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The business case for closing the gender gap in agriculture

The findings of FAO’s recently launched State of Food and Agriculture report 2010-11 (SOFA): “Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development,” were the focus of a high-level roundtable debate organized by the three Rome-based UN agencies - FAO, IFAD and WFP - and of presentations in FAO’s Country Offices, on March 8, the centenary of International Women’s Day.

View of the panel during the FAO, IFAD and WFP International Women’s Day event held at FAO headquarters. [FAO/G. Napolitano]

Investing in gender in agriculture: A high-return initiative

Moderated by BBC anchor Zeinab Badawi, the event in Rome brought together a regionally diverse panel of agricultural experts from the UN, governments, academia, foundations and farmers’ organizations to discuss the messages and findings of the report, as well as its recommendations for appropriate actions governments, policy makers, civil society and the private sector can take to close the gender gap.

Z. Badawi, Anchor, BBC World News and BBC Four. See the full slideshow here.

FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem opened the discussion by outlining the main messages and findings of the SOFA: The agricultural sector of developing countries is underperforming, in large part because women farmers are denied equal access to resources including education, land, technology, seed, fertilizers and credit. As a result, while they are as productive as men farmers, their yields are on average 20 to 30 percent lower. If the gender gap in access to resources was closed, the resulting increase in agricultural production in developing countries would lift 100 to 150 million children, women and men out of hunger.

“I would like to tell the development community that gender is not only something you take into consideration because it is the right thing to do. It is indeed the right thing. But you will also not be able to succeed in fighting hunger and poverty around the world unless you take it into consideration,” Mr. Ghanem explained.

Kevin Cleaver, IFAD Associate Vice President, added that given the extent of the gender gap in agriculture, the international community would get “a very big bang from increasing women’s access to resources” in terms of food production, an important step towards building up the world’s capacity to feed a global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. However, he warned that no advance would be made unless investments in agriculture increased, and he underlined the neglect the sector had been subjected to in the past decades.

President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, participating via a pre-recorded statement, stated she was not surprised by the findings of the report and that, having herself been engaged in the fight for women’s empowerment for decades, she was convinced women were the key to food and economic security. “The message of the report, and my message to you, is that food security and agricultural development cannot be achieved without the empowerment of women.”

Also joining via pre-recorded statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the greater benefits of women’s empowerment: “By increasing our support for women farmers, we can increase food production, improve nutrition, health, and education, help women earn higher incomes and support broader economic growth,” and Jacobo Regalado, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Honduras, pointed out the importance of improving women’s access to credit for the agricultural sector of Latin America.

Lack of access to land ownership and insufficient data: two great obstacles

E. Atananga, President of the Pan-African Farmers’ organization.

The lack of access to land tenure and ownership for women working in agriculture was widely cited by participants as the foremost obstacle to their productivity. Elizabeth Atananga, President of the Pan-African Farmers’ organization, explained that customary practices make land ownership for women a particularly complex issue: “The laws are generally simple and grant rights to land to every child in a family. However, culturally, I [as a woman] cannot claim land—people consider that I should use my husband’s plots. If I insist, I have to undertake legal action. I would be acting in accordance with the law, but culturally, people would consider that I am stealing land from another person.” Ms. Atananga underlined the importance of setting aside funding to undertake consultations with traditional chiefs and other community leaders to foster better access to land for women.

Bina Agarwal, Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth of the University of Delhi, shared her experience in Asia where women increasingly organize into groups to rent or purchase land—a method which has proved effective and in some cases has led to a production capacity high enough for these groups to engage in contract farming.

The scarcity of available sex-disaggregated data was also repeatedly stressed as an important impediment to identifying the specific needs of women in agriculture, and in turn to informing policies and designing interventions to appropriately address these. Participants stressed the necessity for more data on access to land, water, equipment, inputs, information and credit.

Calling for a greater role of the private sector

Circling back to the need for higher investments, the discussion turned to the potential role of the private sector in closing the gender gap in agriculture. Ann Tutweiler, recently appointed FAO Deputy Director-General, expressed optimism that the agribusiness community had begun to pay attention to agriculture in the last few years and that the timing was right to call their attention to gender equality: “The agribusiness community has finally understood the role of agriculture in reducing poverty and the fact that poor consumers are not going to buy their products. I think we should take advantage of this particular time and take our message to the business community to get them to start thinking about how they can address gender issues in the way they are doing business, the way they are contracting and doing extension work. I think they will welcome this discussion.”

