March 6, 2018 | By

The Next Generation: Women’s Work

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to launch a new blog series, “The Next Generation,” to explore the challenges and opportunities of agricultural systems in a world with unprecedented numbers of young people. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the 2018 Global Food Security Symposium. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 21 and 22.

By Laura Glenn O'Carroll

Over the past few weeks, this blog series has examined the massive economic, social, and security impact that rising youth populations will have on the world of tomorrow. When properly invested in, these inventive young people will be able to create transformations in their communities and re-envision the global economy. Last week’s post underlined the massive opportunity for international business with the emerging global middle class but this growth will not materialize without policies that explicitly remove barriers facing women farmers.

Barriers to Success

Women, despite being the backbone of rural societies, often face structural barriers that limit their ability to strengthen their economic security, including poorer quality education, weaker access to agricultural information, lack of secure land rights, and poor access to financial services. In India, women perform nearly 70 percent of agricultural labor, but own less than 13 percent of farmland. Without official recognition, women often cannot access programs or credit targeted to farmers. A study in India’s Uttar Pradesh found that less than one percent of female farmers participated in government training programs and only four percent have access to financial credit. Without these resources, female farmers (along with their families and communities) will not be able to succeed.
Female farmers are often responsible for the most burdensome agricultural tasks. For example, on 75 percent of sub-Saharan African smallholder farms fields are weeded by hand. This backbreaking labor limits farmers’ productivity because it is time intensive and limits the amount of land that can be planted. Almost 90 percent of this difficult labor is done by women.
Women’s decreased access to training and inputs also leaves them more vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Without legal rights to their land, women are inhibited from making long-term planning decisions that could increase resiliency. Many regions of the world are already seeing shifts in rain patterns, leading to both droughts and floods that can ruin crops. Erratic weather can also decrease a female farmer’s productivity by increasing her time spent on other responsibilities. In Zimbabwe, female farmers saw reduced yields during drought years because they had to spend more time traveling to water sources, decreasing their time spent working in the fields.

Rising Incomes Lead to Rising Status

In Zanzibar, seaweed farming has had a dramatic impact on women’s wellbeing and status. Previously, women were expected to remain at home while men created the household’s income but shallow water areas near the beach were considered women’s spaces. When commercial seaweed farming arrived in the 1980s, the roles therefore fell to women, and as the industry’s profits rose so did the incomes of the area’s women. Seaweed is harvested for an extract called carrageenan, which is used across the globe as a stabilizer and thickener for food products. Even though demand for carrageenan continues to rise, warming sea temperatures have undercut this vital industry in recent years, sapping the local women’s opportunities for employment. From 2001 to 2015, Zanzibar’s production of seaweed has dropped by a crippling 94 percent.
But when given a chance to lead decisions, female farmers have led transformative innovation. The seaweed farmers in Zanzibar realized that farther offshore the water was still cool enough to cultivate their crop. By creating tubular netting to protect the seaweed from harsh currents, expanding swimming lessons, and developing partnerships a pilot group of female farmers were able to keep their livelihoods, and their status as breadwinners.
In many areas, women have come together in community groups to strengthen their social capital, increase their business reach, and improve their livelihoods. Cooperatives can allow women to negotiate for higher sales price on agricultural goods, create value-added products, and access improved technology. Cooperatives can be led exclusively by women or in mixed groups, but in the latter case, women must be supported as leaders or the issues inhibiting their work can be ignored.

Reaping Gains for All

Holding female farmers back impacts everyone. According to the UN, closing the agricultural gender gap could raise up to 150 million people out of hunger. Numerous studies have found that increasing a woman’s income has deep impacts on the health and opportunity of her family. Increasing a woman’s income by $10 has the same improvement in children’s nutrition as increasing a man’s income by $110.
Supporting female farmers will also ensure that farming remains an appealing occupation for the next generation. Increasingly, young men are leaving rural communities for urban areas. When agriculture is low paying, backbreaking work, people with options will move off the land. However, if farmers are given access to modern agricultural techniques, education, markets, and infrastructure, their work can be profitable. Nearly half of the agricultural workforce worldwide is female, so ensuring they have what they need to innovate and make agriculture successful and attractive for the next generation is crucial for protecting future food security.
Next week, this blog will examine the concept of “decent work” in the agricultural sector. Young people do not just need jobs of any kind—they deserve dignified work that supports a secure lifestyle, protects their safety, and allows them to invest in their futures.


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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Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

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Bread Blog, Bread for the World

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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.