Step into any local market in a rural community, and you will meet women vendors with baskets full of fresh produce and homemade goods to trade. In many societies, women are the primary vendors at these local markets. By selling their produce, they not only contribute to local economies but also ensure food accessibility to a broader population.
Understanding the roles of rural women in food systems
Since time immemorial, rural women have been primary food producers responsible for growing, harvesting and processing staple foods and managing livestock. They have been the custodians of diets and recipes, ensuring that families and communities have access to nutritious and diverse food. In many societies, women are the primary vendors at local markets. By selling their produce, they not only contribute to local economies but also ensure food accessibility to a broader audience.
Rural women often play a pivotal role in ensuring their families’ nutritional needs as well. They play a critical role in making decisions about food purchases and meal preparations, affecting the health and well-being of their family members.
Women are the key players in seed preservation and biodiversity, contributing to the adaptation of crops to changing climate conditions and pests. They play the role of seed selection which directly promotes the preservation of the world’s genetic seed variety for generations to come.
Apart from primary food production, value addition and processing have also been the role of rural women who have mastered the art of transforming raw food products into consumable and marketable goods for domestic and community use. Undisputedly, our rural women have intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and have continuously applied this knowledge in land management, promoting soil health, water conservation and biodiversity.
Understanding the role of rural women in food transformation is vital to achieving food security, promoting sustainable agriculture, and ensuring resilient rural communities. The reality is that women perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work within families and households in rural areas, make significant contributions to agricultural production, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management, and build climate resilience, but suffer disproportionately from multidimensional poverty.
Filling the gender gap in food systems
Despite their important role in food systems, the gender gap limits women’s access to financing and credit due to cultural norms. Moreover, the average income of female-headed households is lower than those headed by men, exposing women-headed households to a higher risk of poverty.
As much as they may be as productive and enterprising as their male counterparts, they are less able to access land, credit, agricultural inputs, markets and high-value agri-food chains and obtain lower prices for their crops.
As a significant proportion of rural women work as farmers, wage earners and entrepreneurs, their social and economic empowerment can have a powerful impact on productivity and agriculture-led growth. Notably, agriculture remains the most important employment sector for women in developing countries and rural areas, largely falling within the informal economy with little or no social protection and labour rights. This has led to lower standards of living, poorer wages and health and limited access to social services. To win the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition, there is an urgent need to empower women in this sector and attain gender equality.
Empowering rural women means:
- Closing the gender gap and increasing agricultural production by 30 per cent.
- More prosperous, healthy and stable societies.
- Challenging and changing restrictive or negative societal norms.
- Investing in modern tools and technologies to lessen their physical burdens and optimize women’s productivity.
- Ensuring they have the same access to resources and opportunities as men.
- Providing them with education and training to further boost their potential.
- Recognising and celebrating their immense contributions at all levels.
It is critical to remember that rural women are the guardians of our food traditions, the keepers of our biodiversity and the pillars of our food systems. Empowering these women is therefore not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do if we are to accelerate the transformation of Africa’s food systems.