By David Joslyn
The Chicago Council

“If you want to change the world, invest in an adolescent girl.” This quote from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs publication entitled Girls Grow, A Vital Force in Rural Economies, is being taken very seriously this week in Mexico City where the G(irls)20 Summit is in full force. Between 18 and 20 years of age, delegates from each G-20 country and the European and African Unions participating in the summit are experiencing what is sure to be a life changing immersion into the important issues of global food security and abuse of children and women.

Earlier this week, these young women from all corners of the world were exposed, possibly for the first time, to how very important food security is to women and children, and how critical the role of women is to eliminating food insecurity and debilitating malnutrition especially that affecting women and children in their first 1,000 days of life. The delegates and nine women who are actively working on ways to increase food security spent all day discussing the impact of empowering women farmers, the role of science and technology in increasing women’s productivity, and the major constraints women farmers face in agricultural productivity.

When Jeni Klugman of the World Bank, Rekha Mehra of the International Center for Research on Women, and Susan Bradley of USAID explained to the delegates that there is ample and clear evidence that gender equality in access to land, credit, and important agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizers would significantly increase agricultural productivity, the girls wanted to know, somewhat incredulous, “If the evidence is so clear, why are our Ministers of Finance so slow on the uptake to ensure better access to these things for women farmers?”

Karen Garcia of CIMMYT and Yael Schwartzman of Frogtek explained to the group how innovations based on plant and computer sciences were making women farmers more productive and more active in the marketing of their products, so the girls wanted to know more about the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They wanted to know if there weren’t too many constraints to adaptation of user-centered information systems when the users were essentially illiterate. And they asked if small amounts of money (microfinance) are available for poorer farmers to adopt the innovations the panelists were touting, and if so, was this being made available to women farmers as well as men.

To the question of are there any “silver bullets” which might result in quantum leaps forward in the production of more and better food in the future, the panelists all agreed that no, not one “silver bullet”, but certainly many small ones each of which can solve small problems over a wide range of users. Good examples of these are mobile applications that turn watering systems on and off crops remotely, saving farmers (often women) the time and energy to walk long distances to do the work manually, web applications to help small ag producers achieve organic and fair trade certifications, and the use of energy saving lightweight materials in the production of bicycles, used heavily in rural areas to move from one place to another.

Elisa Scalise, a land law and policy attorney at the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights and Abby Davidson of CARE, introduced the young delegates to approaches to make land ownership and tenure more gender equitable, the power of women organizing in collective community groups (including men and boys) such as local savings and loan organizations, and the introduction of gender transformative approaches to gender equality. The delegates, as you would suspect from a very diverse group such as this, voiced concerns about cultural imperialism and the appearance of unwanted imposition of culturally insensitive “outsider” solutions to local problems.

Esther Wamono told the girls how she went from being a withdrawn young woman fraught with a desire to be a scientist but scared to death of entering a space dominated by men, to her present position as a UNICEF nutrition officer in Uganda with a Master of Science degree in human nutrition. She explained to the young delegates how she built up her skills and her confidence through training, mentoring, and the development of a clear “life roadmap” with an explicit goal: “I will help eliminate malnutrition among women of reproductive age and children under five years of age in Uganda”. A motivating moment in Esther’s life was her participation as an Award (African Women in Agricultural research and Development) Fellow, an event much like the G(irls)20 Summit.

By the end of the day, the girls probably had heard much more than they could absorb about food security, women’s empowerment, and how necessary gender equality is to eliminating food insecurity. But when Dr. Eva Crowley of FAO, the final panelist of the day, made her impassioned plea to the girls to take note of the unacceptable fact that a child dies of hunger every 6 seconds, the girls were totally tuned in. And when Eva challenged them to “blow the whistle” on global hunger, you could see in the young delegates eyes, and in their body language as they squirmed in their seats at the harsh charge Eva was giving them, that from now on they are not going to ignore the issue of global food security. Most of these girls will not be farmers, nor even work in the agriculture sector. But judging by the keen questioning of these brilliant young women, when they find their voices in leadership positions they are all destined to hold, they will work diligently to create a better world free of hunger.

Changing the world, one girl at a time.