It is an often-repeated fact that although women comprise 40-50% of the agricultural workforce, they are often invisible when it comes to access to resources, training, credit, information and all the opportunities which are readily available to men but not to women. That this situation continues to exist is a stark reminder on every International Women’s Day that very little attention is being given to this issue.
This is a wide-spread societal problem – women are often invisible, undervalued and underrepresented. All over the world men tend to earn more than women. Women are often under-represented in senior positions and high-paying jobs while they are over-represented in low-paying jobs.
In agriculture, men are more likely to own land and control productive assets than women. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 20 million girls of primary age were out of school in 2019 while the corresponding figure for Asia was 8 million. That’s close to 30 million girls out of school in the areas where the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) works. The average age at marriage for girls in Eastern and Southern Africa is 21 years, while for West and Central Africa it is 18 years, and between 21-23 years for India and rest of Asia. Girls not attending school and getting married at a very young age are a lost opportunity for agriculture and a lost opportunity for our future.
Climate change and conflicts have a disproportionate impact on women and girls. United Nations (UN) figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Their roles as primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel make them more vulnerable when flooding and drought occur.
The UN has highlighted the need for gender sensitive responses to the impacts of climate change, yet the average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30%.
Agriculture is an engine for rural prosperity. According to World Bank estimates, the associated growth originating from agriculture has been 2-4 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth originating from other sectors. Income gains in agriculture are no more costly to achieve than income gains in other sectors. Countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda, which make significant investments in agriculture, have seen productivity rise by up to 6% per year, spurring an average annual GDP (gross domestic product) increase of over 4%. Ethiopia is reducing rural poverty at a rate of 4% per year. Rwanda has reduced poverty by 25% in the last 15 years. Thus, there is ample evidence for policy makers that investment in agriculture is the way to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Given that female participation in agriculture is high to very high, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (Niger 79%, Mozambique 80%, Somalia 84%, and Burundi 94%), it is time policy makers, national agriculture ministries, civil society organizations, banks and financial institutions, the private sector and others in the agriculture value chain explicitly recognized this fact and work to eliminate gender-specific obstacles. This can be done by redesigning policies, programs and schemes to empower women with appropriate training, design of farm machinery, access to credit, insurance, weather information, agronomy advice, quality seeds and fertilizers and other inputs which can help women be as productive, if not more, than men.
Abolishing gender-specific barriers in farming would not only empower women to achieve their potential, but it could also help feed a hungry and malnourished world.
More than half of undernourished people worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa and India — the same places where women are key to food production. Giving women access to the same resources as men could increase food production by women by up to 30%, potentially eliminating hunger for up to 400 million people. In addition, the extra income would enable women to spend more money on health care, nutrition, and education for their children — investments that could produce long-term, positive results for families and the entire community.
Activities to empower women in agriculture are 'low-hanging fruits'. Ensuring every girl child completes her education, is not married early and has equal opportunities is the bigger challenge. That will require concerted efforts at the global, regional, national, and local levels across all segments of society.