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III. Factors and constraints affecting women's roles in food security

III. Factors and constraints affecting women's roles in food security

Given women's crucial roles in and contributions to food security, any efforts to reduce food insecurity worldwide must take into consideration the factors and constraints affecting women's ability to carry out these roles and make these contributions, with a view to removing the constraints and enhancing women's capacities. This section will look at some of the major factors and constraints affecting women's roles in food security.

"Gender blindness" and "invisibility" of women's roles in and contributions to food security: Despite an increasing supply of gender disaggregated data and studies of women's roles in agricultural production and food security, there is still a lack of sufficient data and information on these. Much of women's work remains "invisible", because it is not counted in surveys and censuses which still often count as work only that which is remunerated, or ask what is the principal work of a person. Thus, women, who may be involved in one day in working on the family plot, tending small livestock fishing, gathering fuelwood, fetching water, transporting and marketing produce, processing food and preparing meals may not be able to answer what their principal work is.

The lack of awareness of the specific and different roles and contributions of men and women to agricultural production and food security results in what has been called "gender blindness". Unaware of these differences, policy makers, planners, extensionists proceed as if they did not exist, as if the situation and needs of farmers were the same, whether they are men or women. What they see, however, is the situation and needs of male farmers and not those of women farmers. Thus, policy making, planning and extension services are built on a partial view of reality.

All regions have noted this gap and the need for greater collection and dissemination of data and information on women's roles in agricultural production and in contributing to food security.

Agricultural Development Policies and Research

Development policy makers and planner are becoming increasingly aware of the crucial contributions of women farmers to agricultural production and food security. Nevertheless, agricultural policies on the whole still do not address the needs of women farmers adequately. Where the roles and needs of women farmers are recognized in policy, these tend not to be adequately translated into practice in agricultural development programmes and planning. Agricultural research, too, gives inadequate attention to women farmers and their needs. As has been pointed out, for instance, women and men farmers are often responsible for different agricultural tasks and crops. Research is generally focused on the improvement of production and technologies for men's crops and tasks, while those of women are neglected.

National agricultural policies focus on export-oriented crops which are important for foreign exchange, and to give scant attention to food crops for domestic consumption, although the latter are essential for household food security. Moreover, the importance of local markets for national food security is also often overlooked.

The lack of the collection and dissemination of gender-disaggregated data is one of the underlying causes of this neglect of women's contributions to agricultural production and food security in agricultural development policies and research. Another root cause of this neglect is the lack of women's participation in policy-making and decision-making bodies at national and international levels. At the international level, for instance, women in United Nations organizations constituted less than 5 percent o the senior management positions, less than 10 percent of senior professionals, and less than 30 percent of mid-level professionals in the late 1980s. At the national level, the number of women in management and processional positions is generally even less. The exclusion of women from decision-making and leadership positions begins at the local level (Karl, l995).

Impact of Environmental Degradation

As the primary food producers in the world, women have a stake in the preservation of the environment and in environmentally sustainable development. However, because of their lack of access to agricultural resources, women farmers trying to eke out an existence on marginal lands often have no choice but to contribute to its further degradation. Lack of secure land tenure acts as a disincentive to environmentally sound agricultural practices while lack of access to credit limits the purchase of less environmentally damaging technologies and inputs. This sets up a cycle of declining productivity and increasing environmental degradation.

Access to Resources

Access to resources is essential to improving agricultural productivity of both men and women farmers. Because women play crucial roles in agricultural production, improving productivity will depend to a great extent on ensuring that women farmers, as well as men farmers, have sufficient access to production inputs and support services. While both men and women smallholders lack sufficient access to agricultural resources, women generally have much less access to resources than men. The causes of this are rooted, to a great extent, in: gender-blind development policies and research; discriminatory legislation, traditions and attitudes; and lack of access to decision-making. Worldwide, women have insufficient access to land, membership in rural organizations, credit, agricultural inputs and technology, training and extension, and marketing services.

Some studies have shown that when women farmers have access to resources, they are more productive than men farmers. For instance, it has been reported that in Kenya the average gross value of output per hectare from male-managed plots was usually 8 percent higher than from female-managed plots, but when women used the same resources as met,, their productivity would increase by 22 percent (Saito, 1994).

Land: Shortage of good quality agricultural land for smallholders is a problem in many regions of the world due to environmental degradation, conversion of land for nonagricultural purposes, population pressure and consolidation of land in the hands of fewer and fewer large landowners, including transnational corporations. Access to land through ownership or secure tenure is, on the hand, the sine qua non of improving agricultural productivity. Without secure land rights, farmers have little or no access to credit or the benefits of membership in rural organizations which are often conduits of agricultural inputs and services. Moreover, with no stake in the land or assurance of access to it, farmers have few incentives to engage in sustainable agricultural practices or to consider the long-term environmental impact of the exploitation of the land.

