Women in Agriculture and Food Security

Investing in women in agriculture is the key to both food and economic security

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  • Women: The Next Agricultural Revolution

    Currently, the global food system is under immense pressure from the effects of climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, increased energy prices, rising demand for meat and dairy products, and competition for land. Unfortunately, these pressures, coupled with a increased demand due to population growth, have resulted in a food crisis that will push an estimated 1 billion people into hunger by the end of the year. The majority of these people will be in developing countries, given that the producers of food, the majority of whom live in developing countries, always suffer the most during food crises. Furthermore, come 2030, food prices are forecast to increase by 70 to 90 percent before the effects of climate change, which themselves will roughly the double price rises again. This would catapult the world food system into disarray and increase the number of hungry by untold proportions. Combating this problem requires a global, concerted effort to avert the looming food crisis. No demographic is better positioned to tackle this challenge than women, who at once constitute the most producers and the least-resourced actors in the global food supply chain.

    Women grow half the world's food (up to 90% of staple crops in places like Africa and Asia) and yet own less than 2% of the world's property and face tremendous obstacles to access of credit, tools, trainings and resources. For the first time, the international community is beginning to focus on this disparity in earnest. Increased attention to bringing more female farmers into the formal economy and formal food production systems may just be the ticket to averting mass hunger and food insecurity around the world.

    One step forward comes in the increasing research being generated to map women's involvement in global food production, quantifying gaps and making the case to donors and policy makers that women can and should be resourced if we are to stave off further crisis. For the first time in its 27 year history, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published its annual State of Food and Agriculture Report with a focus on women. The report concludes that women are an instrumental component of the solution to our food shortage, and that a concerted focus on empowering them to boost production will also yield economic returns in terms of global development and economic growth.

    To avoid the food crisis, it is necessary to increase production, and the simplest way to do that is to eliminate the gender gap between men and women and their access to resources, including seeds, tools, water and land. The aforementioned statistic -- that women grow 50% of the food and 90% of the staple crops, but own less than 2% of the property -- is perhaps the most telling example of the vast inequality in economic access that prevents women from being able to fully capitalize on their production value. Closing the gender gap and providing women with the same resources as men could increase women's individual yields by 20-30%, which would in turn improve agriculture production in the developing world between 2.5- 4%, and, most importantly, reduce the number of undernourished people by 100-150 million people globally.

    Therefore, the international community must work together to eliminate the systematic gender gap in our agricultural sector. The report published by the FAO points to four policy changes that must be made in order to promote gender equality in global food and agriculture systems: (a) eliminate outright discrimination under the law, (b) promote equal access to resources and opportunities, such as land, tools and training, (c) ensure that agricultural policies and programs take into account differences between men and women, (d) ensure that women are equal participants in discussions about sustainable agricultural development.

    It is important to note that achieving only first recommendation, eliminating discrimination against women under the law, is a tall task in itself. According to a report by the World Bank, out of 128 countries whose legal frameworks were analyzed to determine whether men and women are treated equally, only 20 were found to do so. There is tremendous work ahead to reform women's property and inheritance rights, access to credit and the like. Yet law reform is not enough. After laws change, discrimination can and does often outlast the laws that once enshrined it. This underscores the importance of the final three recommendations, which work to promote women's empowerment through social and economic measures, in addition to legislative changes. By including women in the design and implementation of sustainable development programs, we can counteract discrimination and give women equal access to the resources that they need to become more productive, profitable farmers. Our efforts will both help to close the agricultural gender gap and increase global productivity, boosting economic and food security at once.

    Achieving gender equality and empowering women that work in agriculture is not only the right thing to do, it is also crucial to achieving our goal of averting a food crisis and creating sustainable food security. It is time to help women become the world's next agricultural revolution.

  • The Next Green Frontier

    By: Zainab Salbi, founder, Women for Women International

    First published in World Pulse

    Today we are facing a global food, nutrition, and climate crisis. Over the past few years, nearly 100 million people have been added to the global count of chronically hungry worldwide. Food prices have jumped almost 80%, pushing thousands of families on the brink into poverty and hunger. Environmentally damaging agricultural practices such as deforestation compound the CO2 emissions that are causing greenhouse effects. Chemically enhanced fertilizers contaminate the ground and strip the Earth of necessary nutrients.

    Women are 70% of the world's farmers, produce 90% of the world's staple food crops and yet own less than 2% of land. Investing in women's agricultural efforts is key to achieving global food security.

    We cannot build sustainable democracies, economies, or solutions for climate change and food shortages if we do not fully incorporate women in policy responses. There isn’t a better story to illustrate the disconnect between the reality of women and the theory of policy than this food crisis and the agricultural strategies that aim to address it.

    In our agricultural policy, we fail to consider issues like nutrition and food security, climate change, and the significant but often unrecognized fact that 70% of the world’s farmers are women. Women produce 90% of the staple food crops, such as rice and maize the crops that feed the world. Women also prepare these crops for household and community consumption, eating last or not at all when food is scarce. And women do the majority of tasks that involve close proximity to the environment, such as farming and fetching water, and hence shoulder a disproportionate amount of the danger associated with pollution and climate change.

