Across the globe, 821 million people suffer from hunger. It’s an intractable problem with many complex causes. But a significant part of the solution stands right before us in plain sight, with mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters—the women in rural economies who make up close to 50 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force.
Improving the plight—and the productivity—of women farmers in developing economies will be no easy task. The challenges run deep and their scale is vast. In developing countries, pervasive gender discrimination causes female-run farms to be 30 percent less productive than those owned and run by men, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Discrimination constrains women’s productivity in every aspect of farming—from the education they receive to their ability to bring their crops to market. If we can break down these barriers and give women in agriculture the same support men receive, their yield would equal that of men. It is estimated that increased agricultural output from women could reduce world hunger by 17 percent.
The good news is that many of the gender equality issues women farmers face are now widely recognized, and programs to alleviate them are in place. Governments, large agribusiness companies, and aid organizations alike are investing substantial amounts of time and money to empower women farmers. The challenge lies in whether these programs can be implemented quickly and broadly enough to feed our ever-growing, ever-hungry population.
Gender bias is steeped in history. Women farmers across the globe have always worked many more hours than men, although their work is not valued at the same level. More recently, as women in developing countries face the devastating effects of climate change and large numbers of men leave the farms to find work in cities, the amount of work that falls to women has only increased. Yet these women continue to have fewer rights to land ownership, water access, and farming decisions than men—all factors which decrease their productivity and crop yield.
These gender issues are now more widely recognized. In a recent survey conducted by Corteva Agriscience, 62 percent of women farmers across the globe believe discrimination has declined over the past ten years. Less discrimination, however, has not empowered women farmers to the extent needed in order to get their productivity on par with that of men.
Five issues in particular gravely affect women’s ability to farm as productively as men—access to agricultural inputs, tools and technology; land rights and ownership; climate change; water access; and education and training. Already, programs to support women in all five of these areas are in place. But will they have the desired effect?
Five issues in particular gravely affect women’s ability to farm as productively as men—access to agricultural inputs, tools and technology; land rights and ownership; climate change; water access; and education and training.
Farmers can’t significantly improve their productivity—particularly in the face of the challenge of climate change—without access to better seeds and soil, pest and weed control, tools, and methods. In the vast number of farms in developing countries, the difference in crop yields between men and women correlates to the degree to which women lack access to agricultural inputs. But it is no small matter for women to get access to these productivity boosters. They are often barely eking out enough food for their families, which means there is no spare cash to buy inputs. And even if they could afford them, women who can barely feed their families are risk-intolerant. Buying a new seed variety, a tool they haven’t tried, or an unfamiliar herbicide is a gamble they can’t afford to take.
New farming methods and inputs also require time to learn—and time is in far shorter supply for women than it is for men. Women farmers across the globe have additional responsibilities for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the home. They often also manage livestock and have the arduous job of walking long distances to fetch firewood and water. In developing countries, men rarely participate in the household workload. Again, this leaves women with no time to learn about agricultural inputs.
There are some programs in place to help. In Guinea’s Boffa prefecture, Djenabou Camara, a mother of five, learned new cropping techniques through USAID’s Improved Livelihood and Agricultural Development project. The program provided basic tools (watering cans, rakes, and hoes) as well as irrigation equipment (motor pumps and reservoirs) that allowed her to access water year-round. Importantly, she learned to farm using square-shaped mounds that retain water more effectively, which enabled her to keep crops alive during the dry season.
Feed the Future, a global hunger and food security initiative from the U.S. government, taught Cambodian farmer Phai Sila how to use pest exclusion nets. This simple technology allows her to “protect my crops from the heat and maintain moisture in the summer season,” she told Feed the Future. “The best thing I noticed after using this technology is that the number of insects that come and attack my crops is reduced by 80 percent.” As a direct result of being able to grow leaf vegetables in the summer, Sila was able to earn far more money—and she did so using a sustainable pest management system.
As a direct result of being able to grow leaf vegetables in the summer, Sila was able to earn far more money.
This land is our land
For those of us living in developed countries, it is hard to imagine not having legal right to the land you tend and need in order to survive. But that’s the case for most women in developing countries. Although a third of rural women farmers are heads of household, only a small fraction—between 5 and 20 percent—are landholders. Half the countries on the planet have laws and customs that prohibit or make it nearly impossible for women to own, manage, or inherit the land they farm.
The consequences are many. Women who don’t own their own land must typically rely on a male relative for their subsistence. They can’t independently take care of their families or make improvements to their farming methods. Land ownership is also key to securing credit, loans, and financing—which are, in turn, essential to increasing crop yield. And, again, as men increasingly head to urban areas in search of employment, women are left behind to manage the farms, but without the ability to make improvements—a sure way to maintain the cycle of poverty.
When women do own the land they farm, their plots are smaller and of poorer quality, and even then their ownership may not be secure. Ethiopian widow Nitsu Simachew was raising her five children on a small plot of land whose borders and ownership were constantly disputed. When the government, working with a program from the World Bank, finally issued her a certificate of ownership, she and her children became better stewards of the land, building terraces to prevent erosion.
“I have seen this over and over,” says Karol Boudreaux, former chief program officer for Landesa, an international land rights organization. “When women-headed households receive formal documentation of land ownership, they are more forward-thinking. It is inspiring to see how hard they will work and what they will do to change their, and their children’s, lives. They know taking advantage of this asset is the key to their children’s future.” Regional examples abound: when women’s land rights were formalized in Rwanda, women were 19 percent more likely to work on soil conservation (compared to 10 percent among men). In Ethiopia, land titling increased land productivity by up to 45 percent—and decreased household food insecurity by 36 percent.
