Women play a decisive role in household and national food security. In rural areas - home to the majority of the world's hungry- they grow most of the crops for domestic consumption and are primarily responsible for preparing, storing and processing food. They also handle livestock, gather food, fodder and fuelwood and manage the domestic water supply. In addition, they provide most of the labour for post-harvest activities. Yet women's work often goes unrecognized, and they lack the leverage necessary to gain access to resources, training and finance.
ON A GLOBAL SCALE, women produce more than half of all the food that is grown. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, they provide from 50 to 90 percent of the labour for rice cultivation. And in Southeast Asia and the Pacific as well as Latin America, women's home gardens represent some of the most complex agricultural systems known.
Women's contribution to agricultural production
Women in the rural areas are almost exclusively responsible for the nutrition of their children, from gestation through weaning and throughout the critical period of growth. In addition, they are the principal food producers and preparers for the rest of the family. In general, most of this food comes from home gardens or from family and community plots. But it has been found that women also spend a significant part of their household income - a much larger part proportionately than men - on buying additional food for the family.
Food preparation involves work far beyond caring for crops and livestock. Women must gather the wood for fires and carry the water they need for cooking and processing food. In many regions of the world, women spend up to five hours per day collecting fuelwood and water and up to four hours preparing food. In addition, rural women provide most of the labour for farming, from soil preparation to harvest. After the harvest, they are almost entirely responsible for operations such as storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing.
As more and more men migrate from rural areas in search of work, women bear a heavier burden. In some regions of Africa, 60 percent of households are now headed by women. The expanded workload can prompt women to cultivate less labour-intensive - though less nutritious - crops and to use agricultural practices that may harm the environment.
Women also play a crucial role as custodians of genetic diversity and related knowledge on varieties and their uses, be it for food, medicine or cultural or other applications. From generation to generation, they pass on this vital knowledge to their daughters.
Siera Leone: one woman's day
DESPITE their contribution to food security, women tend to be "invisible" actors in development. As a result, their contribution is poorly understood and often underestimated. There are many reasons for this. Work in the household is often considered to be part of a woman's duties as wife and mother, rather than an occupation to be accounted for in the national economy. Outside of the household, a great deal of rural women's labour - whether regular or seasonal - goes unpaid and is, therefore, rarely taken into account in official statistics. In most countries, women do not own the land they cultivate. When land is owned by women, it tends to be smaller, less valuable plots that are also overlooked in statistics. Furthemmore, women are usually responsible for the food crops destined for immediate consumption by the household, that is, for subsistence crops rather than cash crops. Also, when data is collected for national statistics, gender is often ignored or the data is biased in the sense that it is collected only from males, who are assumed to be the heads of households.
Rural women's invisibility is further accentuated by their lack of political power and social representation resulting from prevailing attitudes, gender-biased legal and social structures and illiteracy, among other factors. Extension services reach women much less frequently than they do men. Statistics indicate that women receive no more than 5 percent of extension resources. This lack of knowledge often hinders the progress of women and their contribution to food security, particularly at the family level.
The combined effect of these handicaps is an increasing feminization of poverty. Since the 1970s, the number of women living below the poverty line has increased by 50 percent, in comparison with 30 percent for their male counterparts. More than 70 percent of the 1 300 million poor people today are women.
Households headed by women
EDUCATION can play a major role in improving the status of women, the nutrition of their families and national food production. A cost-benefit analysis carried out by the World Bank indicates that investment in the education of females has the highest rate of return of any possible type of investment in developing nations. It results in higher productivity, reduced fertility, reduced child morbidity and mortality rates and increased application of environmental protection measures. In the state of Kerala, India, a longstanding commitment to the education of females has been cited as a major factor in increasing life expectancy to 70 years, compared with the Indian average of 56 to 58 years.
Ensuring that extension services address the specific needs of women - and their daily routines - as well as the deployment of more female extension agents can play a major role in improving the conditions of rural women. Technology designed to suit women's needs can contribute to mitigating drudgery and provide women with an opportunity to join in other more beneficial or rewarding activities.
On the policy side, creating a situation that allows women more access to good agricultural land and resources, including farm inputs, is an important step. Equal employment opportunities - and competitive wages - are also fundamental. Studies have shown a direct correlation between increased incomes for women and improvements in household food security. Lastly, access to and knowledge of credit and legal systems can help to empower women. Women's participation in decision-making is fundamental to their role in development and contribution to food security.
Women's advancement in developing countries
For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Women and Population Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-6421
Internet, http://www.fao.org or gopher.fao.org