The roundtable also included the participation of Pasquale Lucio Scandizzo, Director and Professor of Political Economy at the Center for Economic and International Studies of the University of Rome, Thenjiwe Ethel Mtintso, H.E. Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa, Hans-Heinrich Wrede, H.E. Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Arlene Mitchell, Senior Program Officer for the Agricultural Development Program, Market Access Team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Georgia Shaver, Director of Mediation Services at the World Food Programme.

SOFA 2010-11 around the world

Press conference at the FAO Liaison Office in Geneva.

Several FAO regional and country offices also held presentations, discussions and press conferences on the findings of the SOFA pertaining to the issues and challenges women in agriculture face in their specific regions.

FAO’s Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia in Budapest held a press conference hosted by Regional Representative Fernanda Guerrieri, which focused on region specific gender issues, such as the migration of rural women. A presentation of the main findings of SOFA was also held for ambassadors and representatives of the UN and other international agencies. The unavailability of sex disaggregated data was discussed and the Regional Statistician, Salar Tayyib, indicated that an extensive data research exercise was being undertaken by the Regional Office to address this issue, and would result in a publication on the status of rural women in Europe and Central Asia.

Speaking at the Regional Office for Africa located in Accra, Ghana, FAO Assistant Director-General Helena Semedo announced preliminary plans to organise a high level event convening Ministers of Agriculture and Finance of African nations to discuss the findings of the report as they relate to agricultural policy, development practice and women in agriculture in Africa, with an emphasis on the role of statistics in supporting change. In the Nairobi, Kenya country office, discussions were held with representatives from the World Bank, IFAD, the Ford Foundation, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and other specialists focusing on the need and the strategies to collect better sex-disaggregated data.

Members of FAO's Karthoum office, Sudan, celebrate their first International Women's Day.

The presentation held by the Karthoum, Sudan office, constituted its first celebration of International Women’s Day. The figures and key messages from the SOFA were discussed and linked with the reality of Sudan, where 70% of women are involved in agriculture and have very little access to resources.

As part of International Women’s Week, FAO’s Liaison Office with the United Nations in Geneva organized a press conference as well as a high level panel discussion on the SOFA findings in collaboration with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Discussions featured Elizabeth Prügl, Vice Director and Professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Magdi Farahat, Representative of the Economic Commission for Africa in Geneva, and Marcela Villarreal, Director of the Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division of FAO. Talks focused on the impact of customary norms on the rights of women in agriculture and the challenges these pose to compliance with the law, as well as on the consequences of international trade on rural women. In a news article published in the Tribune de Genève, Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, Director of FAO’s Liaison Office, pointed out FAO’s advocacy for greater political will to empower women and its recommendation that developing countries dedicate 10 percent of their budget to agriculture.

The Santiago, Chile Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean held a press conference and a technical workshop on the findings of the SOFA with the participation of representatives from twelve Country Offices in Latin America and members of the Government and of women’s organizations from Guatemala and Peru. Regional Representative Alan Bojanic and Economists Ana Paula de la O Campo and Gustavo Anríquez highlighted the progress achieved over the past decades for rural women in Latin America, many of whom left unpaid domestic work to enter the labour market as farm labourers and workers in industries connected with agriculture and services. Additionally, women have become prevalent as workers in high-value agro-industries. The presenters explained that these changes have led to greater decision-making powers for women in the household and improved family welfare indicators for nutrition and education but warned that much is left to achieve.

A. Bojanic and A.P. de la O Campos attend the technical workshop on the SOFA findings in Santiago, Chile.

FAO representatives from the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok presented data from the report at a recent event organized by the UN Inter-Agency Technical Working Group on Gender. Key findings and follow-up actions will be discussed at a regional meeting with participants from FAO’s country offices in Asia, members of governments and diplomatic representatives.

FAO’s Liaison Office with the United Nations in New York held a presentation with the participation of Ms. Lila H. Ratsifandrihamanana, Director of the FAO Liaison Office, Abulkalam Abdul Momen, H.E. Ambassador of Bangladesh and Vice President of ECOSOC, Ms Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, Ms Winnie Byanyima, Director of the Gender Team of UNDP (TBD), and Ms Joanne Sandler, Deputy Director of UN Women.

More presentations on the findings and policy recommendations of the SOFA 2010-11 will be held throughout the world in the coming months.

The consensus to come out of all the events is that action towards empowering women in agriculture is long overdue and that there is an urgent need to implement the policy recommendations outlined in the report—creating agricultural policies that consider gender differences, ensuring equality for women under the law, investing in the human capital of women and girls, addressing the multiple constraints of women in agriculture holistically and providing public services and technologies to free up women’s time—in order to improve the lives of rural women and to meet the increasingly complex challenge of food security for a rapidly growing global population.