By Catherine Bertini
Ending hunger and ending poverty are goals on which we all agree. The world has thousands of schemes to attempt to achieve these goals, but we often overlook the simplest, most direct and effective method to change the world: investing in women.
Women are the adults whose roles are to take care of every family member every day. Women are the adults in the family who invest their incomes and assets to support the family. Women are the people whose education and economic success have the most impact on the family.
Throughout the developing world, women are central to agriculture and comprise at least 43 percent of the agricultural work force. Hundreds of millions of women toil every day in fields with babies on their backs and toddlers at their feet, leaving only to return home to fetch water and firewood and to cook dinner for the family. Most work by hand on land that they do not own, with limited farm implements and fertilizer, if any, following the same practices their mothers followed. They seldom have access to credit or to advice on how to be more productive. Most cannot count the rows they plant, nor read the back of a bag of seeds.
Yet International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) findings tell us that educated farmers are more productive than non-educated farmers, and that women are more likely to follow the practices of other women. Thus, insuring that women are educated is a key to more productive farming, higher household incomes, and a decrease in poverty and hunger.
The same is true for land ownership. A land owner, male or female, is much more invested in insuring that land is productive. If a farmer does not own her own land, she has limited incentive to invest in the land. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) writes that women only own small percent of the world's farm land. But as women comprise 43 percent of farmers, why does it not follow that they should be 43 percent of land owners?
Even more than in education, women are often limited by culture and by law, to own or to inherit land. Women often face restrictions on establishing credit or owning assets. FAO statistics show that women receive less than ten percent of agricultural credit.
These limitations no longer make sense – if they ever did.
When women have access to the same resources as men, their agricultural yields increase by 20 to 30 percent according to the FAO.
The world faces a huge challenge to keep up with growing populations and increased demand for food from the world’s growing middle class. We cannot afford to limit people’s ability to produce food, and to contribute to the larger market place. By limiting women’s options, we are blocking our collective ability to feed future demands.
If only we invest in women; if only we change laws to allow women to invest in themselves; if only we insure that girls are educated; then they will change the world.
Catherine Bertini is a Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.