Gender in Agriculture Partnership

Transforming agriculture to empower women and deliver food, nutrition and income security

GAP Patron Catherine Bertini speaks at Presidential Lecture series, food security

Increasing the role of women in the United Nations World Food Program was an important part of improving global food security.

A former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, 2003 World Food Prize Laureate and, in the words of President Daniels, “a pioneer in many ways,” spoke at the Purdue Presidential Lecture series this Wednesday. Catherine Bertini has been a staunch advocate for improving food security in the developing world and a role model for women. Under her guidance, the U.N. World Food Program formed its current mission.

“So if the mission is to end hunger, the mission isn’t just moving food; people have to eat the food,” said Bertini. “So who cooks the food? Well, in the developing world, usually it’s women.”

Bertini was the first woman and the first American to run the U.N. World Food Program. During her tenure, the percentage of women working in the organization jumped from 17 percent to 39 percent. Increasing the gender diversity was an important step to fulfilling the mission of the World Food Program, as Bertini illustrated.

We provided farming hoes to people in Angola, said Bertini. When she went to visit, all the hoes were lined up on a fence, unused. When she asked why, the villagers said those were male hoes. Apparently, female hoes are shorter and have a pointed spade. Women in developing countries carry their children on their back; shorter hoes allow women to kneel without straining their back while they work. More communication with these women would have prevented this misunderstanding.

Bertini had to make difficult moral and ethical decisions throughout her career. Under her leadership, the U.N. World Food Program provided resources to North Korea in the mid-1990s.

“I’m going to quote a former president of the United States that I knew well, President Reagan: ‘A hungry child knows no politics.’ So it’s my job not to assess the government, but to get food to those children,” said Bertini.

An audience member said, “I love that (Bertini) points out how important agriculture is to the world.”

“It’s tough the first time in a job like this when you see a child dying of starvation,” said Bertini. “Then you look around at all the children who are thriving because of your organization, and I think that is what I always try to do.”

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