Fairer deal for rural women could take 150 million out of hunger - UN

Posted: 8 March 2011

As the world celebrates World Women's Day, today, the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO) reports that  if rural women had a fair deal, world food production could be greatly boosted and 100-150 million people relieved of hunger.

Yields on plots managed by women are lower than those managed by men, says the latest State of Food and Agriculture report. But this is not because women are worse farmers than men. They simply do not have the same access to inputs. If they did, their yields would go up, they would produce more and overall agricultural production would increase.

Woman farmer, Sierra Leone
With support from FAO and other partners, Sierra Leone is helping its smallholder farmers – roughly two-thirds of the country – make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Photo © FAO/Caroline Thomas

"Gender equality is not just a lofty ideal, said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, it is also crucial for agricultural development and food security. We must promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture to win, sustainably, the fight against hunger and extreme poverty."

Just giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase production on women's farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent. This could raise total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent, or 100 to 150 million people. An estimated 925 million people in the world were undernourished in 2010, of which 906 million live in developing countries.

Women's work

Women make up on average 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to almost 50 percent in East and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The share is higher in some countries and varies greatly within countries.

Where rural women are employed, they tend to be segregated into lower paid occupations and are more likely to be in less secure forms of employment, such as seasonal, part-time or low-wage jobs.

Women in farm labour force
Source: FAO State of Food & Agriculture 2010-11

New jobs in high-value export-oriented agro-industries offer better opportunities for women than traditional agriculture, the report says.

Mind the gap

The report documents gender gaps in the access to a wide range of agricultural resources, including land, livestock, farm labour, education, extension services, credit, fertilizers and mechanical equipment.

Women in all regions generally have less access to land than men. For those developing countries for which data are available, between 3 and 20 percent of all landholders are women. The share of women in the agricultural labour force is much higher and ranges from 20 to 50 percent in developing country regions.

"Women farmers typically achieve lower yields than men, not because they are less skilled, but because they operate smaller farms and use fewer inputs like fertilizers, improved seeds and tools," said Terri Raney, editor of the SOFA report.

Level field

"Evidence from many countries shows that policies can promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture and rural employment. The first priority is to eliminate discrimination under the law," Raney said. "In many countries women do not have the same rights as men to buy, sell or inherit land, to open a savings account or borrow money, to sign a contract or sell their produce. Where legal rights exist on paper, they often are not honored in practice."

Government officials must be held accountable for upholding the law and women must be aware of their rights and empowered to claim them.

Bangladeshi women
More than one-third of Bangladeshis scrape by on less than USD 1 a day and malnutrition rates, especially among women and children, are some of the highest in the world. Photo © FAO/Munir Uz Zaman

Women face multiple constraints in agriculture arising from the complex nature of agricultural production and from competing demands on their time. To be effective, interventions must be "bundled" so they treat these constraints together, the report says.

Policies and institutions often have different impacts on men and women - even when no explicit discrimination is intended. "Men and women have different roles in society and face different opportunities and constraints," said Raney. "We can't make good agricultural policy unless we consider gender differences."

Human capital

In addition to increasing overall agricultural production, closing the gender gap in agriculture would also put more income in the hands of women - a proven strategy for improving health, nutrition and education outcomes for children.

"One of the best investments we can make is in building the human capital of women and girls - basic education, market information and agricultural extension services are essential building blocks for agricultural productivity and economic growth," Raney said.

Small-scale farming 'can double yields'

A separate UN report issued today by  Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, claims that small-scale farmers can double  food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods. 

Based on a review of the recent scientific literature, the study agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80 per cent in 57 developing countries. It also points to projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh which haverecorded up to 92 % reduction in insecticide use for rice, leading to important savings for poor farmers. 

But he warns,"Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services."  "States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don't open markets for chemical products or improved seeds." 

See the full FAO report at http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i2050e/i2050e00.htm 

The report "Agro-ecology and the right to food" is available at: http://www.srfood.org/