Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development and World Hunger

Providing women with equal access to productive resources and opportunities may be the key to bolstering the struggling global agricultural sector and feeding communities living in extreme hunger, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) latest State of Food and Agriculture report, which this year is sub-titled, “Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development.”

“Women are farmers, workers, and entrepreneurs, but almost everywhere they face more severe constraints than men in accessing productive resources, markets, and services,” write the authors. “This ‘gender gap’ hinders their productivity and reduces their contributions to the agriculture sector and to the achievement of broader economic and social development goals.”

Barriers to Productivity

Globally, women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor force, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in southeastern and eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the report. But despite their significant global presence, female farmers face gender-specific constraints that hinder access to productive resources, financial support, information, and services required to be viable and competitive. “The yield gap between men and women averages around 20 to 30 percent, and most research finds that the gap is due to differences in resource use,” write the authors.

Generally, women are more likely than men to hold lower-wage, part-time, or seasonal positions and tend to get paid less even when they are more qualified. Furthermore, domestic and occupational lines are blurred for women, who are often not compensated for work that is closely related to domestic food preparation. Most significantly for agricultural productivity, women across the developing world often lack access to quality land, sometimes being barred from land ownership. This ban precludes female farmers from exercising managerial discretion over farming activities, such as entering contract farming agreements. Women also generally own less livestock and contract for less labor – two crucial assets for marketable agricultural production in many developing countries. Moreover, because of insufficient land and resources, women farmers are also more vulnerable to climate shocks.

Resource barriers for female farmers extend to education, finance, and technology as well. The authors observe that “female household heads in rural areas are disadvantaged with respect to human capital accumulation in most developing countries, regardless of region or level of economic development,” which represents a historical bias against females in education. Despite notable success observed in finance projects involving female farmers, gender bias exists in the financial system, which prevents women from bearing initial financial risk in order to increase long-term productivity gains. Sources of gender bias in the financial sector include legal barriers, cultural norms, lack of collateral, and institutional discrimination by public and private lenders. Due to the aforementioned lack of credit, labor, and education, women farmers are deficient in all aspects of technology, such as the acquisition of new equipment, information about new seed varietals and animal breeds, pest control measures, and management techniques.

Global Implications

Closing the gender gap could have profound implications for easing world hunger. According to the FAO, approximately 925 million people are currently undernourished, most of whom live in developing countries. If women were given all the inputs and support as men, agricultural output could increase by 2.5 to 4 percent in developing countries, potentially reducing the world’s hungry by 100 to 150 million people. “This report clearly confirms that the Millennium Development Goals on gender equality (MDG 3) and poverty and food security (MDG 1) are mutually reinforcing,” FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf argues in his introductory remarks.

Increasing the economic viability of women farmers may also translate into better infant and child health indicators – when women control additional income, they tend to allocate more of their earnings toward the health and well-being of their children. Closing the agricultural gap is “a proven strategy for enhancing the food security, nutrition, education, and health of children,” Diouf asserted. “Better fed, healthier children learn better and become more productive citizens. The benefits would span generations and pay large dividends in the future.”

Finally, the FAO notes that in addition to reducing child mortality rates, increasing female education and economic prosperity helps lower fertility rates, which over time increases human capital and can help drive a demographic transition towards lower dependency rates and higher per capita growth.

Closing the Gender Gap

“The conclusions are clear,” write the authors:
1) Gender equality is good for agriculture, food security, and society; and

2) Governments, civil society, the private sector and individuals, working together, can support gender equality in agriculture and rural areas
Though they note that “no simple ‘blueprint’ exists for achieving gender equality in agriculture,” the authors do recommend some basic principles to the development community, including working towards eliminating discrimination against women under the law, strengthening rural institutions and making them gender-aware, freeing women for more rewarding and productive activities, building the human capital of women and girls, bundling interventions, improving the collection and analysis of sex-disaggregated data, and making gender-aware agricultural policy decisions.

Recognizing that “women will be a pivotal force behind achieving a food secure world,” the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has actually launched initiatives aimed directly at closing the gender gap. The Feed the Future initiative, announced last spring, includes a heavy focus on gender equity and integration with small-scale farming initiatives. For example, the Office of Women in Development is supporting a three-year project in Liberia, “Integrated Agriculture for Women’s Empowerment,” that aims to train and support 1,500 small farmers in Lofa county, two-thirds of whom are women. And in Rwanda, USAID helped the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources – headed by Dr. Agnes Kalibata – develop a national investment plan, which has been successful in bringing in donor support.

However, the FAO report does not offer specific feedback on programs like Feed the Future, which is arguably a crucial component of a truly comprehensive assessment on the current state of agriculture. Though they write that the State of Food Agriculture series is intended to simply be “science-based assessments of important issues,” the infancy of these food security efforts and the immediacy of the problems examined (see recent food price instability) creates an excellent opportunity for critical input. “Women in Agriculture” offers perhaps the most comprehensive report on the gender gap and development to date, but more specific critiques on the current efforts of USAID and others might make more of an impact in a field where the issues at play have been fairly clearly enumerated many times before.

Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization, The Hunger Project, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Population Action International, USAID.

Photo Credit: Adapted from “Ngurumo Village-Ntakira (Kenya),” courtesy of flickr user CGIAR Climate.