IIIde Vergadering van het Internationaal Directie Comité voor de economische Promotie van de Plattelandsvrouw

  • 22/10/1998
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It gives me the greatest pleasure to be reunited with you all, here in Kuala Lumpur, the home of Datin Seri Dr Siti Hasmah, one of our founding members and, without any doubt, one of the most actively involved in our movement since its creation.

I would first of all like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Dr Siti Hasmah#s untiring efforts in setting up and developing the Regional Steering Committee for Asia and the Pacific, for having accepted the Presidency and the pro tempore Secretariat of the International Steering Committee over the last two years and, last but not least, for having organised our third ISC Meeting, offering us the warm Malaysian hospitality.

The ISC was founded in 1992, when a core﷓group of six First Ladies from all continents, strongly backed by IFAD and with the unconditional support of the UN Secretary General and my late husband, King Baudouin, decided to draw the world#s attention on rural poverty and in particular on the plight of the poor rural women.

At the 1992 Geneva Summit, 64 Wives of Heads of State or Government adopted what has become known as the Geneva Declaration on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women.

In my opinion, the Geneva Declaration and the advocacy role of the ISC - as laid down in the Declaration - have contributed to raising awareness and to mobilising public opinion in favour of the cause of rural women.

The presence amongst us of many representatives of international organisations, governments and civil society is an indication of their continued interest in the cause that we are committed to. I thank them most warmly for being with us.

I also extend warmest greetings to the representatives of federations of rural women, who are with us today. We all appreciate the efforts they have made to attend this meeting.

In the field of human development, there is reason for optimism. Much has been achieved over the last two or three decades and looking at the overall picture, the results are sometimes amazing.

Life expectancy has increased by twenty years, illiteracy and infant mortality have been halved. In general, people have far better access to health care, education, technology, transportation, communication. In twenty-five years, total consumption expenditure, considered to be the driving force of development, has more than doubled.

No one, however, can deny that huge challenges remain, in both developed and developing countries. Indeed, enormous disparities continue to persist between rich and poor, between women and men, between rural and urban communities, between ethnic groups but also between the wealthy few in the developing countries and the truly poor masses in those same countries.

The UNDP Human Development Report for 1998, tells us that, of the more than 4 billion people living in developing regions, nearly 60% still lack access to sanitation, one third has no safe water, one in four has no adequate housing or access to health services of any kind.

More than 17 million people die each year from curable infectious and parasitic diseases such as diarrhoea, measles, malaria and tuberculosis. Some 40.000 people die from hunger-related causes every day.

More than 850 million people are still illiterate, in other words excluded from formal knowledge and information.

The effects of these inequalities are felt most strongly in the rural areas of developing countries, where basic human services are often but a fraction of those available in urban areas and where the problems of malnutrition, low life expectancy and high infant mortality are far more severe.

Rural women have a work burden that is significantly greater than men#s. At the same time, they are consistently disadvantaged in the field of sanitation, health care, nutrition and education.
Moreover, they still face many cultural, social, legal and economic obstacles that impede their ability to earn a decent living for themselves and their children.

More than their counterparts in urban environments, rural women are affected by the consequences of rapid population growth, the nuclearisation of families, and socio-economic and environmental pressures.

They are the ones who suffer most in times of economic decline, when governments, in trying to deal with the crisis, take deep cuts in public expenditure. Health care and education are often the first to be affected.

As a result, rural migration is accelerating at an alarming rate, leading to urban poverty which, in turn, may trigger a global spiral of violence, traficking, prostitution and disease.

The theme for our conference : "Poverty amongst Rural Women, their Families and Communities " could not have been better chosen.

At the dawn of the third millennium, women still represent over 60 % of the more than 1 billion rural people living in absolute poverty, and their numbers are increasing by 15 million a year.

This, in spite of the high hopes raised at the beginning of this decade. The end of the cold war brought with it a new focus on development and prosperity. The nineties saw a succession of summit meetings and international conferences. They all emphasised the urgent need for eradicating poverty "as an ethical, social, political and moral imperative". They all claimed that it could be done in one generation, if only the political will could be mobilised to put to use the existing human and material resources, as well as the available know-how.

There is indeed no shortage in resources or in growing know-how. They are simply not used to eradicate poverty. The same Human Development Report estimates that the total annual cost for achieving universal access to basic social services in all developing countries would amount to 40 billion USD, a mere 0,1 % of world income.

The Report also provides us with interesting figures on how the developed world uses its resources, in some illustrative comparisons between the basic needs of the poor and the consumer spending of the rich:

- Of the 40 billion USD mentioned, an annual 6 billion are needed to provide basic education for all, compared to an annual consumption expenditure of 8 billion for cosmetics in the USA alone.

