Women and sustainable food security
Prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division
WOMEN PRODUCE between 60 and 80 per cent of the food in most developing
countries and are responsible for half of the world's food production, yet
their key role as food producers and providers, and their critical contribution
to household food security, is only recently becoming recognised.
FAO studies confirm that while women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture,
the farm labour force and day-to-day family subsistence, they have more difficulties
than men in gaining access to resources such as land, credit and productivity-enhancing inputs and services.
Food security, in fact, has been defined by FAO not only in terms of
access to, and availability of food, but also in terms of resource distribution
to produce food and the purchasing power to buy food where it is not produced.
Given women's crucial role in food production and provision, any set of
strategies for sustainable food security must address their limited access
to productive resources.
Women's limited access to resources and their insufficient purchasing power
are products of a series of inter-related social, economic and cultural
factors that force them into a subordinate role, to the detriment of their
own development and that of society as a whole.
International initiatives and efforts, developed especially since the
1975 World Conference on Women in Mexico, have contributed to a greater recognition
of women's key participation in rural and other domains of development.
However, much remains to be done.
The gender division of labour
The biggest constraint to the effective recognition of women's actual roles
and responsibilities in agriculture is the scarcity of gender-disaggregated
data available to technicians, planners and policy-makers.
The first step towards women's empowerment and full participation
in food security strategies is the collection and
analysis of gender disaggregated data, in order to understand role differences in
food and cash crop production as well as men's and women's differential
managerial and financial control over production, storage and marketing
of agricultural products.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, studies have shown that
women play a crucial role in many aspects of crop production. While men
are often responsible for land clearing, burning and ploughing, women specialise
in weeding, transplanting, post-harvest work and, in some areas, land preparation. Both take part in seeding and harvesting.
Moreover, Sub-Saharan and Near Eastern women play a major role in household
animal-production enterprises. They tend to have the primary responsibility
for the husbandry of small animals and ruminants, and also take care of
large animal systems - herding, providing water and feed, cleaning stalls
and milking. In all types of animal production systems, women have a predominant
role in processing, particularly of milk products, and are commonly responsible
In many countries, women are also responsible for fishing in shallow waters
and in coastal lagoons, producing secondary crops, gathering food and firewood,
processing, storing and preparing family food, and fetching water for
In many African countries women provide:
- 33% of the workforce
- 70% of the agricultural workers
- 60-80% of the labour to produce food for household consumption and sale
- 100% of the processing for basic food stuffs
- 90% of household water and fuelwood
- 80% of food storage and transport from farm to village
- 90% of the hoeing and weeding work
- 60% of the harvesting and marketing activities
The number of female-headed households is increasing significantly in rural
areas in many developing countries as rural men migrate due to the lack
of employment and other income-generating opportunities. In Sub-Saharan
Africa, 31% of rural households are headed by women, while in Latin
America and the Caribbean and Asia women head 17& and 14%,
respectively. While there are different types of female-headed households,
in almost all countries female-headed households are concentrated among
the poorer strata of society and often have lower income than male-headed
The problems of female-headed households in rural areas vary according to
their degree of access to productive resources. FAO has identified,
for example, the potential consequences of the absence of male labour both
in terms of declining yields and outputs or shifts in production toward
less nutritious crops requiring less labour and in terms of increased reliance
on child labour which, in turn, has further implications for the family
and for the human capital of the country. In these cases, women's
access to labour-saving technology is of particular importance.
Access to resources
Despite their role as the backbone of food production and provision for
family consumption in developing countries, women have limited
access to critical resources and services. While in most developing countries,
both men and women farmers do not have access to adequate resources, women's
access is even more limited due to cultural, traditional and sociological
factors. Accurate information about men's and women's relative access to,
and control over, resources is critical in the development of food security
Access to land
Not even 2% of land is owned by women, while the proportion of women
heads of household continues to grow. Land reform programmes, together with
the break-up of communal land holdings, have led to the transfer of exclusive
land rights to males as heads of households. This ignores both the existence
of female-headed households and the rights of married women to a joint share.
Access to credit
For countries where information is available, only 10% of credit
allowances is extended to women, mainly because national legislation and
customary law do not allow them to share land property rights along with
their husbands, or because women heads of household are excluded from land
entitlement schemes and, consequently, cannot provide the collateral required
by lending institutions.
Access to agricultural inputs
Women's access to technological inputs such as improved seeds, fertilisers
and pesticides is limited. They are frequently not reached by extension
services and are rarely members of co-operatives, which often distribute
government subsidised inputs to small farmers. In addition, they lack
the cash income needed to purchase inputs even when they are subsidised.
Access to education, training and extension services
Two thirds of the 1,000 million illiterates in the world are women and girls.
Available figures show that only 5% of extension services have been
addressed to rural women, while no more than 15% of the world's
extension agents are women. In addition, most extension services
are focused on cash crops rather than food and subsistence crops, which
are the primary concern of women farmers and the key to food security.
Access to decision-making
Given the traditionally limited role of women in decision-making processes
at the household, village and national levels in most cultures, their needs,
interests and constraints are often not reflected in policy-making processes
and laws which are important for poverty reduction, food security and environmental
sustainability. The causes of women's exclusion from decision-making processes
are closely linked to their additional reproductive roles and their household
workload, which account for an important share of their time.
Access to research and appropriate technology
Women have little access to the benefits of research and innovation, especially
in the domain of food crops, which - in spite of ensuring food security at
the household and community level - have a low priority in crop improvement
research. In addition, women farmers' roles and needs are often ignored
when devising technology which may cause labour displacement or increased
workload. In western Java, during the 1970's, traditional hand
pounding was replaced by mechanical hullers in rice
milling. It was estimated that, on average, some 3,700 labourers were displaced
by each mechanical huller, implying that in 1971 alone, some 7.7 million
part-time workers, mostly women, lost that source of income.
Women's need for income
Research in Africa, Asia and Latin America has found that improvements in
household food security and nutrition are associated with women's access
to income and their role in household decisions on expenditure. This is because women
tend to spend a significantly higher proportion of their income than men
on food for the family. In Central American countries, for example, when
grain grown by men is in short supply, income earned by women from the sale
of eggs, cheese, fresh and processed fruit, vegetables and small stock contribute
significantly to household provisions.
Women's wage income from farm and non-farm employment, and from other income
opportunities, is of particular importance for landless and near-landless
rural households. Women's purchasing power may not only be used to buy food
and other basic assets for themselves and their families, but also to pay
for inputs used in food production. Since food crops are consumed, the
inputs for these have to be provided from income earned in other agricultural
enterprises or non-farm income generating activities.
Thus, to improve food production for the household, greater priority has
to be given to increasing women's participation in market production as
well as other income-generating ventures.
Sustainable food security: requirements for a new era
The understanding of food security has evolved over the
years through increasingly integrated attention to the social, gender, environmental,
technical and economic dimensions of the problem. The challenge for the
future will be to pursue a concrete attainment of equity in access to resources
by women to produce food, and purchasing power to buy food where it is not
Specific policy measures are required to address the constraints facing
women farmers and special consideration given to the needs of female heads
of households. FAO has recommended that such measures aim to:
- ensure that women have equal opportunities with men to own land;
- facilitate women's access to agricultural services and tailoring such
services to their needs;
- encourage the production of food crops through the use of incentives;
- promote the adoption of appropriate inputs and technology to free up
women's time for income-producing activities;
- improve the nutritional status of women and children;
- provide better employment and income earning opportunities;
- promote women's organisations; and
- review and re-orient government policies to ensure that the problems
that constrain the role of women in food security are addressed.