The focus on food security on Capitol Hill
continued with Wednesday’s House Hunger Caucus panel, “Feeding a Community, Country and Continent: The Role of Women in Food Security
.” According to panel organizers Women Thrive Worldwide, “over half the food in developing countries – and up to 80 percent in sub-Saharan Africa – is grown by women farmers, who also account for seven in ten of the world’s hungry.”
The panel illuminated some of the inequities routinely faced by female farmers that often prevent them from using the same inputs as men (tools, fertilizer, etc.), bar their access to credit, and force them onto less productive land.
“Women around the world face unique economic and social barriers in farming and food production,” said Nora O’Connell of Women Thrive Worldwide. “But they are key to increasing food security and ending hunger, and all international programs must take their needs into account.”
Panelist David Kauck of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) cited the State Department’s Consultation Document on the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative: “Economic output could be increased by 15-40 percent and under-nutrition reduced by 15 million children simply by providing women with assets equal to those of men.”
According to the 2008 ICRW report, A Significant Shift: Women, Food Security, and Agriculture in a Global Marketplace:
Women also are more likely than men to spend their income on the well-being of their families, including more nutritious foods, school fees for children and health care. Yet agricultural investments do not reflect these facts. Women in forestry, fishing and agriculture received just 7 percent of total aid for all sectors.One of the most fundamental problems faced by women in developing countries is a lack of basic education leading to illiteracy and innumeracy, making it difficult for women to understand agricultural policy or the fair market values of their products. Therefore, men are much more likely to control valuable markets.
In addition, women are less likely to learn about and adopt new agricultural technologies and best practices. Lydia Sasu, director of the Development Action Association, said that when she attended agricultural school in Ghana she was one of only three women, compared to more than 40 men, in her class.
Women in developing countries rarely own the land they farm, which can make it difficult to apply for credit and extension services without collateral. According to the ICRW report:
In Uganda, women account for approximately three out of four agricultural laborers and nine out of 10 food-producing laborers, yet they own only a fraction of the land. Women in Cameroon provide more than 75 percent of agricultural labor yet own just 10 percent of land. A 1990 study of credit schemes in Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe found that women received less than 10 percent of the credit for smallholders and only 1 percent of total credit to agriculture. Women receive only 5 percent of extension services worldwide, and women in Africa access only 1 percent of available credit in the agricultural sector.“The fundamental barrier to women in agriculture,” said USAID’s Kristy Cook, “is access to assets.” Cheryl Morden of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said we have reached the “tipping point,” where action on this issue seems inevitable on the international policy level. However, she questions how quickly that momentum can translate to change on the ground.
The State Department has made improving women’s lives an important part of both their Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative and the Global Health Initiative. ”Investing in the health of women, adolescents, and girls is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January.
Reproductive health and family planning services will be key to both initiatives. A policy brief by ICRW’s Margaret Greene argues that poor reproductive health can have negative effects on women’s educational and economic opportunities. As Secretary Clinton said, “When women and girls have the tools to stay healthy and the opportunity to contribute to their families’ well-being, they flourish and so do the people around them.”
Photo Credit: “Transplanting at rainfed lowland rice in Madagascar,” courtesy of flickr user IRRI Images.