Remarks by Joan Holmes

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Statement by Joan Holmes, President of The Hunger Project

Introduction

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the celebration of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger.

The African woman is the invisible "producer" of Africa. For thousands of years, African women have met the basic survival needs of the continent. It is she who grows, processes, transports and markets virtually all of Africa's food. It is she who spends hours fetching the fuel and water. It is she who raises the children and manages the household. And it is the African woman who creates and runs the majority of small businesses.

There is no other region of the world where women meet so many of the basic needs.

It is said, that if African women were to stop working - for one day - on that day there would be no food, no caring for the sick, no caring for the children, no sewing, no trading in the market - life would stop - literally stop.

What's So

If we look at sub-Saharan Africa today, this is what we find. We find 45 countries with a population of 711 million people. More than twice the population of the United States, but it has over three times the land-mass of the United States. The vast majority of the people live in rural areas, working in agriculture.

The Gross National Income for all of sub-Saharan Africa is $319 billion - that's one third of the total net worth of the wealthiest 400 citizens in the United States.

Nearly half the population lives on $1 a day. Or less.

The literacy rate is 62%. Life expectancy is 46 years. The Infant Mortality Rate is 105. And almost 1/3 of the population suffers from chronic hunger.

And if that weren't challenging enough - there are over 29 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Over 12 million have died. More than 2 million in a single year. This pandemic has created 11 million orphans.

The 1990s

The 1990s were a particularly difficult decade. During this decade the per capita income declined. Poverty increased. This desperate and declining situation in Africa is due to many factors: debt, unfair trade, agricultural subsidies, poor governance, disease, regional conflicts, local conflicts and violence.

Inexplicably foreign aid for Africa was cut by more than 25%.

A big part of the problem - which is almost never acknowledged - is that Africa is trying to confront these horrendous challenges with only 1/2 of its population - while suppressing the other half.

And that is the issue we are here to discuss tonight: women - their participation - their leadership and the future of Africa.

Harsh Life

The conditions in Africa are bad for everyone, but as with most societies - they are much worse for women.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest levels of maternal deaths in the world.

Two million girls undergo Female Genital Mutilation throughout Africa annually.

And of the people infected with HIV/AIDS - 58% are women. It's the only region in the world where more women than men are infected. The truth is, there is a direct correlation between women's low status, the violation of their human rights, and HIV transmission.

The burden of caring for the sick and caring for the ever increasing number of people who are infected with HIV/AIDS falls almost exclusively on women. Since shouldering this devastation, African women report endemic levels of exhaustion, grief and depression. Even for the strong women of Africa this burden is becoming too much to bear.

Women are at the center of the development process

In sub-Saharan Africa - and this is equally true of other regions with the persistence of hunger - women bear full responsibility for the key issues in ending hunger: family health, nutrition, sanitation, education, and increasingly - family income.

Yet women are denied - and systematically denied - the information, education and freedom of action they need to fulfill these responsibilities.

For example, women produce 80% of the food but receive less that 7% of farm extension services. Studies show that if women farmers were given the same support as that given to men, their yields could increase as much as 20%.

Women are at the center of the development process, and when they are empowered there is increased agricultural production, faster economic growth, and the overall health and well-being of a society is greatly improved.

Twenty-five years

But, for 25 years, in declarations and development plans that have been created by the leaders of Africa - that truth has been ignored. The crucial role of women as food producers, agents of change, and major contributors to the economy has rarely been acknowledged. And never have plans been created or financial resources budgeted to enable women to play their critical role.

Let's go back to 1980. In the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, farsighted African leaders called for the full integration of women into the development process.

They warned - "development that ignores women will fail" - and it has.

In the 1984 Harare Declaration, African ministers pledged to give the highest priority to agriculture and rural development. Yet there was no mention of women.

In 1986, the UN Special Session on Africa's Economic and Social Crisis made agriculture the priority of priorities and highlighted the lack of attention to food crops. Yet the plan made little reference to women. And the budget made no concrete commitments to women farmers.

The 1989 ECA Conference for Ministers did recognize the crucial role of women as producers and agents of change. But, in the actual alternative framework, women were not included.

In 1989, 700 women from across Africa met in Abuja, Nigeria to again say to Africa that women do and must play a central role in the development process. No one was listening.

In 1990, the Arusha Conference in Tanzania again emphasized the need for women to take a leading role in development. Again, no action was taken.

And it is profoundly disappointing that the newly formed African Union adopted a development plan in 2002, that while stating gender equality as a principle, once again, does not adequately include women in its framework or plan of action.

The Future

What have we learned from this history? Simply this: if women are going to be liberated, if women are going to be empowered to succeed in their crucial role in African development, it will be up to women to exert their own leadership to make this happen.

