Women are one of the world’s most underutilised resources. Closing the gender-gap in farming by giving women the same access as men to resources could increase yields in developing countries by up to four percent, which in turn has the potential to reduce the number of undernourished people by 130 million. Yet, women rarely come to mind when agriculture is mentioned.
According to WorldWatch, “roughly 1.6 billion women depend on agriculture for their livelihoods” but there are many obstacles stopping women farmers from being as productive as farmers who are men – both institutional and cultural.The fifth Sustainable Development Goal is gender equality. Today, women only own two percent of land worldwide, and property rights typically favour men in terms of inheritance. Women also have to overcome barriers to credit and they struggle to access inputs such as improved seeds and fertilisers, as well as agricultural training.
At a time when agricultural policy must focus on how to feed a growing population globally, it seems foolish to ignore the obvious solution that women farmers provide. Supporting the empowerment of women farmers can have far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity, food security and hunger.
There are also, what Anna Fälth of UN Women called, “positive secondary effects”: studies have shown that in the household unit women and men allocate resources in different ways. Women who earn an income tend to reinvest it more into the well-being of the family unit, especially in terms of food expenditure.
That’s not to say that efforts to empower women in agriculture are not already in motion. In 2012, the US agency for International Development (USAid), the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative launched a Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI). The Index was the first tool to directly capture women’s empowerment and inclusion levels in the agricultural sector.
In essence, WEAI makes it possible to identify the areas where women specifically need more support. It encourages the systematic use of gender analysis in agricultural projects, whereas before, most agriculture indicators were gender-blind. WEAI can be broken down by sub-national region, by age and by social group, which makes it possible to tailor projects and policies to the specific socio-cultural background of women. Findings from Bangladesh and Honduras showed, for instance, that control over income is more of a barrier to women’s empowerment in Bangladesh than it is in Honduras where the biggest barrier is a lack of access to resources.
Agriculture is also evolving. In the Western world, the agriculture sector is declining but the percentage of women farmers is increasing. Traditional family farms have been transformed by multifunctional agriculture (producing various non-commodity outputs in addition to food) and farm tourism (bringing visitors to a farm as tourists). This creates more prospects for women to take charge. Developed and developing countries (of which women make up almost half the agricultural labour force) all benefit from the integration of gender considerations into their agriculture. When women’s potential is recognised, they are a positive force for change.