July 25, 2019 | By Julia Whiting

Hungry for Equality: Examining the Gender Gap in Food Security

The latest State of Food Security from FAO reported that women are ten percent more likely than men to experience food insecurity, and globally more women are food insecure than men. Ten years ago, the UN World Food Program found that women and girls made up 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry population. In the decade between these two findings, many organizations explicitly included gender in their food and agriculture strategies. Feed the Future, launched in 2009 by USAID, emphasizes gender equality. Multiple UN agencies adopted polices on gender equality beginning in 2009. The Chicago Council released its 2011 report Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, urging the development community to focus on rural adolescent girls and offering recommendations on how to do so. Despite these commendable efforts, the gender gap in food security remains. What is driving this gap, and why is it so hard to close?

Women’s Food Insecurity is Complicated

There are many factors contributing to the gender gap in food security. A recent study found that although household income, social networks, and educational attainment are major factors in food insecurity over all, they cannot fully account for the higher rates facing women. There are many other elements that add up to the food security gender gap—for example, women generally have less access to land, agricultural inputs, and face lower intra-household bargaining power. Only 12.8 percent of global landholders are women. In many countries, traditional practice is for women to eat last, after the men and children in their families. Although this practice is changing, it still contributes to malnourishment and anemia in women. When households’ access to food becomes precarious, women often adapt by eating less so that the rest of their family can have more.  If women bear the brunt of food crises, they will experience higher rates of food insecurity.

More Gender-Sensitive Development is Needed

Supporting, empowering, and ensuring that women have access to the skills necessary for them and their families to succeed requires more than adding them into a program’s mission statement. It requires a commitment to investing in projects that are designed with women and their needs in mind.

Gender equality goals would benefit from increased funding. In 2018, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) examined Official Development Assistance (ODA) committed by DAC members in 2015-2016. Their analysis focused on economic and productive sectors, which includes agricultural and rural development. Of the bilateral, allocable aid analyzed, only one percent  included gender equality as the primary objective, which was a decline from 2013-2014. 66 percent of aid examined did not target gender equality at all.

Even when a project is intended to benefit women, it can fall short due to its structure or context. For example, one study of a clean cook stove initiative in India found that because improved cookstoves did not provide direct benefits to their lives, male heads of households were less likely to spend money on them. Understanding household decision-making is a key component to improving the lives of women.  

An understanding of the community decision-making and leadership context is also important to craft development aid that is effective in promoting gender equality. In cases where organizations and governments work with community leaders in the design and implementation of projects, women still sometimes end up left out. Catherine Bertini notes in her article Invisible Women that the lack of women in leadership roles leads policy- and grant-makers to respond to the needs of men, mistaking them for the needs of the whole community.

Other studies reinforce the need for contextually sensitive agricultural aid. An evaluation of four projects promoting high-value commodities and value chain development for smallholder farmers found that “gendered use, control, and ownership of assets affect who can participate in agricultural development projects.” If men control most of a household’s assets, including income, they will also receive most of the benefits in the absence of a concerted effort to alter benefit distribution. 

Gender-Sensitive Aid Faces Many Challenges

Additional time in program design, additional time burdens for women, and a lack of data to work from, are all challenges for gender-sensitive aid, among others. Consultative development of projects takes time. Understanding local gendered context requires qualitative research as well as quantitative. Designing programs around this understanding requires thoughtful planning and a willingness to adapt and change in the middle of implementation.

Women face the dual burden of agricultural and household work, which create competing demands on their time. Over one quarter of women participating in an agricultural project in Burkina Faso cited the time commitment of participation as a cost, as it took time away from time spent on household tasks such as cooking and collecting wood. Like the gendered effects of food insecurity, when projects require an increase in daily labor, far too often most of that increase is borne by women.

Each of these issues is exacerbated by the need for better data on gender—an issue recommended by Girls Grow, but identified as a persistent problem in the Chicago Council’s recent follow up, Girls Leading: From Rural Economies to Global Solutions. Few programs disaggregate project data by gender, making it harder to track whether women and girls are benefitting. Most countries lack measurement of the differences between male and female participation in local and civil society organizations—crucial to structuring effective agricultural interventions. Few indicators included in SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) have agreed upon statistical methodologies and are rarely collected. Without good data, women and girls’ food security will be difficult to measure or improve.

Empowering Women in Agriculture will Feed the World

Truly empowering women and girls will reduce the gendered effects of food insecurity, but it is also one of the fastest ways to boost global food security and the global economy. When women are provided with the same inputs, assets, and technical assistance as men, their yields could increase by as much as 20-30 percent, which translates to a reduction in the number of undernourished people in the world by 12-17 percent. Additionally, evidence shows that when women’s income increases, so do household expenditures on education and nutrition. Regardless of the challenges to gender-sensitive agricultural development, we must devote significant resources to empowering women and girls—as we face a global population of almost 10 billion by 2050, we simply can’t afford not to.



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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