Why gender

Gender roles, gender relations, gender discrimination, gender equality, gender equity, gender analysis, gender balance, gender mainstreaming – over the past decade, all of those terms have been accepted into declarations, plans of action, policies, programmes and projects for agriculture and rural development.

Accepted, but not always fully understood. For some, the stumbling block is the word "gender", a relatively recent concept in social science. "Gender" refers not to male and female, but to masculine and feminine - that is, to qualities or characteristics that society ascribes to each sex. People are born female or male, but learn to be women and men. Perceptions of gender are deeply rooted, vary widely both within and between cultures, and change over time. But in all cultures, gender determines power and resources for females and males.

Rural women have less access than men to productive resources, services and opportunities, such as land, livestock, financial services and education. Numerous studies underscore the social costs of rural women's lack of education and assets, linking it directly to high rates of undernutrition, infant mortality and - in some countries - HIV/AIDS infection. There are also high economic costs: wasted human capital and low labour productivity that stifle rural development and progress in agriculture, and ultimately threaten food security - both for women and men.

That is why gender has become central to FAO's new strategy for agriculture and rural development, and why understanding the terminology is so important.

Gender roles are those behaviours, tasks and responsibilities that a society considers appropriate for men, women, boys and girls

In some rural societies, commercial agricultural production is mainly a male responsibility. Men usually prepare land, irrigate crops, and harvest and transport produce to market. They own and trade large animals such as cattle, and are responsible for cutting, hauling and selling timber from forests.

Women and girls play an important, largely unpaid, role in generating family income, by providing labour for planting, weeding, harvesting and threshing crops, and processing produce for sale. Usually they are responsible for taking care of smaller animals.

In most societies rural women have also the primary responsibility for maintaining the household. They raise children, grow and prepare food, manage  poultry, and collect fuel wood and water.

These gender roles can vary considerably depending on the geographical area, culture and other factors.

Gender relations are the ways in which a society defines rights, responsibilities and the identities of men and women in relation to one another

Although women make substantial contributions to agricultural production and household well-being, men largely control the sale of crops and animals and use of the income. The failure to value their work limits women’s bargaining power in economic transactions, the allocation of household resources, and wider community decision-making.  

Gender discrimination is any exclusion or restriction made on the basis of gender roles and relations that prevents a person from enjoying full human rights

Rural women suffer systematic discrimination in the access to resources needed for agricultural production and socio-economic development.  Credit, extension, input and seed supply services usually address the needs of male household heads. Rural women are rarely consulted in development projects that may increase men's production and income, but add to their own workloads. When work burdens increase, girls are removed from school more often than boys, to help with farming and household tasks.

In some countries, a husband's family may take land and livestock from a woman on her husband's death, leaving her destitute. Female farm labourers' wages are lower than men's, while low-paid tasks in agro-processing are routinely "feminized". Discrimination can descend into gender-based violence, especially during emergencies when women are isolated and vulnerable. Another form of violence is women's lack of rights to "safe sex", a major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS in some countries.

Gender equality is when women and men enjoy equal rights, opportunities and entitlements in civil and political life

For FAO, gender equality is equal participation of women and men in decision-making, equal ability to exercise their human rights, equal access to and control of resources and the benefits of development, and equal opportunities in employment and in all other aspects of their livelihoods.

Gender equality makes good economic and social sense. The FAO State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11 report, shows that if female farmers had the same access as male farmers to agricultural inputs and services, they could substantially increase the yields on their farms. A World Bank report concluded that reducing gender inequality leads to falling infant and child mortality, improved nutrition, higher economic productivity and faster growth. For the global community, gender equality is also a commitment, embedded in international human rights agreements and in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Gender equity means fairness and impartiality in the treatment of women and men in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities

FAO has placed gender equity in access to resources, goods, services and decision-making among its key strategic objectives in agriculture and rural development for the next 10 years. By creating social relations in which neither of the sexes suffers discrimination, gender equity aims at improving gender relations and gender roles, and achieving gender equality.

The essence of equity is not identical treatment - treatment may be equal or different, but should always be considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities. Since male predominance in the family, public policy and institutions - not only in rural areas, but worldwide - has long obscured women's interests and concerns, a key strategy for gender equity lies in women's empowerment. Development must encompass rural women's long-term needs and aspirations, their decision-making power, and their access to and control of critical resources such as land and their own labour.

Gender analysis is the study of the different roles of women and men in order to understand what they do, what resources they have, and what their needs and priorities are

FAO uses gender analysis to address differentiated access to and control over resources and decision-making within rural communities and households. By understanding how different members participate in and are affected by development interventions - who stands to gain and who stands to lose - gender analysis helps planners to avoid costly errors of the past and design programmes and projects that are effective, efficient and equitable.

For example, gender analysis can reveal that if weeding and harvesting crops are considered "women's tasks", a programme to increase cash crop production may add to women's burdens and provide few benefits. A better investment may be piping water to rural households, thus giving women more time for small livestock production and horticulture. In emergency projects, gender analysis differentiates between potential impacts on girls and women - such as increased risk of malnutrition - and on men and boys, who may risk recruitment into conflicts.

Gender balance is the equal and active participation of women and men in all areas of decision-making, and in access to and control over resources and services

The United Nations considers gender balance fundamental to the achievement of equality, development and peace. To accomplish it in agriculture and rural development, action is needed by rural communities, governments and international development agencies.

At the local level, for example, gender balance means men and women are actively involved in decision-making bodies, including those managing community facilities and infrastructure. Ministries responsible for rural development need to improve gender balance among technical and managerial staff, especially in extension work. FAO strives for gender balance by employing women among front-line staff in its development projects. FAO has trained female facilitators to pass on biological pest control measures to women farmers, built up cadres of female livestock assistants to advise women's poultry enterprises, and used female promoters to form women's groups for income-generation. Within FAO, the proportion of female professional staff has increased from less than 22% in 1994 to 38% in 2011.

Gender mainstreaming is the globally recognized strategy for achieving gender equality

Gender mainstreaming is defined by the United Nations as the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action in all areas and at all levels. That means making both the concerns and experiences of women and men an integral dimension of all agriculture and rural development efforts.

As part of its new strategic framework, FAO has made gender mainstreaming central to its development policies and programmes. The Organization's work now extends beyond "women's issues", into areas once considered "gender-neutral", such as agricultural science and economic policy making. Within the Organization, gender mainstreaming entails sensitizing staff to gender issues in technical and administrative work, creating accountability mechanisms, and ensuring the allocation of resources equal to the challenge.

To help steer its gender mainstreaming efforts, FAO’s Director General endorsed the ‘FAO Policy on Gender Equality: Attaining Food Security Goals in Agriculture and Rural Development’ in 2012. The policy recognizes that gender equality is central to the Organization’s mandate to achieve food security for all by raising the levels of nutrition, improving agricultural productivity and natural resource management and improving the lives of rural people.  The policy will guide the Organization’s efforts in ensuring that the issues related to gender equality and women’s empowerment are fully integrated in all areas of work – food and nutrition security, agriculture and consumer protection, economic and social development, fisheries and aquaculture, forestry, natural resource management and environment and technical cooperation, knowledge exchange, research and extension.

Add new content



Participatory Information and Communication



Gender and Climate Change Programme



Gender and Land Rights Database




FAO Gender Programme
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations