Dorine Odongo, Senior Communications Manager at African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), outlines four key priorities for food systems’ policy to better support women in Africa as the continent contends with the impacts of climate change and conflict.
Recurring shocks including drought and wars are worsening the food crisis and the gender divide in agriculture, thus damaging efforts toward food security.
Progress toward developing context-specific, gender-responsive innovations for women smallholders to improve production must urgently be accelerated. To do so, technologies that respond to women’s needs must be developed and adopted to help transform Africa’s food systems.
Implementing gender-responsive policies and ensuring the participation of more women in the policymaking processes can tilt the scale towards equitable food systems. In fact, government policies can enable or constrain women’s success in the agricultural sector. Well-designed and -implemented agricultural policies can conversely help close the gender gap.
Here are four priorities that can set the world toward a sustainable pathway for gender-responsive agricultural policies.
Women in leadership
First, improving women’s participation in leadership is key to building sustainable agri-food systems in Africa. Governments have an important role to play in doing so, especially through fostering political representation and increasing opportunities for women. Equal representation of men and women in decision-making positions can lead to more gender-intentional strategies and policies. Beyond this, equipping women with the right tools when they get to leadership positions is also crucial.
Access and communication
Second, the way policies that benefit women are presented and communicated must be re-evaluated to ensure widespread access to information. Although the use of digital communications is prevalent, data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows that substantial gender gaps in mobile and digital access still exist. For this reason, access to information through a variety of communication frameworks can help to ensure that existing gender gaps are not exacerbated. Such frameworks must take into account users’ ability to access and understand the messaging, including the language used, especially for rural women.
Finance and land rights
Third, gender-responsive policies should not be limited to agricultural production but rather should cut across the entire agricultural value chain including agri-finance, agro-processing, access to inputs and research. Globally, less than 15 per cent of all landholders are women. This gender gap can also affect financial services, as policies that address women’s access to financial services will not yield much without policies in place for land rights and tenure for women. As gender equality often arises from systemic issues, a holistic approach is needed to promote gender-responsive policies.
Fourth, strategic partnerships play an important role in facilitating gender-responsive agricultural practices and policies in Africa. Such partnerships can be effective in promoting inclusive, sustainable farming practices and consequently improving livelihoods.
In 2018, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) partnered with African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) to address its gender gap and launched the EIAR Institutional Fellowship. This career development initiative paired young, newly recruited female researchers with senior researchers as part of a structured mentoring programme. The Fellowship not only fostered intergenerational learning but also contributed to an institution-wide culture of supporting the development of young talent.
In addition, the EIAR-AWARD partnership designed a set of interventions to help develop the leadership and research capacity of female researchers and raise awareness among senior leadership around gender-responsive research. This partnership has firmly grounded institutional mechanisms to support gender parity and systematic integration of gender in their systems and processes.
Filling the gender gap in agriculture
Effective gender-responsive policies must be clearly documented, as well as the ways to measure progress and impact after implementation. The biggest hurdles in achieving such policies result from a lack of understanding of what such policies are and what they should generate. This then leads to low commitment, funding and implementation.
At a 67th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) side event, it emerged that successful gender-responsive policies require actors to consider the interconnectedness of existing barriers and the underlying causes of gender gaps. This is why it is important to highlight how existing agri-food policies might be exacerbating the problem and create a common understanding among policymakers.
Some global initiatives, such as the World Committee on Food Security, can serve as a reference point to assess progress by mobilising action toward a global framework on gender equality and empowerment. Such an internationally agreed tool can help reduce the gender gaps in agri-food systems.
Similarly, AWARD and its partners are addressing some of these priorities. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), AWARD’s Gender Responsive Agriculture Systems Policy (GRASP) Fellowship aims to catalyse policy change that promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment in agriculture and food systems.
The GRASP Fellowship will grow a pool of African women policy professionals, who are confident, resilient and capable of leading policy change processes to improve food security and contribute to positive livelihood outcomes.
Equipping policy practitioners with the skills and resources to influence agri-food policies to reduce barriers that women face in accessing financial services, land tenure, extension services and more is one of the sure ways to sustain the momentum towards inclusive agri-food systems.