Why should women and girls be at the centre of development?

Katrin Glatzel, Policy & Research Officer, Agriculture for Impact

Trials are underway in parts of Britain to assess whether a later school start leads to higher GCSE grades.  As a result, thousands of teenagers are to get an extra hour in bed. University of Oxford researchers argue that teenagers start functioning properly two hours later than adults. While reading about these trials on the news, I remembered a documentary that I watched about a year ago – “On the way to school”.


© Pierre Holtz. UNICEF

The documentary, supported by UNICEF and Aide et Action, tells us the stories of four children in developing countries and the burden they take on to attend school. Jackson, 10 years old from Kenya, and his little sister make round trip journeys of 30km by foot to school every morning, waking up at sunrise to set out. Zahira, 12 years old from Morocco, walks 44km along winding mountain passes each week to attend a boarding school, taking four hours on a good day. A good day means: no rain, no illness and no blisters.

The documentary highlights what we all know: education is important and is regarded a treasure for many children in developing countries. In Britain, we know education opens new opportunities, widens our horizons and helps shape our personalities.  For children in developing countries, however, it is clear education means a lot more.

For girls, the meaning of education is particularly striking. According to a new report from the World Bank, girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own health care than better-educated peers, harming them, their children, and their communities.

Education means a brighter future

Education means opportunities beyond those at home, in the household, the family farm or village. Education helps secure a better income, health and a job, making people resilient to all sorts of shocks. But most importantly, education means empowerment, in particular for women and girls who are often still marginalized within their societies.

Over the last few years, development organisations have increasingly focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment, for a good reason. Societies won’t be able to achieve their full economic potential when half of their population is marginalized and disempowered. Studies show that if women farmers have equal access to education, training, land, labour, information and technology – and equal opportunity to use those resources – agricultural production across Africa would increase by 20 – 30%.

According to the FAO, women in some African countries spend over half of their time on agricultural activities and more than half of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture. However, women control less land than men, the land they control is often of poorer quality and their tenure is insecure. Women also own fewer of the working animals needed in farming and are less likely than men to use modern inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizers, pest control measures and mechanical tools. Women also use less credit and often do not control the credit they obtain.  Finally, women have less education and less access to extension services.

If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could not only increase yields and agricultural productivity on their own farms – total agricultural output in developing countries could rise by up to 4%, which would in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 %.

But the effect that educating a woman and putting more income in her hands goes further than boosting her nation’s GDP. Studies have also shown that improving women’s income yields beneficial results for child nutrition, health and education. The World Bank has reported, for example, that in Rwanda and Malawi, children from female-headed households were healthier than children from male-headed households, even when those male-headed households had higher incomes.

Scaling-up women’s empowerment

The recent launch of the Grand Challenge “Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development” by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is therefore a very welcomed effort and important signal for emphasizing on women’s and girls’ empowerment. The initiative seeks to accelerate understanding of how to effectively address gender inequalities, empower women and girls, and ultimately better measure empowerment. A better understanding of how to most efficiently and effectively raise empowerment for women and girls will allow development organisations to scale-up efforts on improving gender equality.

There are many efforts that are already showing the fruits of this labour to empower women in agriculture. The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship programme, for example, seeks to address the lack of representation of women in Africa’s agriculture labs. Only one in four agricultural researchers is female, despite the fact that the end-user of these innovations is ultimately more likely to be female. AWARD is supporting and mentoring some 400 female scientists who are working on a variety of scientific breakthroughs, from animals that produce more meat and produce, to improved processing practices that will prevent fresh produce from spoiling.

Building on these programmes and with the additional knowledge gained through the BMGF’s Grand Challenge, will allow development partners to scale-up investments in projects aimed at gender equality and women’s empowerment in general and the agriculture sector in particular.

Finally, to achieve greater gender equality between women and men, the attitudes and beliefs of men and boys have to be transformed too; men and boys will be required to think and act in new ways, to reconsider traditional images of manhood, to reshape their relationships with women and girls and to see the positive benefits of gender equality themselves – a challenge the UN HeForShe campaign embraces.  At the same time, women and girls have to receive the support and training they need to become fully empowered.  Education is crucial in this process of change.


  1. drbausman says:

    Reblogged this on Sril Group Ltd and commented:
    “Education means opportunities beyond those at home, in the household, the family farm or village. Education helps secure a better income, health and a job, making people resilient to all sorts of shocks. But most importantly, education means empowerment, in particular for women and girls who are often still marginalized within their societies.”

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