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Women and men in family farming – recognizing their contributions and challenges

Family farming and smallholder farming are an important basis for sustainable food production throughout the world. While family farms tend to be highly efficient in terms of agricultural productivity per unit of land, those that produce on a small or medium scale have limited bargaining power and capacity to defend their interests in food markets.

©FAO/Antonello Proto / FAO

Beyond an agricultural model, family farming is a way of life, where both men and women have different roles and responsibilities. As elsewhere, what men and women do and are responsible for is largely determined by what is socially considered acceptable. In many cultures, men serve more often as managers – making decisions about what crops to plant, how much land to use, whether to make by-products and where to sell the food. Their tasks on the family farm can also include preparing the soil for planting and harvesting, while women usually do the planting, weeding and post-harvest processing. It is the combination of men’s and women’s efforts that make family farming work.

The challenges family farmers, especially women, face also include the lack of a clear line to divide family life and work. National data from a number of countries show that most unpaid family farmers are women, who also work longer hours than men when both agricultural work and household chores are counted.

Family farmers, who tend to be unsalaried workers, miss out on benefits, such as retirement, maternity leave and child care. And here women face greater disadvantages. Female managers of family farms tend to own less land and livestock than their male counterparts, and have less access to financial credit and services, markets to sell their products and time-saving technology. Climate change, food price volatility and economic globalization also create difficulties for family farms.

To highlight the important contribution that family farming and smallholder farming can make to food security and poverty eradication, the year 2014 was named the International Year of Family Farming by the UN. “FAO and partners will hold consultations, encouraging countries to adoption policies that support family farmers with social protection programmes and rural services, including medical care and agricultural extension and training,” says Ana Paula Dela O Campos, FAO Gender Policy Officer. “If agricultural policies are designed to respond to both women’s and men’s needs and consider their roles in family agriculture,” she explains, “they will be in a stronger position to increase agricultural production and reduce rural poverty.”

What is family farming? Family farming, or family agriculture, is a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production, which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly  reliant on family labour, that of both women and men. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, reproductive, social and cultural functions.