World Summit on Food Security. Reducing Hunger and Poverty: Women Hold the Key

13 Jun 2002

It is an honour to address you today at the World Summit on Food Security on behalf of Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund.

The message I have come to deliver is simple and direct: we will not reduce hunger unless we reduce poverty, and we will not reduce poverty unless we empower women and unleash their full potential as agents of social and environmental progress and economic growth.

Today the total number of people suffering from chronic hunger exceeds the total number of people living in all of Europe. The number of hungry people is nearly three times the population of the United States, and about 14 times the population of Italy.

The presence of such widespread hunger in today's world of unprecedented wealth and scientific achievement is a moral outrage. It is especially outrageous because we produce enough food to feed everyone. The problem today is not a problem of food production; it is problem of access.

Access to food is blocked by power struggles and armed conflict; and it is blocked by persistent poverty. Today more than one billion people struggle to survive on less than $1 a day. Many of them do not know where their next meal is coming from. Everyday they worry about feeding themselves and their families. For them, food security is at the top of the agenda.

As leaders, the challenge we face at this Food Summit is to put food security at the top of our agenda, in words and in deeds. To galvanize this effort, the United Nations Population Fund fully supports the creation of an International Alliance against Hunger.

Six years ago at the 1996 World Food Summit, world leaders agreed to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by the year 2015. This worthy goal was reaffirmed more recently at the United Nations Millennium Summit. However, while we are making some progress, it is not enough. Today the number of undernourished in the world is falling at an average rate of only 8 million people each year, far below the rate of 22 million needed to reach our target.

To reduce poverty and hunger, we need strong partnerships, strong political will and practical steps.

As a first step, we need to empower the largest disenfranchised group on earth-and that is women. Unless women are placed at the centre of efforts to reduce poverty and increase food security, vital opportunities to meet the world's present and future food needs will be missed.

Many small-scale food producers, and a disproportionate number of the world's poor, are women. Today women make up half of the world's agricultural workforce. In much of Africa, women produce most of the staple crops. In Southeast Asia, women provide 90 per cent of the labour for cultivating rice. All over the world, women do most of the food production and food preparation. And yet they are given scant support to improve their situations and to improve food security.

Providing them with access to credit, markets and technical advice, as well as education and health care, and enforcing their right to own and inherit land could both improve the food supply of the world's poorest people and help them escape from poverty.

At the global conferences of the 1990s, governments, helped by a multitude of civil society organisations, agreed that the empowerment of women is essential to sustainable development. Governments agreed that women should be full and equal participants in decision-making at all levels. At the turn of this new century, world leaders reaffirmed their commitment to gender equality at the United Nations Millennium Summit.

Despite these agreements, many women in developing countries still lack access to resources, services and the opportunity to make real choices. They are trapped in poverty by illiteracy, poor health and unwanted high fertility. All of these contribute to environmental degradation and tighten the grip of poverty. If we are serious about reducing hunger, we must break this vicious cycle.

Women need support in both their productive and reproductive roles. As a matter of human rights and as a basis for their other choices, women need ready access to reproductive health information and services, including voluntary family planning.

For development programmes to be effective, women and couples must be able to choose the number and timing of their children and have the means to do so.

We have made good progress in some areas. Today, 60 per cent of married women in developing countries are using modern methods of family planning, compared to about 10 per cent just 40 years ago. There is a broad international consensus on the links between ending poverty and hunger, promoting reproductive health, securing gender equality and protecting the environment. This is a tremendous achievement in a relatively short period of time.

Today birth rates are dropping faster than predicted in many large developing countries such as Brazil, Egypt, India and Mexico. This is not only good news; this is an affirmation of the vision and success of the agenda adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Today women in the developing world are choosing to have half as many children as they did in the late 1960s.

The decline in fertility is due to improved levels of schooling, higher survival rates of children, and better access to contraceptives. When women and couples are given a real choice, they choose to have smaller, healthier families.

Today there are an estimated 120 million couples who would use family planning services now, if they had access to them. Demand for these services is expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next 15 years because of the growing numbers of young people who are now entering their reproductive years.

In developing countries today, one person in three is younger than 15 years, and over half of people are under the age of 25. In the least developed countries, 63 per cent are younger than 25. Their decisions today will affect our world tomorrow. They need education, healthcare and employment to increase their chances of success and minimize the risks of poverty and hunger.

We must also focus on the needs of older people. In the developing world, there are almost 400 million people over age 60, the majority of whom are women, and this figure is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades. Many of the elderly are living below the poverty line, without a social safety net and food security is a priority concern.

This concern is magnified in areas that are hard-hit by HIV/AIDS. Due to the devastating impact of the epidemic, older people and particularly older women, are increasingly acting as caregivers for their adult children who have fallen ill, as well as for their orphaned grandchildren. The loss of parents and productive workers in their prime exacerbates hunger and poverty. As part of UNAIDS, the United Nations Population Fund is committed to HIV prevention. We are targeting our interventions to those who are most vulnerable-namely young people and women and mothers. And we are working to close the poverty and gender gaps the help the AIDS virus to spread.

Mr. Chairman, at the International Conference on Population and Development and the 1996 Food Summit, governments recognized the link between population dynamics and food insecurity, nutrition and health. Effective population and development policies and programmes help governments and communities meet human needs and expand choice, opportunity and participation.

Today population continues to grow most rapidly in the poorest countries-those that are least able to afford basic services-and this affects the world, and demands a global response. In the next 50 years, the combined population of the least developed countries is expected to triple, from 658 million to 1.8 billion people. The implications of this rapid growth will be far-reaching.

The poorest countries make direct demands on natural resources for survival. If they have no other choices, the damage to the environment will be profound, and permanent. Already these countries are among the most severely challenged by food and water shortages.

Today in many poor countries, population growth is already outpacing food production. The numbers of malnourished in sub-Saharan Africa doubled between 1970 and 1990, during which time the region's population increased by 76 per cent.

The combination of poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation in the rural areas drives migration to cities and across national borders. The megacities of the world should be powerhouses of development. Instead, their essential services are at risk of collapsing under the weight of unsustainable population growth.

We must ask ourselves: How can we assure food security in 2015 when there will be a billion more people when we have failed to provide it today?

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, no one can predict the future. But research today does suggest that providing food security for the 7.2 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2015 will require a reduction in poverty and gender inequality, a doubling of food production, an improvement in food distribution, and greater protection of the environment.

An International Alliance against Hunger could foster positive action by governments, the UN system, non-governmental organizations, local communities and the private sector for food security. Policy dialogues can help bring different stakeholders together and provide a basis for joint action.

Finally, we must keep our promise and step up efforts to provide universal access to education and health care-including reproductive health services and family planning-to improve livelihoods and expand opportunities, especially for women. This will reduce poverty, slow population growth and reduce pressure on the planet's resources, which will contribute greatly to food security.

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