Investment in Women Farmers Still Too Low

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Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, yet few extension or research services are directed at women farmers, according to new research conducted for our Vital Signs Online service. Women produce as much as 50 percent of the agricultural output in South Asia and 80 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Women produce as much as half of the world’s agricultural output. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In spite of women farmers’ essential roles in global and local food security, there is a persistent gender gap in agriculture. Cultural norms and restrictive property or inheritance rights limit the types and amount of financial resources, land, or technology available to women. Studies in South Asia and throughout the Middle East also show that women receive lower wages and are more likely to work part-time or seasonally than men in comparable jobs, regardless of similar levels of education and experience.

Recognizing the factors restricting women from receiving full compensation for their role in global agriculture is key to alleviating the gender gap in agricultural employment, resources, and development. Women produce 60–80 percent of the food in developing countries but own less than 2 percent of the land. They typically farm non-commercial, staple crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, which account for 90 percent of the food consumed by the rural poor.

Fewer extension or research services are directed at women farmers because of perceptions of the limited commercial viability of their labor or products—and only 15 percent of extension officers around the world are women. Yet the Economist Intelligence Unit’s newly developed Global Food Security Index has a 0.93 correlation with its index of Women’s Economic Opportunity, showing that countries with more gender-sensitive business environments—based on labor policies, access to finance, and comparative levels of education and training—have more abundant, nutritious, and affordable food. This relationship provides evidence that when women have equal resources and opportunity, they can produce higher—and higher-quality—agricultural yields.

Farmers in countries with greater gender equality, based on an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development index of Gender Inequality and Social Institutions, tend to achieve higher average cereal yields than those in countries with more inequality. The countries are also more food-secure, based on food affordability, availability, quality, and safety. Improved agricultural productivity reinforces gains in gender equality in addition to creating a positive feedback mechanism throughout local communities.

Community-level efforts to improve women farmers’ status and livelihoods can become more effective if there are similar initiatives at the national scale. Policies governing assets, employment, and mobility can be altered to protect women’s diverse needs and interests, including retention of joint property upon widowhood and freedom for sole caregivers to work in non-domestic employment or travel without male supervision in order to support their families. Improved property or inheritance rights must go hand in hand with supporting measures to ensure and develop women’s capacities to use their land or agricultural assets.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2011, 85 percent of countries made progress toward gender equity over the past seven years, yet women farmers are still largely marginalized by development policies that are inattentive to their needs. Current data are limited in scope and slow research efforts by not reflecting the wealth of knowledge and expertise that women are already using to, for example, mitigate global climate change. Food insecurity and climate change, along with associated trends such as land grabbing, large-scale biofuel production, and gendered migration and employment patterns, are also putting increasing pressure on women farmers to produce more with fewer resources.

Developing a rights-based policy framework requires collaborative research, learning, and action within the international community for a global movement to empower women farmers with the resources, support, and recognition they need and deserve.

Further highlights from the report:

  • Women represent 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world.
  • Increased individual smallholder yields as a result of closing gender gaps in land ownership can raise domestic agricultural output by 2.5–4 percent.
  • Although they produce as much as 50 percent of the agricultural output, only 10–20 percent of landholders are women in most developing countries.

Click here to read the full report.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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