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Gender gap imposes large costs on agriculture, economies and society

"Rural women are active economic agents who could unleash major advancements in hunger eradication and development if they were able to participate equally with men in the agricultural economy,” said FAO Deputy Director-General Ann Tutwiler, speaking at the opening session of the 56th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

© FAO/H. Dinh Nam

27 February 2012, New York - Rural women’s economic potential is squandered due to the gender gap in access to productive resources and opportunities, and this imposes hefty costs on agriculture, economies and societies, Tutwiler said.

According to FAO’s most recent State of Food and Agriculture report, just giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources could increase production on women's farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent – enough to feed up to 150 million more of the world’s hungry people.

“Female farmers produce less than male farmers because they do not have access to seeds, tools, fertilizer and credit, not because women are worse farmers,” Tutwiler said.

Women make up, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. FAO estimates that feeding a global population of over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 60 per cent increase in global food production. This will require that agriculture – particularly smallholder agriculture in which women are the driving force – play a much more effective role.

Worldwide, less than 20 percent of agricultural landholders are women due to legal and cultural constraints in land inheritance, ownership and use. Women represent fewer than 5 percent of all agricultural landholders in North Africa and West Asia, while across sub-SaharanAfrica, they make up on average 15 percent of agricultural landholders.

Lagging behind

Disparities in progress between men and women and between urban and rural areas persist beyond the agriculture sector, according to a new fact sheet produced by FAO and its UN partners. Rural women and girls lag far behind urban women and girls and men and boys in every single Millennium Development Goal indicator.

Rural girls are more likely to be out of school than rural boys and twice as likely as urban girls to be out of school. Rural women are far likelier to be illiterate, under- or unemployed, to suffer domestic violence and to have less access to services, including prenatal services, than urban women.

“Malnourished rural girls become malnourished rural mothers, whose children are 40 percent more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children born in a city,” Tutwiler said. “If the cycle is not broken, it will continue to undermine children’s mental and physical development, productivity and health.”

Speaking on behalf of the three Rome-based agencies – FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme – she called for legal reforms to ensure women’s full economic rights; equal access to education, training, information and extension services; access to labour-saving technologies to free up rural women’s time for more rewarding activities; and full participation in decision-making.

Tutwiler said that social protections for the most vulnerable were needed to promote access to health care, education and adequate nutrition, particularly in the critical first 1000 days of life.

Count women in

One challenge affecting the global community’s ability to monitor progress for all people in all regions and to identify where more progress is needed is a general lack of data disaggregated by sex, and by rural and urban areas.

Tutwiler expressed FAO’s commitment to incorporate sex-disaggregated data, where possible, in all of its major statistical databases by 2015; to specify minimum gender analytical competencies that all staff are required to meet by 2015; and to allocate 30 percent of its operational work and budget at country and regional level to women-specific interventions.

She highlighted the joint efforts of FAO, IFAD and WFP to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through policy analysis, operational support, research, capacity development and advocacy.

“We can make a significant contribution to eradicating hunger and poverty in our lifetime by working together to realize rural women’s full economic potential,” Tutwiler said. “We know what to do. It’s time to do it. We ask you to join us.”