printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S.-China Panel on Rural Women and Sustainable Development United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Meetings

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New York City
February 27, 2012


Thank you, Lakshmi, for your kind introduction, and Ambassador DiCarlo and Ambassador Wang, for your warm welcomes. Thank you also to Under Secretary General Bachelet for joining us today, and for your groundbreaking leadership at the United Nations on behalf of women around the world. It is also a pleasure to have with us Fijian Minister of Social Welfare, Women, and Poverty Alleviation Jiko Luveni and Ms. Joyce Nangobi from the Ugandan NGO Slum Women’s Initiative for Development to share their critical perspectives on how women are advancing and must further advance sustainable development around the world.

And of course, I would like to offer my sincerest thanks to our co-hosts, the All-China Women’s Federation, and particularly to Madame Meng. Lakshmi and I participated in ACWF’s conference on Women and Sustainable Development in Beijing in November. It generated a fruitful exchange on themes central to the CSW focus on the role of rural women. And together, we have built a strong bilateral partnership between women leaders in China and the U.S. called U.S.-China Women-LEAD. And special thanks to all of you who are here. Without your persistence and dedication over so many years, we would not be here today.

Sustainable development is one of the greatest global challenges we face. Factors such as climate change, natural resource degradation, social inequities, the complex fluctuations of the global economy, and more pose a serious challenge to global stability, not only for our world today, but for generations to come. No effort to advance sustainable development will succeed that does not take into account the potential of half the world’s population. Rural women are powerful agents in sustainable development.

The Rio Declaration, the MDG’s and the Beijing platform all recognize this fundamental truth – that environmental issues are women’s issues. Women, particularly rural women, are on the frontlines of the battle for a sustainable future. Women are among the most severely impacted. They constitute a large number of the poor in communities that are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood. They are disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by drought, uncertain rainfall, and deforestation.

But rural women are far from being victims. Women have long been driving solutions to sustainable development challenges. Yet the full potential of women to engage in and contribute to sustainable development is yet to be fully tapped. We’ve known this and talked about this for some time. It is past time that we work together to unlock women’s potential to build a sustainable future.

In the interest of time, let me mention a couple areas where rural women are critical to sustainable development. These are also critical themes in our deliberations here at CSW.

Women, Agriculture, and Food Security

Rural women play a vital role in the agriculture sector and food security. Globally, agriculture accounts for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Women in many places comprise the majority of small-hold farmers. Many are the main producers of staple crops, particularly in developing countries and regions likely to be adversely affected by climate change impacts. A 2011 FAO report indicates that while globally women account for nearly half of the global agriculture workforce, they are significantly less likely than men to have access to training through extension services, rarely own the land they work, and are more likely to be credit constrained. These limits severely restrict women’s potential to produce food for their families, utilize sustainable agricultural practices, enhance their productivity, and contribute both to economic growth and benefit their families.

Closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and for society. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, it is projected they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent. And production gains of this magnitude could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent, which translates into 100-150 million people. Women with access to education and training and the ability to invest in land they own are more likely to utilize new technologies, including climate-smart agricultural practices.

Women, Energy Access, and Entrepreneurship

Rural women also have untapped potential for increasing energy access. For example, nearly 3 billion people globally still rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires to prepare food for their families. Women and children often have the primary responsibility for collecting fuels for household needs. Increasing degradation of natural resources means more time and effort finding and bringing home the fuel they need, which in some places, increases women and girl’s vulnerability to sexual and gender based violence. Smoke exposure from traditional cooking methods causes an estimated two million premature deaths annually, with women and young children the most affected. Cookstoves also impact the climate through emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived particles such as black carbon.

Engaging rural women is critical to tackling this problem; integrating them into the small scale clean technology supply chain -- on clean cookstoves and solar lanterns or other technologies --will increase entrepreneurship opportunities and adoption rates, as well as drive innovation towards better products and improve the health and safety of families. Promoting women’s entrepreneurship is particularly critical for inclusive economic growth. However, unlocking women’s full potential requires removing the barriers that women still face disproportionately – including limited access to training, finance, technology, and markets, among others. Rural women face the biggest hurdles.

Let me mention a few concrete ways to move into action to support rural women’s empowerment. To unlock the potential of rural women and girls, we must continue to elevate women’s leadership and grassroots participation in key policy structures. Women – no less rural women - should have an equal seat at the table in decision-making processes that impact environmental policies and natural resource investment decisions at all levels of government. From local village councils to national planning processes, their decisions should be informed by the experiences and perspectives of rural women.

At the Durban climate negotiations in December, there was an effort to highlight women’s critical role in combating climate change. Our collective efforts to build on the gender equality and women's empowerment language in the Cancun agreements are reflected in several crucial institutional developments, including language on gender balance related to the composition of the board of the new Green Climate Fund, the Standing Committee, and the Adaptation Committee. As we look ahead to upcoming global events like Rio+20, we must ensure that women’s issues are not relegated to separate processes; rather, they must be mainstreamed and made a focus of the core efforts that these gatherings represent. Rio+20 provides an opportunity to strengthen attention to the contributions of rural women and girls to sustainable development and to increasing their engagement in policymaking.

Second, to unlock potential, we must build new and innovative programs and partnerships designed to take concrete actions necessary to effectuate change on the ground. The Feed the Future initiative represents my government’s considerable effort to address food security issues and promote sustainable agriculture. President Obama's pledge of at least $3.5 billion for agricultural development and food security over three years has helped to leverage $18.5 billion from other donors in support of a common approach to achieve sustainable food security. Women are a primary focus of this initiative.

We are also working to continue to build innovative public-private partnerships, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. As the Secretary has remarked, this really is the “perfect partnership.” Empowering women and girls is a critical part of the Alliance’s mission. I would encourage all of you to explore ways to get involved in the Alliance and on this issue.

Lastly, to unlock the potential of women and girls, we need a greater focus on data collection. While the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, we need more quantitative data to drive policy change and demonstrate the significant impact that women can and are having in driving forward sustainable economic growth. As we look to opportunities like Rio+20, this data will become even more crucial to securing concrete action.

Over the past twenty years, we have made progress in advancing the role of rural women in sustainable development. With greater availability of gender disaggregated data and analysis, we can build sound programs and policies. To this end, USAID Administrator Raj Shah will announce tomorrow the new and innovative Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.

Yet despite progress, much work remains to be done. Let me again say that the United States is pleased to co-host this event with China. Most of today’s global challenges require countries working together. We are on the right track. When we stand shoulder to shoulder on issues, the world takes note. Let’s move into action to empower rural women – the women around the world who are often most directly impacted in the global struggle for sustainability. Their livelihoods and the future of the planet depend on it. Thank you.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.