we saw last week with the many local events and the high profile given to this International Day in the local press, International Women’s Day, 8 March, is commemorated globally in different ways, reflecting also the differences in women’s lives. In some regions, the achievements of women in politics and business were celebrated, as other protested domestic violence, and some donated to women’s causes; while in others, such as Egypt, women marched to demand the right to help draft the new constitution and, in Sudan, the day meant freedom for about 4,000 prisoners, including hundreds of women and children, who were released to mark the day.

The theme of our Round-table - “Empowering Women to End Hunger and Poverty: Feeding the Nation, Growing our GDP” – joins us with the many women and men in the international community who are concerned with raising awareness about, and eradicating poverty and hunger in rural communities, and particularly of our rural women. It is important for us to focus on this group of vulnerable citizens as we try to make a better life for all. 

The recent population censuses and the Country Poverty Assessments are telling us that women and youth make up the majority of the poor in Barbados and the OECS, and in the Caribbean in general. Moreover, the research shows that there is a clear link between poverty, inequality, and food insecurity at household and community levels. And the UN initiated gender and child assessments of Country Poverty Assessments of Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the British Virgin Islands, the final results of which we will learn in a few weeks, will further enrich our evidence base to inform gender and child responsive social policies in the subregion. 

The theme of this year’s commemoration of International Women’ Day is important to us in this region because recent observations, for example in St. Lucia[1] since at least 2007, women have surpassed men in the rate at which they are becoming small holders of agriculture and food production systems.  Women’s holdings are significantly smaller on average than those of male farmers, and so, naturally, with less land, women as a group earn significantly less than men from farming.  It is likely that similar patterns will emerge in other parts of the OECS, changing the traditional role of women in managing nutrition at family and community levels in important ways that will have implications for national efforts to alleviate or eradicate hunger and poverty.

In addition to their work in cultivation, women also process, preserve, and prepare the food.  If the remittances from their family members who have moved into town are slow in coming or cease, then the women left behind, often as head of household, become economically responsible for the young and old. They must find the means to provide food, clothing, school supplies, medical attention, and all the other things their families need, with few opportunities for off-farm employment to supplement what they can earn form the land. 

Sometimes, women carry on with little or no drop in production when their menfolk migrate to urban areas.  But in other cases, women do not have the access to credit, extension assistance, or agricultural inputs, because they are often available through cooperatives or farmers associations to the person who can show title to the land or has other tangible property for security.  And since there are fewer men to clear and plough the land, traditionally male tasks, women are forced to plan the same land again and again, the irrigation systems deteriorate, and women sometimes cut back to just enough subsistence production to feed themselves and their families.  Agriculture productivity then falls. And what are the consequences for the home and family structure considering the demands of agriculture?

So, one of the questions we must then ask this morning is whether it is past time to think of revised, or new, instruments to empower women in this changing role in ending poverty and hunger?

While there is little severe malnutrition in the region, we do have unacceptable levels of food insecurity, with high incidences in rural areas caused from income inequalities, and a worrying declining productivity trend.  There is therefore good justification for action to empower rural women to manage this changing role in food systems and food security in their communities.

And to address the matter of empowerment of rural women, we must ask some of these follow-on questions as well: What are the elements of poverty that are feeding inequalities in food security in the region? What are the new and different leadership values, managerial, negotiating and networking skills and capacities that we must strengthen among women in rural communities and what would this new approach to discrete programmes for women in agriculture and food production mean for credit, extension marketing and processing of food? What are the organizational and policy frameworks that will empower rural women to act as key change agents in the pursuit of food security, and with the right balance for the longer term vision of sustained national agriculture productivity that contributes to economic growth, food security and livelihood security among rural women and their rural families and communities.    

To be realistic, this is not a simple task.

But empowerment is the centrepiece of a three part support system; the other two being mobilization and partnership building. And there must be better information and data to better understand the problem and to underpin efforts to empower and mobilise women towards higher levels of responsibilities in agriculture that are harmonious with family, and positively impact welfares and food security thorugh strategic networking and partnerships between and within farming communities in Barbados and the OECS. 

In the absence of better data, it could very well mean that the challenges of reducing rural food insecurity and ensuring that it does not become hunger might just slowly be emerging as a matter for urgent attention in some of the member states. 

The path we need to map has been determined by our special circumstances of resource capacities. However the goal for the OECS and Barbados of generational transformation out of poverty and food security in rural families is the same across developing nations.  In this regard, the discussions this morning must take cognizance and guidance from the International Women’s Day message of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which he called for “a widespread commitment to gender equality and the empowerment of women "as a fundamental human right and force for the benefit of all."

“Development experience reveals that improving women’s economic opportunities and access to productive resources has significant impact on women’s overall status, and brings sustainable benefits to families and communities.”  As such, the Secretary-General urged the global community to “continue to enlarge opportunities to enable more women to enjoy the full exercise of their rights. It is also a good time to reflect on where we are with gender equality targets in the region, … as we look towards Rio+20 [Sustainable Development Conference in 3 and a half months in June] as a forum to plan our post-2015 agenda for global sustainability.”

As the UN development system moves into implementation of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) Barbados and the OECS 2012 to 2016, Food and Nutrition Security has been identified as one of the six priorities agreed by civil society, regional and development partners and all governments in the subregion to be addressed together.  In doing so, gender equality targets will be at the forefront of our minds. In this regard, I am delighted to see the recruitment by UN Women of a Gender Equality Coordination Specialist to both drive and keep score on UN action on gender equality, and the appointment of a gender focal point in FAO, who will complement existing UN capacity as we all strive to improve our performance in respect of gender equality.

International Women’s Day is meant to celebrate achievement of women in all spheres of life.  It is also meant to raise awareness of the increasingly changing role of women in society and to think how best to support and respond to these changes.

There is no doubt that opportunities exists for our partnerships to work collaboratively to change the situation of poverty inequalities and food insecurity and the role of women.

As we deliberate today around the theme “Empowering Women to End Hunger and Poverty: Feeding the Nation, Growing our GDP”, let us consider the questions I raised and the others that will come during this morning, and should the answers not be known immediately, provide concrete recommendations on how we will find them.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to the discussions and agreements on the way forward.

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