It is audacious and unfair to ask the African women who are already doing so much of the work - producing the food, raising families and caring for the sick - to now step up to the plate to carve out leadership for themselves and for other women in Africa.

But, until this happens, there is no future.

The Hunger Project

What makes those of us in The Hunger Project believe that a new future in Africa is possible is our work on the ground with the people of Africa in 7 countries.

When we see thousands of African women and men at the grassroots level in our Vision, Commitment and Action workshops gather together to create a vision for their villages, and then see them take actions to realize this vision. That's what makes us believe a new future is possible.

When we see the African woman food farmer increase her agricultural yield - be better able to feed her family - educate her children - and create new businesses with a minimum amount of training and credit. That's what makes us believe a new future is possible.

In our epicenters, affecting more than 2 million people every village committee has an equal number of women and men in leadership positions. That's what makes us believe that a new future is possible.

And, when we realize that more than 100,000 women and men will have taken The Hunger Project's HIV/AIDS and Gender Inequality workshop by the end of the year, that's what makes us believe a new future is possible.

When we see these women and men working together to address this issue of HIV/AIDS, learning together to stop the harmful gender attitudes and behaviors that drive the spread of this disease - that's what makes us believe a new future is possible.

We believe it is incumbent on us - the organizations and the people who love Africa and are committed to its future - to do everything possible to call forth, acknowledge and support women's leadership.

This is why it is so important for the most prestigious prize ever created for Africa - the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger - be given to honor the emerging leadership of African women.

Statement of Joan Holmes at the Policy Forum: Women’s Leadership and the Future of Africa

October 11, 2003 - New York Hilton

Fundamental Thesis

The fundamental thesis of this Policy Forum is that women's leadership is crucial if Africa is to have a future. A future - not a continuation of the past - where patriarchal societies deny women equal rights, and where the discrimination of women severely limits the development of sub-Saharan Africa. But, a new future. A future where both women and men have equal rights, equal opportunities, and together are at the forefront of change, responsibility and leadership.

What's So

For those of us who are committed to Africa, but probably don't keep all the statistics in our minds, let me just review what's so in sub-Saharan Africa today.

As we remember, there are 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a population of 711 million people, which is more than twice the population of the United States, but it has over three times the land-mass of the United States.

The vast majority of the people live in rural areas.

The Gross National Income for all of sub-Saharan Africa is $319 billion. That's just a third of the total net worth of the wealthiest 400 citizens in the United States.

Nearly half the population lives on $1 a day. Or less.

The literacy rate is 62%. Life expectancy is 46 years. The Infant Mortality Rate is 105. And, almost 1/3 of the population suffers from chronic hunger.

And, as if that weren't challenging enough - there are over 29 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Over 12 million have died. More than 2 million in a single year. This pandemic has created 11 million orphans.

This desperate and declining situation in Africa is due to many factors: debt, unfair trade, agricultural subsidies, poor governance, disease, regional conflicts and local conflicts.

A big part of the problem, which is almost never acknowledged, is that Africa is trying to confront these horrendous challenges with only ½ of its population - while suppressing the other half.

And that is the issue we are here to discuss today: women - their participation - their leadership and the future of Africa.

Women are at the Center of the Development Process

In sub-Saharan Africa - and this is equally true of other regions with the persistence of hunger - women bear full responsibility for the key issues in ending hunger: family health, nutrition, sanitation, education, and increasingly, family income. Yet women are denied - and systematically denied - the information, education and freedom of action they need to fulfill these responsibilities.

For example, women produce 80% of the food, but receive less than 7% of farm extension services. Studies show that if women farmers were given the same support as that given to men, their yields could increase as much as 20%.

Women are at the center of the development process, and when they are empowered, there is increased agricultural production, faster economic growth, and the overall health and well-being of a society is greatly improved.

What We Mean by Women's Empowerment

When we use the phrase "women's empowerment," it is important that we know what that phrase means. When we say empowering women, what this means is to lift some of the shackles that constrict and suppress their lives.

Women's empowerment, if that concept is misunderstood or misused, can reinforce the patriarchal mind set, that women have lesser capacity, or that women are not playing their part in development.

That's not what we are saying. What we are saying, and what the truth is - is that women are at the center of the development process, and are doing most of the work of development.

For example: women produce 80% of Africa's food, yet own only 1% of the land, receive less than 7% of farm extension services, and receive less than 10% of the credit given to small-scale farmers.

Policy Forum

From this Forum, we will come away with a fuller understanding of the severe condition of discrimination in which African women lead their lives, and the repressive effects that has on development.

We will begin to understand what is being done, and what needs to be done in sub-Saharan Africa to address this severe gender discrimination.

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