- An annual 9 billion are required for safe water and sanitation for all, compared to an annual consumption of ice cream worth 11 billion in Europe alone.

- An annual 13 billion would go to basic health and nutrition for all, compared to an annual expenditure of 17 billion for pet foods in Europe and the USA.

Clearly, it is time for us to get our priorities right.

As for the political will, or rather the lack of it, the figures show that, for several years now, financial resources dedicated to development aid are diminishing, especially to those countries where the need is greatest.

Despite their long standing commitment to allocate 0,7 % of their Gross National Product to development aid, the donor community now spends an all-time low of 0,25 %, with the share to the least developed countries steadily declining. Most donor countries are still far from meeting the pledges they made at the Social Summit in Copenhagen 4 years ago.

But many developing countries also made commitments in Copenhagen, especially in the field of budget allocation to social development. All too often, they are torn by civil strife and ethnic violence. Internal conflicts destroy years of progress in building social infrastructures. All too often, public expenditures for basic human services decline, while military expenses rise sharply. Here too, the question can be asked whether the political will exists to treat poverty alleviation as the first priority.

The overall conclusion is clear: despite enormous efforts, resulting in truly hopeful improvements in many areas, much remains to be done if poverty is to be eradicated in an acceptable timeframe.

The question to be asked is equally clear: how can we, through the ISC, contribute in a more efficient way towards the eradication of rural poverty´

As requested by the members at our second meeting in Amman in #96, the ISC has now been granted general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

This status enables the ISC:

- to propose to the ECOSOC items for its agenda that are of special interest to our Committee;

- to designate authorised representatives to sit as observers at public meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies;

- to submit written and oral statements to the Council;

- and to attend relevant international conferences convened by the United Nations, as well as the preparatory meetings of these conferences.

As an international non-governmental organisation with general consultative status, the ISC has at its disposal a powerful tool to enhance its visibility on the international scene, in order to amplify the voices of hundreds of millions of poor rural and island women on the world forum. It is up to us now to make an efficient and timely use of the instrument that is available to us.

The Beijing Conference has given greater attention to rural women than has ever been the case before. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action clearly sets out a number of possible remedies for alleviating their unjust hardships.

We know that the primary reason for hunger in the world today is not lack of food, but extreme poverty. We also know that the reduction of poverty requires many different actions on a global scale, sound economic policies, investments that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

But the poorest are always the last to benefit. A special effort must be made to reach out to them, to help them to help themselves.

Education, health and nutrition are very important, but so are credit and financial services for the very poor, especially women. These services should include saving schemes and participation by women in the management and distribution of resources.

In this connection, I would like to confirm ISC#s full support for the goal formulated at last year#s Microcredit Summit in Washington, of setting up microcredit programmes to reach 100 million of the poorest families, especially women, by the year 2005.

I quote from Dr. Siti Hasmah#s remarkable speech at the Washington Summit, as President of the ISC. She said that, "we are convinced that microcredit is a vital tool to help uplift the standards of living of the rural and island women. As an advocacy group, we will continue our efforts to help make it happen, to show that poor women are creditworthy, and that, given the opportunity, they are fully capable of pulling themselves and their families out of their perpetual poverty".

The dynamic Asia-Pacific Regional Steering Committee put these words into action at its meeting in October last year, when it endorsed the establishment of an Independent Revolving Trust Fund that is to finance micro-financing institutions in the region.

Let us take heart from two realities:

First, many countries have already demonstrated significant success in reducing absolute poverty.
Second, the cost of poverty eradication is not large in relative terms.

These facts indicate that the elimination of extreme poverty in one generation does not have to be an illusion. International organisations, governments and civil society must now urgently summon the political will to make poverty eradication the priority and the central aim of development policies.

The intrinsic dignity of each person is universal and based on its spiritual dimension. This dignity forms the basis of our shared conviction that all members of the human family have an equal right to the bare necessities for living a decent life.

As I told you before, my dear husband was deeply convinced of the absolute need for us to return to the basic values of our civilisation: solidarity, justice, tolerance, respect of the family and of each individual. He said that every time society puts these values aside, it suffers, and it makes others suffer.

The eradication of poverty is dictated by these values. It is a universal and fundamental moral imperative, demanding both personal and institutional change. The future peace and harmony of the world will depend on our ability to put aside our narrow focus on accumulation of riches and to replace it by a just and generous sharing of the world#s resources to meet the needs of all. The fight for power must be replaced by the fight against poverty.

At this crucial moment in the history of humanity, we First Ladies must, together, commit our privileged personal position to advocacy and action for the eradication of the extreme poverty and social exclusion of rural women.