    Women’s agricultural empowerment is the next frontier for the global women’s movement. When women produce the majority of the world’s food but own less than 2% of the land, it becomes an issue of economic as well as gender justice. Women have the right to enjoy the profits of their labor and the peace of mind of knowing their daughters can inherit the land they farm. Women have the right to eat a full and balanced meal and to work in an environment not poisoned by toxic chemicals. And we have the ability to realize this vision.

    There are several programs underway that can jump start the revolution. For example, at Women for Women, we’re teaching women sustainable farming techniques that maximize profit and nutritional value while supporting environmental preservation, community agricultural, and economic development. Women learn to farm a diversity of crops for household consumption and higher profits, at the same time as they are equipped with techniques that enhance the ecological balance of natural ecosystems.

    In Rwanda, where land is at a premium, and in land-rich Sudan, in partnership with local government, we have secured a long-term land lease that enables women to control the land they farm and access the highest returns on their labor. Women in South Sudan are on track to earn double the per-capita GDP after only six months. Also in Rwanda, women learn to construct vertical kitchen gardens, which maximize soil efficiency and make a significant impact on household nutritional security. Women farmers turn grain bags, tires, and other household items into vertical planters and use their livestock’s natural animal waste for fertilizer.

    In my work with women farmers, I have seen that, as in so many other sectors, women are the key to our success in agriculture and environmental policy. Women are integrating environmentally friendly practices into agriculture production. They are cultivating the crops that will combat food and nutrition crises and stimulate local markets in the time of economic crisis. I’ve heard much talk about a green revolution, but rarely are women’s voices taken into account in our conceptions of it. The time has come to make those voices heard, to make agricultural and environmental policy reflective of those who are most impacted by it. The green revolution is a women’s revolution.

  • Women for Women International's Role in Agriculture and the Global Food Crisis

    In every country where Women for Women International works, the food crisis is a life or death reality for the women we serve. For instance, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said that at least 18 million of Afghanistan's estimated 26.6 million people, mostly women and children, cannot meet their daily food and nutritional requirements.

    A view of the CIFI farm in Rwanda

    In Nigeria, women in our program report that rising food costs render feeding their families three meals a day impossible. One program participant said, "The price of food is high, making money valueless. My children are now crying for more food but I cannot give [it to] them because my money cannot fetch enough food."

    At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting, which brought together world leaders and NGOs to discuss practical solutions to development problems, Secretary of State Clinton addressed the dire circumstances of food security worldwide. She said she plans to focus agriculture development efforts increasingly on investing in women farmers and women-run agribusinesses.

    Women work to produce 60-80% of the world's crops, but they only own 1% of all the land (UN). This inequity means that women do the vast majority of the work, but get the least amount of credit. The issue of food insecurity has become even more urgent as a result of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which, according to FAO, forced another 100 million people into extreme poverty. As a result, there are now over 1 billion people suffering from hunger around the world, or nearly a sixth of the human population.

    Through our experience and research, it has become clear that agribusiness holds great potential for many of our women; it provides a model to simultaneously address income generation and food security, two critical issues for socially excluded women and their families. To help us develop and implement agribusiness opportunities, Agribusiness Specialist Dr. Grace F. Fisiy brings 20 years of agricultural and rural development experience to Women for Women International.

    During her first few months with us, Grace traveled to Rwanda to launch our first ever Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI), a program designed to provide specialized, sustainable agribusiness opportunities to program participants.

    A delegation led by WfWI-Rwanda Country Director Karak Mayik (second from right) on a tour at the CIFI farm in Sudan.

    CIFI will provide 3,000 women over the course of three years with training in how to use sustainable farming practices to grow crops that can both be sold for profit in the local market and feed their families. So far we have been able to secure funding to pilot CIFI in both Rwanda and Sudan. Based on the success of those pilots, we have launched a third program in Afghanistan.

    Secretary Clinton reported to CGI that several African nations have dedicated 10% of their national budgets to agriculture development in an effort similar to CIFI. In Rwanda, this has been incredibly successful; in over three years Rwanda's GDP has doubled and its investment in agriculture has increased threefold. Programs like this have the power to completely alter the direction of developing nations.

    When Grace was asked about the direct impact of CIFI on the current global food crisis, she responded by drawing clear connections between the two: "We are tackling the food crisis on multiple fronts. CIFI's primary focus is commercial farming — production for the market — and this also directly impacts household food production and food security. Women are learning sustainable farming methods to cultivate higher-income crops, like pineapples and strawberries, which they can sell on the local market."

    In this way the CIFI program design encompasses a multifaceted attack on the global food crisis, providing participants with a critical model for sustainable income generation and food production that benefits not only individual women but also their families and communities.

    Thanks to the visionary work of Women for Women staff and a strong partnership with the Rwandan government, 100 acres of land is dedicated to these women, and to the continually evolving work of Women for Women International. It is our hope that initiatives like CIFI will not only benefit the community as a whole, but will also inspire other communities and countries to engage women as vital participants in sustainable solutions to the world's problems.