Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

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 for marketing.

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 the family.

In many African countries women provide:

Female-headed households

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 households.

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 strategies.

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 produced.

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:

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