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Women in Agriculture

Facts and Fiction

The role of women in agriculture has been getting a great deal of attention in the past decade, and this has been addressed by many initiatives in both the developing and developed world.

Research and aid agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Program (WFP), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and countless others have introduced or amplified gendered components to funding programs, no doubt well-intentioned actions to recognize and promote women’s roles in food production. These initiatives rely on data about women’s contributions to food security which has been historically lacking or often confounded with well-intentioned but unsubstantiated facts.

In a recent paper by Doss et al. in Global Food Security, “Women in agriculture: Four myths”, the authors identify four pervasive myths that exist about women, agriculture and the environment. Reviewing conceptual and empirical literature, the authors present the kernels of truth underlying the four myths along with the underlying assumptions and implications. Importantly, the paper examines how these myths can hinder the development of effective food policies including inadvertently adding to the burden of or overlooking the women (and men) they are trying to help. The four pervasive gender myths they examine are: 1) Women account for 70% of the world’s poor; 2) Women produce 60–80% of the world’s food; 3) Women own 1% of the world’s land; and 4) Women are better stewards of the environment.

Many of these claims arise simply from a lack of data including monetary and non-monetary indicators as well as looking at data at the household instead of the individual level. The first myth, 70% of the world’s poor are women, likely arises from household income data which shows the predominance of poor, female-headed households. Using the sex of the household head in monetary indicators ignores the other members of the household, and a better metric may be to allocate household income, expenditures and assets across household members. Focusing on women as disproportionately poor and on female-headed households as more impoverished can distort the design of these programs and policies by ignoring the heterogeneity among women and characteristics other than gender that can be more important to improving food security.

The second, regarding how much food women are responsible for producing, was especially interesting in how the authors addressed it. It is well documented that women farmers have less access to land, information, capital, and credit as well as other inputs when compared to male farmers; the claim that they produce 60–80% of the world’s food is unlikely to be true. Realistically, it seems impossible that in addition to having the primary role in cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare, women are also producing the lion’s share of the global food supply. The authors of the paper argue it is probable the claim is made to demonstrate the importance of women’s role in agriculture, and especially to recognize the often invisible role they play in ensuring food security, particularly within their households.

Frequently, social norms can result in women stating they work at home even though they are heavily involved in agriculture through kitchen gardens, tending to livestock/poultry and processing agricultural products into food. The problem with the claim above is that it is difficult to attribute a share of food that is produced by women with current data, and even if we focus on labour inputs, only 43% of the global agriculture labour force is women. Having better data on women’s and men’s roles in agriculture and household production would be useful to dispel this myth and important to better design policies to promote food security. Not understanding the social norms and traditional patterns of labour can lessen the impacts of programs by inadvertently increasing the burdens or opportunities of one group at the expense of the other. Having more information on the gendered constraints faced by both women and men in agriculture is needed to work on lessening their impacts that would promote food security.

Aid agencies have been exemplary in addressing gender equity in the social and economic contexts of the places they work. For example: in January 2018 the CGIAR released the report “Gender-Equitable Pathways to Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Intensification” which recommends that “when designing and implementing a new policy or intervention, invest in studying the social, economic and agroecological context to understand gender roles, the extent and depth of gender inequality and the main barriers to women’s participation”, subsequently outlining several methodologies and frameworks for achieving greater equity through effective interventions. The Gates Foundation has also been promoting the improvement of gender responsive development programs through the espousing of criteria to make all their programs gender transformative or gender aware and to not fund proposals that “do not account for the differences between women and men and do not consider how women and men may be marginalized or may not benefit from projects”.

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These reports and Doss et al. both make the case that improving gender equality and food security will require a better understanding of the lives of women and men in food production. This understanding will not come from better surveying or statistics alone, rather it will require addressing issues related to gender and food security through qualitative research. Gaining insight into what the experiences of men and women are, their cultural context, their roles and values are all important aspects in designing programs to ensure food security of these communities and improving the lives of the people living in them.