Land rights also essentially buy vastly improved nutrition for families. The overall caloric intake and body mass index increased among children in Ethiopia once their mothers became landowners, and in Nepal, children whose mothers were granted formal rights were 33 percent less likely to be severely underweight.
Programs exist to help women gain ownership of what is rightfully their land, but doing so requires navigating complex local and national laws. Even when the law is on their side—which is rare—securing ownership may require working through and against local customs, histories, and people, or surveying and registering titles, which is well beyond the scope of many impoverished women.
Partnerships among powerful organizations can help. The World Bank, Landesa, the Global Land Tool Network, UN-Habitat, Habitat for Humanity, and the Huairou Commission have joined forces to develop advocacy programs to secure women’s land rights through an organization called the Stand For Her Land Campaign.
A changing climate
When it comes to farming, climate change is not gender neutral. Because women farm the smallest plots, often on the least productive soil and using fewer inputs, women farmers suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. Because women farmers are among the world’s most destitute and hungry people, they suffer more from increases in dramatic weather events like tsunamis and typhoons, as well as ongoing changes like droughts and flooding.
In an interview with UN Women, a United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, Fatou Dembele, who grows shallots in Mali, talked about how she overcame the devastating crop losses brought on by climate change. A program called AgriFeD (short for Agriculture Femmes et Développement Durable) taught her how to use locally available biopesticides to fight the destructive parasites that developed as a result of climate change. “Thank goodness we learned there are local plants whose extracts can fight this disease,” she told the organization. The program has taught farmers in the region new preservation methods for produce, how to diversify what they grow, and how to improve nutrition at home.
Desperation and adaptation are important bedfellows in the fight against the crippling effects of climate change. In Vietnam, one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, the women in Thua Thien Hue province worked with the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development, a Vietnamese NGO supported by international development and aid organizations, to adapt to the many changes like increased soil salinity from rising sea levels, flooding, erratic tides, and more frequent weather disasters. Farmers there can now only grow one rice crop per year, but through the center’s program, they learned to plant watermelon in the summer season, which helped offset the loss of the second rice crop. The program also helped the women form a garbage collection service to keep the streets “clean and healthy” and protect the lagoon, which made fish farming more productive.
Women often lack rights to the water they need to irrigate their fields, and have little to no say in the way water resources are managed. As more areas are affected by the droughts and flooding of climate change, water access is increasingly vital to the maintenance of crops—and ever more difficult to obtain.
In 80 percent of households without water on premises, women and girls are responsible for fetching it—and they are walking further and further to get it. Not only is this a physical hardship, but it takes time away from planting, managing, and harvesting.
Women’s multiple needs and uses for water are often not considered in water governance—and women rarely have a say in the way it is structured. Despite the fact that a woman may need water for livestock and household use in addition to what she needs for crops, allocation is often based solely on crop use.
The women in Guilé Mané’s village in Senegal had to walk half a kilometer several times a day to fetch clean water, and were unable to farm during the dry season due to the lack of water. When there was no rain, Guilé barely had enough food for her family, and what food they did have often made the children sick. Thanks to the FAO’s “1 million cisterns for the Sahel” program, Guilé and other local smallholder farmers learned to build cisterns in which they could store rainwater. “The cistern is very useful to us. All we earned before the construction of this cistern was used to pay the water bills,” said Guilé in an interview with the FAO. Now that they have cisterns, there are no water bills. “We even noticed that there are fewer diseases in the village,” said Guilé.
Access to water in the dry season gave Guilé’s village new life. They are thriving, thanks to their year-round water supply and their resulting ability to grow crops throughout the year. Guilé has used their newfound success to head an organization of 80 women farmers who pool their resources and are able to provide medical care to those in need, as well as education for their children. Access to water has had a profound effect on many aspects of their lives.
At the core of every success story for women is access to information and education. Yet there is a strong history of gender bias in education, and it starts early. Female heads of household in rural areas attend school for significantly fewer years than males, and while in recent years the gap has narrowed, especially in primary education, the problem, and its impacts, do not stop with formal childhood education.
Studies show that, not surprisingly, when women have equal access to extension services and other training, their productivity increases. Often, though, rural women may not even know such services exist, and even if they do, they may not be able to travel to get to them. Also, women who are less educated can be less likely to participate in programs which require a lot of reading. Only 5 percent of extension services are aimed at women, and a mere 15 percent of extension personnel are women. That’s especially significant in countries where societal norms prohibit women from meeting with nonfamily males.
Only 5 percent of extension services are aimed at women, and a mere 15 percent of extension personnel are women.
Giving even one woman access to training can have a profound ripple effect. After Chandra Kala Thapa, who lives and farms in one of the poorest districts of Nepal, participated in a two-day training program offered by Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment, a joint program sponsored by the UN, she went from growing barely enough grain to sustain her family to growing enough higher-value vegetables to greatly improve her family’s nutrition—and make a profit. Chandra, who is illiterate, spent some of that money on a computer training program for her daughter. Her educated daughter is now more likely to overcome some of the barriers of gender bias and have more opportunity—in other words, to continue to close the gender gap.
There is an Ethiopian proverb: She who learns, teaches. When women have equal access to information and education, lives—and crop yields—change. Increased crop yields, in turn, alleviate poverty and malnutrition. In fact, an increase of just $10 to a rural woman’s income accomplishes the same amount of improvement to children’s health and nutrition that comes when a man earns $110—eleven times as much.
Closing the agricultural gender gap by providing rural female farmers with education; agricultural inputs, tools, and technology; land rights; and water access enables them to fight the effects of climate change and farm more productively. Empowering women truly can be our solution to feeding the ever-growing world population.