March 9, 2018 | By Megan O’Donnell

Guest Commentary - Half the Sky – and Half the Earth: Enhancing Food Security through a Focus on Women in Agriculture

By Megan O'Donnell, policy manager for gender issues, ONE Campaign
In every corner of the global economy, women face barriers that make them less able to participate and advance in the labor force, and less likely to benefit from the fruits of their labor. The agricultural sector is no exception, and gender inequality within the sector is holding the world back from achieving sustainable food security. In sub-Saharan Africa, growth in the agricultural sector is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than other sectors. But maximizing this growth won’t be possible without paying specific attention to the obstacles women encounter because of their gender.
The evidence is clear: women farmers are by-and-large less productive than their male counterparts. There are a variety of explanations for this, including:
  • Disproportionate unpaid care work burdens (which limit the time women can spend growing, harvesting, and transporting crops to market);
  • Norms that keep women in less profitable segments of the agricultural sector (including primary representation among smallholder, subsistencelevel farmers and less presence among those growing cash crops for export) and
  • Legal and social restrictions limiting women’s land tenure security, access to finance, quality inputs, and market information.
The barriers holding back women farmers are holding back global agricultural production and food security. This is a critical area of underemployment – a key issue to be addressed through this year’s Global Food Security Symposium. Gender gaps in agricultural productivity contribute to malnutrition, stunting, and starvation and impede social development and economic growth. If women farmers received equal investment, productivity in Africa could rise by 20-30%, reducing the numbers of those experiencing hunger by 100-150 million, producing more for markets, increasing incomes for women, and providing more food for communities.
The evidence base on “what works” to narrow gender gaps in agricultural productivity must continue to grow, but we already have a general sense for what will be needed in order to narrow gender gaps in agricultural productivity – and thus increase global food security. Women farmers need improvements in their land tenure security, equal access to financial services and productive inputs such as quality fertilizer and seeds and extension services, and interventions that ease their unpaid care work burdens. We also need to engage with social norms around women as agricultural managers, as the evidence shows that in some contexts, men working as laborers on women’s land are likely to be less productive as those working on land owned by other men.
Gender discrimination in statutory and customary laws limit women’s access to and control over land in many countries. But when women have more formal control over land, whether through land titling, improved documentation, or stronger communal rights, their productivity as farmers increases. Land tenure security also improves women’s economic outcomes in other ways – facilitating access to credit, the ability to start businesses, increase incomes, create jobs, and grow the economy. When a farmer does not have secure access to sufficient land, she is less likely to invest in improvements to the land and cannot use the land as collateral to access credit and other financial services. Finally, evidence shows the positive impact that land registration has had on the adoption of sustainable management techniques such as tree-planting and other climate-smart agricultural practices.
For all of these reasons, at ONE we are currently advocating for improved land rights for women farmers in Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali, calling upon governments to implement their commitments made under the Malabo Declaration. (And recognizing that land tenure security is not a silver bullet, we are also advocating for a range of other investments in women farmers, including those related to financial inclusion and market access.)
We have seen examples of what has been effective in improving women’s land tenure security. Rwanda’s Land Tenure Regularization Program, with support from the World Bank, DFID, the European Commission, SIDA, and other donors, succeeded in issuing registered titles to every landholder in the country (10.3 million total), formalizing land rights for the first time in the country’s history. The program was highly cost-effective, at about $7 per title. To succeed in promoting women’s economic empowerment, land tenure initiatives must explicitly tackle gender inequalities in access to land. To that end, the Rwanda program mandated that legally married wives must be recognized as co-owners in the registration process. As a result, 92% of land certificates in Rwanda now include the name of a woman.
On a more local level, Landesa’s Micro-Land Ownership for India’s Landless Agricultural Laborers project ensured that 444,071 households received formal titles to their land. Approximately 80% (355,000) of these titles now include women’s names, either individually or jointly held. From December 2008 to April 2016, the program worked with local and state government officials to strengthen policies and programs to identify landless families, including female-headed households and single women, and provide them with legal documentation to their land, or identify new homestead lands and land titles. Landesa worked to strengthen the government’s capacity, including developing a community resource person (CRP) model and Women’s Support Centers to ensure that landless households and women agricultural laborers especially were recognized. Among women who received formal titles, more than one-third reported that as a result, they became more involved in their households’ decision-making, and more than half reported being treated with more respect within their households.
That’s important both intrinsically and from a broader development perspective – because ensuring women have decision-making power within their households and control over the income they generate also contributes to improved food security, nutrition, and overall wellbeing for their children. When able to make investment decisions, women are more likely than men to allocate money to the health and education of their children, playing a critical role in food security, health, and nutrition.
The Global Food Security Symposium presents an opportunity for researchers, practitioners, policymakers and advocates to convene and drive the agenda towards the achievement of sustainable food security worldwide. I ask this influential group to therefore ensure that conversations and recommendations pay close attention to both the constraints currently facing women in agriculture and the benefits of removing these constraints. Put simply: we won’t get ahead if we leave half the population behind, and the food security space is no exception.



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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