Inclusive access to digital technologies and education is crucial to reducing gender inequalities and empowering rural women and girls – that was the message from three United Nations’ (UN’s) food and agriculture agencies as they marked International Women’s Day 2023.

The event was co-organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Participants heard that while digitalisation on its own cannot solve all the gender-related disadvantages women face, if provided with equal access to digital technology and education, women can have a more active and effective role in agri-food systems.

Women in agri-food

FAO deputy director-general, Beth Bechdol said: “Admittedly, it is discouraging to celebrate International Women’s Day in a time when we are going backwards on gender equality and are seeing widening gender gaps in science, technology and innovation.

“When we invest in rural women, we invest in resilience, in the future of our communities and in creating a more inclusive and equitable world – one where no one is left behind.”

IFAD associate vice-president, Jyotsna Puri added: “Without increased access to digital technology and innovation, rural women and girls will continue to face barriers and socio-economic disadvantages, making it harder for them to fully participate in rural economies.

“Gender inequality and the urban-rural divide will only worsen unless we create a more inclusive and prosperous society for everyone.” 

The FAO said that while there is a rapid proliferation of digital tools and services, women continue to face systemic and structural barriers in accessing and adopting new technologies.

Gender gap and access to digital tech

Evidence on the gender gap indicates that globally, 69% of men are using the internet compared with 63% of women, according to the FAO.

Women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are 16% less likely to use mobile internet than men, and progress in reducing the mobile internet gender gap has stalled.

Recent statistics show that this contrast is even starker in rural areas. Rural women are particularly disadvantaged in terms of access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and less likely to engage with ICT solutions, due to constraints such as affordability, illiteracy, user capabilities, and discriminatory social norms. 

Today’s event in Rome brought together thought leaders, policy and change makers who are working on innovative solutions to bring about gender equality in rural areas and beyond. 

Discussions also highlighted the achievements of rural women related to digital literacy, digital skills and ‘agripreneurship’.

Next month, the FAO will launch a new report, Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, which will provide evidence indicating how empowering women can lift millions of people out of food insecurity and make agri-food systems more resilient and sustainable.

Irish women in agriculture

Meanwhile, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) has said that International Women’s Day – which is today (Wednesday, March 8) – gives everyone involved in Irish farming and the wider agri-sector an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that there would be no such thing as ‘Irish farming’ without the central role played by women.

President of the ICMSA, Pat McCormack stated: “To our shame, that role had been – and was allowed to be – ‘behind the scenes’, with the role of women downplayed and stereotyped as ‘helping’.

“The truth was that very often it was the women on the farm who, quite literally, did ‘the heavy lifting’.

“It was they who might make the key decisions but had to hide behind contemporary attitudes and prejudices. That had to change, and that change was long, long overdue,” he added.

The ICMSA said it would consciously try and promote the role of women farmers and women representatives within the association and would continue to participate in the Women in Agriculture Stakeholders Group (WASG).