Dr. Mona S. Chaya, Deputy Strategic Programme Leader for Sustainable Agriculture at Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), evaluates how empowering women can improve agricultural practices, nutrition and food systems.
With women comprising around 45 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, their contribution is vital. Yet, they earn significantly less than men as they do not have the same level of access to productive resources and opportunities. This gender gap is found across many assets, inputs and services such as land, livestock, labour, education, extension, information, financial services, and technology. Women are also under-represented in local institutions and governance mechanisms, and thus have fewer opportunities to influence relevant decision-making processes.
This ‘gender gap’ not affects only women’s well-being, but the performance of the entire agriculture sector, as well as the broader economy. In crisis times, these inequalities have exponentially negative implications on women and society and put women in an extremely volatile and vulnerable position.
Studies by the FAO show that providing women with equal access to resources and services would contribute to increased agricultural productivity, raise agricultural output in developing countries and in turn help reduce hunger and malnutrition.
A good example is a project in Kanem, Chad, where the FAO empowered women across the agricultural sector, leading to a considerable decline in child malnutrition. Kanem is disproportionately affected by prolonged droughts, which often lead to food shortages and an overall lower level of income. Women and children end up bearing the brunt of this, with their diets and health impacted.
The FAO worked with landowners in the region to enable the poorest communities to access land. The landowners signed five-year agreements with farmers, who otherwise would not have had access to irrigable land. From this, support was established for gardening activities, small irrigation projects as well as educational services on the importance and value of nutritional diets. Crucially, the project enabled women’s groups to access arable and fertile land, farm in their own name and receive training on good agricultural practices. As a result, food production significantly increased. The impact on nutrition was dramatic; child malnutrition rates dropped to 12.6 per cent in beneficiary households, compared to 31.1 per cent among non-beneficiaries.
Women are key to agriculture and to food and nutrition security
The roles of men and women in agriculture are different, depending on country or region. In general, men own land as well as large animals, such as cattle. Women have smaller animals, such as chickens and small ruminants, are involved in vegetable production and tend to be the ones who go to the market to sell the harvest.
If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms between 20-30 per cent. This could raise the total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 per cent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world. Closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate significant gains for both the agriculture sector and for society.
Women’s influence on the livelihoods, nutrition and health of their households is enormous. Generally, women predominantly care for children, prepare the meals and make nutritional decisions. If they had additional money, they would be the ones to invest in the healthcare and education of their children. These are basic decisions within a household that hold serious importance for the well-being of a family.
If women had more access to resources, particularly land, and to education, information, services and opportunities, food security and nutrition of a household would increase more sustainably, resulting in a healthier and more food secure society. Compelling evidence shows that improving women’s education and status within their household and communities has a direct impact on food security and nutrition, particularly child nutrition.
Empowering women to become agents of change
Decisions in household agriculture are usually made by men, and so women are often left with manual labour. Yet, empowering women to lead agricultural projects and activities will have a trickle-down effect on other women and the wider group as a whole. In Afghanistan, FAO made a conscious decision to select a professional female vegetable production specialist, amongst a list of male candidates, to manage an agricultural project in a drought-stricken area. The agronomist decided on the objective of the project and made all planning decisions. She decided to support women in drought stricken Qhargha, near Kabul. She provided the necessary inputs and together with other female agronomists trained the women on best farming practices.
Above all, she provided the enabling environment to these women because she felt empowered herself. The women’s group, alongside their families, benefited from the production increasing their income, as well as the nutritional value of their diet. The women felt self-empowered, independent, and proud. A determined managerial decision created an agent of change by empowering a woman to play a role she usually is not encouraged to play. By empowering other women around her, she in turn was able to create new agents of change.
Investing in rural women’s capacities
More sustained efforts are needed to invest in rural women’s capacities and to create an enabling environment for them to equally participate in and benefit from the transformations affecting their rural landscapes. It is important that the promotion of gender equality and socio-economic empowerment of women be at the center of any intervention made with the view to promote sustainable agriculture and to eradicate hunger and poverty, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality is not only a human rights issue, but a pre-condition to ensure sustainable food and agriculture.