I am so pleased to join you today to celebrate the role of rural women in agriculture. Throughout our history, we have long recognized, although certainly undervalued, the role that women play as caretakers of the family. In recent years, however, there has been a growing understanding that the role women play is not limited to the family -- that women contribute significantly to the world's economy, as well.
Similarly, the participation of women in agricultural production, as well as their responsibilities for households, is finally being recognized as a key to the survival of family farms and ranches.
Internationally, rural women make up 25 percent of the world's population and form the basis of much of the world's agricultural economy. In developing countries, rural women work as small farmers, laborers and entrepreneurs, producing most of their countries' food, creating many of the jobs, and managing most of the natural resources. While millions of rural women worldwide live below the poverty level, struggling to survive with scarce resources and little training and education, they still manage to feed their families and contribute to their communities.
As President Clinton said in a proclamation marking October 15, 1997 as International Rural Women's Day: "There are millions of other women who live and work among us whose names will never be known, but whose efforts and energy contribute profoundly to the quality of our lives. Rural women are numbered among these many quiet heroes."
The United States Department of Agriculture, under the leadership of Secretary Dan Glickman, is committed to increasing opportunities for women in agriculture. Working in partnership with many agencies, USDA is finding ways to assist rural women in a variety of ways.
Take for example, the case of Beverly Johnson. The victim of an abusive marriage, she decided one day that she'd had enough and left with her children and one suitcase. Through USDA's Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, she learned that technical assistance grants were available to nonprofit housing organizations which acquire land and hire a construction supervisor to work with groups of 8 to 12 low income rural families. Today, Beverly owns her own home, has graduated from community college with honors, and has a full-time job.
Also, consider the lives of the 75 residents of Smith Island, located in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Five years ago, the small community had fallen on hard times. Income from crabbing and fishing -- the sole industry of this village -- was dropping. Women on the island traditionally picked and packed the meat from hard shell crabs that their husbands caught. They usually worked in sheds behind their homes. Most island families could not survive without this source of income. In 1993, state health inspectors threatened to shut down the entire industry on the island if a modern facility wasn't opened in three years time. To save their crab picking industry, the women of the island formed the Smith Island Crab Meat Cooperative. After three years, they raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars -- more than half of which was provided by grants and repayable loans from the USDA Rural Development Program. Fifteen women are now working together in a successful venture who used to work alone. In 1997, the coop members produced 19,000 pounds of crab meat.
Around the world, the Department of Agriculture is also playing a leading role in assisting women. In many countries where Peace Corps' volunteers serve, women's participation in agriculture means home gardens and small livestock production for family and community consumption. Since their efforts are frequently not aimed at production for commercial markets, their work is often viewed as part of a woman's domestic responsibility. As a result, many agricultural development programs and projects have failed to include women. To ensure that women receive the support they need to make their agricultural work more productive, the Peace Corps has developed participatory programming and training tools that Peace Corps staff and volunteers can use to help communities recognize and appreciate the important roles women play in food production.
The United States Agency for International Development is also playing a key role in assisting rural women in developing countries. For example, their Soil Management Collaborative Research Support Program is investigating how to best provide fertilizer -- and ensure its on-going use -- to low income women to help boost crop yields and income. This is an extremely important study when you consider that women produce the majority of food used for domestic consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, but tend to have less access to fertilizers that can make their labor more productive. Often that means that women farmers work harder than men but produce less due to the lack of access to these support systems.
It is just these types of collaborations that cut across agencies that will help all women succeed in their efforts in the home, in the fields and in the workplace in rural areas around the world. As our First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her address to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing: "...give a woman a seed, and she will plant it, she will water it, nurture it, then reap it, share its fruits, and finally, she will replant it. In this way, step by step, the world's poorest women are leading their families, their communities and their countries to a better future. When we help these women to sow, we all reap."
Thank you and best wishes for your efforts on this very important issue.
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