Four years ago I attended, together with 63 other spouses of Heads of State or Government, a Summit of 111 nations in Geneva that, like our meeting here today on food security, sought to address a related issue of worldwide importance: the economic advancement of rural women.
The Summit, convened by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, was the culmination of regional consultations that tapped the expertise of more than 350 participants from 80 countries. Its objective was to alert international public opinion to the rapidly deteriorating situation of rural women worldwide and to the alarming trend of the feminisation of global poverty.
Rural women are the world's poor. Of the one billion poor people in the world, 80% live in rural areas and 70 percent of them are women. Over the last two decades the number of rural women living below the poverty line has increased by 50 percent. The Geneva Declaration for Rural Women called for a global commitment to recognize and promote the economic empowerment of rural women as a vital force for development and peace.
We pledged to work for the Summit's goals by mobilizing political will and marshaling resources at the national and international levels to target rural women as participants and direct beneficiaries of development policies and programmes and by advocating for their rights and needs. This continues to be the same mission of the 15 First Ladies elected in 1992 to form the International Steering Committee (ISC) on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women. As president of the ISC and on behalf of our patron, Her Majesty Queen Fabiola, members of the Steering Committee and our many partners around the world, I thank you for the opportunity to address this important Summit.
The direct linkage between the capacity of our world to feed itself and the ability of rural women to participate fully in the economic, social and political life of their communities is evident and has been emphasized in the recommendations of the associated NGOs' Forum held here in September. That linkage is also recognized in the Declaration of this Summit which acknowledges women's significant impact on World Food Security. If we aspire to feed the entire human family at the global level, we should keep in mind who produces and provides food at the community level in most societies. It is the rural women who do so but they do not always do so efficiently or sufficiently due to inadequate education, social discrimination or legal obstacles that limit their access to land, credit, training, technology and marketing channels. It is our hope that the World Food Summit's recommendations and implementation of its Plan of Action will contribute to ensuring rural women's right to equal access to social services and economic resources.
Productive as they are already, rural women are still the single least mobilized resource for balanced and sufficient food production at the global level, especially in the developing South where most food deficiencies occur. Rural women are the farmers, shepherds and gardeners of the South. They know where to get clean water and how to use it wisely. They know how to weed fields, control pests and manage rangelands for they store the cumulative wisdom and knowledge of generations past.
From my personal experience with community-based development work in Jordan, I am well aware of the significant impact rural women can have on the well-being of their immediate families and their larger communities. In my country, as in many other societies, the rural woman remains the anchor of her family and in many ways of the community. With education, training and income-generating opportunities, she can raise food production and meet her children's nutritional needs, teach them good health and environmental practices and improve her family's overall quality of life.
In our work at the family and local community levels, we have succeeded in creating a national and regional model for comprehensive development, which addresses the integrated needs of those communities with a special emphasis on the empowerment of women. This holistic approach has proved to be a most effective way to promote development that is sustainable and equitable on most every level. Rural women may very well be a key to solving the challenge of increasing food production in a world plagued by environmental stress, rural out-migration, high population growth and competing interests over finite natural resources. If they are to fulfil that potential, their different needs must be addressed in a comprehensive and integrated manner.
The world can produce more food in the short term through biotechnologies, crop diversification and rotation, integrated pest management and other scientific and technical means. But in the long term, these achievements, if not accompanied by equitable and balanced development, will remain vulnerable to the wider threats of social turbulence and political instability, especially in agrarian societies where the basic production unit - the family - is under social, economic, environmental and political pressure.
The fast pace of rural-urban migration today - typically, first the men abandon the land, then the women and the children follow - demonstrates how economic and environmental pressures ravage rural communities and aggravate food insecurity. In Jordan, for example, this human migration rose sharply in the past decade to reach a total of 75 percent of the total rural population up from 37 percent in the 1950s. We can only reverse this destructive cycle that aggravates food and security by decentralizing development planning and decision-making, thereby empowering rural communities and by ensuring a more equitable distribution of development benefits. Political instability, military conflict and occupation, ethnic tensions and autocratic governance are factors that disrupt economic life, undermine personal initiatives and hinder food security throughout the world. Furthermore, military expenditures which are accorded the highest priority by most governments usurp a disproportionate amount of national economic resources from urgent human development priorities. The vicious cycle of international arms dealing and conflict depletes economies, cripples development and creates a destructive pattern of dependency.
King Hussein unfortunately was unable to attend this Summit due to pressuring commitments at home and in our region. Had he been able to address you, he would have spoken in greater detail about the linkages between a society's stability and productivity and the wider political environment. The peoples of the Middle East are well aware of the critical importance of peace and stability to prosperity and quality of life. While we continue to seek at the political level a just and comprehensive peace in our region, we are struggling to build on the historical achievements of recent years to lay foundations of mutually beneficial intra-regional and inter-regional economic cooperation, that will inspire the confidence, trust and hope needed for building an enduring peace. The third Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit in Cairo is intended to further expand that cooperation. We must also hope that the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries and their international partners will recognise the importance of ensuring that the role and needs of women, especially rural women, will figure more prominently in future plans and projects.
We, in Jordan, believe that moving towards food security requires that rural women, small farmers and others at the community level, who play such an important role in food production, should participate actively in the political and economic decision-making process, within an enabling and satisfying environment of domestic political justice and regional peace. Our efforts to empower rural women reflect a belief that we share with the ISC that they can be instrumental in responding to some of the major national and global challenges, such as food insecurity, rural urban migration, high population growth and environmental stress.
On behalf of the ISC, I would like to thank His Holiness Pope John Paul II for his pertinent and important message in promoting an ethic of solidarity and equitable sharing of resources; His Excellency President Scalfaro and the Government of Italy for their support for the invaluable work of FAO, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development and for their support to this Summit; His Excellency the United Nations Secretary-General for his continuing support and emphasis on the vital and essential role women play in development; and finally to the Director-General of FAO, His Excellency Mr. Jacques Diouf, our host, for inviting the ISC to participate at this meeting and, in particular, for his exceptional commitment evident in the increasing focus at FAO on the importance of addressing the needs and empowering and mobilizing women throughout the world to achieve the goals of this Summit and of FAO.
On behalf of the members of the ISC, I urge you to keep the issue of rural women a high priority on national and international agendas.