Female farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43% of the global agricultural labour force according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Smallholder farming is dependent on many of these women and yet their roles often go unrecognised and unsupported. For example the majority of collective action interventions in agricultural markets have favoured men meanwhile few female smallholders are paid for their work. Societal norms can also men that women are limited in their access to land ownership, farm equipment and credit – important factors in productivity, income generation and food security.
By closing the gender gap that exists between men and women in smallholder farming overall production could increase, food and nutrition security could be improved and the health and well-being of households and communities could be bettered. Providing equal access to existing resources and opportunities in farming could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people.
Oxfam have supported the Aaroh campaign in 71 districts in Uttar Pradesh, a state where only 6% of women own land, less than 1% have participated in government training programs, 4% have access to institutional credit and only 8% have control over agricultural income. Led by local NGOs, Pani Sansthan, Vinoba Seva Ashram, Samarpan Jan Kalyan Samiti and Disha Samajik Sansthan, the main aim of the campaign is to “help women gain recognition as farmers so that they own agricultural land and access institutional credit, new technologies and government programs”. After several years there is an increase in the number of women who own agricultural land and some 8,000 husbands have shown their willingness in writing for joint land titling. But despite progress women are still struggling to access land and bank credit without the presence of a male family member or husband.
Oxfam also initiated their Researching Women’s Collective Action project in 2009, running for three years, which sought to address knowledge gaps and links between gender and collective action in selected agricultural markets in Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania. They found that women were more able to prioritise the nutrition, health and education of their children if they had a degree of financial independence. The project also investigated the common barriers women face in engaging with collective action projects – “access to formal groups, being overlooked by extension services and the need to provide the support women require and in a way that works for women.”
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has been investigating for more than 30 years how inequalities between women and men affect agricultural productivity and food security. Their research aims to guide development organizations and policymakers in finding practical ways women’s roles in agricultural production and trade can be supported. This research suggests that “improving women’s access to resources, technology, markets and property rights will increase farm productivity, raise income and improve household nutrition”, as they explain in their video.
In 2011, Action Aid produced a report entitled, “What women farmers need: A blueprint for action”. The so-called package or tool was developed for civil society activists advocating for women’s rights in smallholder farming. International reports and primary research conducted in two of ActionAid Kenya’s development initiatives form the basis of the report, which showcases the status of female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, the barriers they face in achieving food security and the actions that may help increase agricultural productivity. Although marketed as a tool, authors acknowledge the need to adapt the package to suit local conditions. In this video, Action Aid show that only a small intervention, in this case access to a community seed bank project, can make a huge difference.
Similarly Christian Aid published their report “What works for women – proven approaches for empowering women smallholders and achieving food security” This report, however, targets its recommendations to international multi-lateral and bilateral organisations and national governments but the themes remain similar. Women need access to land, extension services, infrastructure and inputs, financial credit and greater engagement in local and wider research and policy making, and policies or programmes must be sensitive to gender issues where in the past they have been more often than not catering to men.
World Bank Group and ONE Campaign report “Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa” provides evidence on the scale and causes of the dramatic differences between how much men and women farmers produce in six African countries– Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. It exposes both the substantial gender gaps that exist as well as showcases effective policies that target the needs of female farmers. In the six countries profiled, women were found to produce less than men by 13 percent in Uganda to 25 percent in Malawi.
To narrow the gender gap, the report calls for African governments to address key policy areas such as:
- Strengthen women’s land rights
- Improve women’s access to hired labour
- Enhance women’s use of tools and equipment that reduce the amount of labour they need on the farm
- Tailor training to women’s needs and use social networks to spread agricultural knowledge
- Help women access and participate in markets
What is interesting about these reports and research is that on the whole they are making similar observations both on the scale and urgency of the problem to the recommended action to address the gender gap in farming. The Action Aid report in particular not only specifies future action but also outlines who should be doing what. As with many agricultural development pathways, however, knowing what to do is only a fraction of the battle, incentivising those key organisations and individuals to take action is critical. Hopefully these reports and the frequency with which the issues of gender are raised at international forums can give us some hope that we’re heading in the right direction.