Overall, women have less access to land than men for a variety of legal and cultural reasons which vary from place to place. In some cases, legislation has affirmed women's basic right to land but customary practices and laws limit women's land rights. In other cases, legislation has undermined women's access to land. This is the case, for instance, in many places in Africa: under customary law women were given access to communal or family land (although women often would be deprived of this access through divorce or widowhood). With the introduction of legislation regulating ownership of land, title to land is generally given to the male head of household. Agrarian reform programs everywhere also tend to give title to men, and this has been especially the case in Latin America.

Without secure title to land, women are often denied membership in cooperatives and other rural organizations and thus to the benefits of this membership. They also lack collateral which is generally indispensable for access to credit. In some places, lack of land title restricts the type of crops that may be grown. For instance, in Ghana only landowners are allowed to cultivate tree crops, such as cocoa, which can be important sources of cash income.

Rural Organizations: Members in rural organizations such as cooperatives, agricultural producers' organizations and farmers' associations, is important for access to productive resources, credit, information, training and other support services. These organizations also represent the interests of their members in relation to governments, project management, and development policy makers and planners at different levels.

When women farmers' access to membership and leadership positions in these organizations is restricted, by law or custom, their access to resources and their ability to make their views known to policy makers and planners is also restricted. The obvious results is the inability of women farmers to carry out their roles in agriculture and food security to optimum potential.

The same agrarian reform programmes that have given land titles to male heads of households and thus restricted women's ownership of land, have also restricted membership in agrarian reform organizations and cooperatives to male heads of household.

Even where women do have access to membership in cooperatives and other rural organizations, they make up a small minority of the leadership. In Zimbabwe, for instance, women constitute 75 percent of the officers. In Benin, women make up 25 percent of the cooperative members, but cover 12 to 14 percent of the leadership positions (FAO, 1994)

Credit: A direct consequence of women's lack of access to land and membership in rural organizations is their lack of access to credit. Land is usually required as collateral for loans, on the one hand, and, on the other, credit schemes are often channeled through rural organizations to their members. This is a serious obstacle to improving women's agricultural productivity, as without credit women farmers are unable to buy inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and improved technologies, or to hire labor. Paradoxically, numerous studies have shown that women are more likely than men to repay loans.

Because man and women farmers often have different responsibilities in agricultural production and food security, both need credit according to their needs. It is thus important for women to have not only access to credit but also control over the use of the credit so that it is not diverted to male-dominated production systems, at the expense of women's productive activities.

A 1990 study of credit schemes in Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe showed that women received less than 10 percent of credit directed to smallholders and only 1 percent on total credit to agriculture (FAO, 1990).

Agricultural inputs and technology: With the decreasing availability of arable land, increasing population pressure and growing environmental degradation, it becomes more and more important to increase productivity in sustainable ways. This requires access to appropriate agricultural inputs and technologies.

The access of women farmers to agricultural inputs and technologies is constrained by their lack of access to credit and membership in rural organizations, but also by gender blind development programs and lack of attention to the needs of women farmers in research and technology development programs.

It has also been noted, however, that women sometimes lose their land use rights when the value of the land is increased through the introduction of new technologies, such as advanced irrigation techniques. Alternative technologies which are also effective and easier to manage, can help ensure that women, whose agricultural production is essential to good security, retain their rights and ability to farm the land.

Because women farmers everywhere are engaged in a wide range of laborious tasks related to food security, there is a need for the development and introduction of appropriate laborsaving technology in food processing and storage as well in food production, and in related areas such water, sanitation, fuel and food preparation.

Training and extension: Women's access to training and extension are limited by a number of factors, in addition to lack of access to membership in rural organizations which often channel or provide training opportunities. These include: gender neutral or gender blind agricultural research which gives inadequate attention to women farmer's needs in terms of crops and technology; the lack of awareness of different gender roles and needs tin the curricula and training of extensionists who could relate to women farmers, excludes women from training and the benefits of extension services. In other cultures, where men extensionsists are able to work with women farmers, they usually do not have the awareness of the needs of women farmers nor the training to work with women. Studies have shown that the assumption that training and information provided to men will be transferred to the women farmers in their households does not hold true. Finally, women extensionists are still often trained only in home economics and do not have the skills to provide the services and information needed for agricultural production.

Marketing services: Structural adjustment programs and the trend towards liberalization of trade have led to the dismantling of many of the marketing services that were previously available to farmers. As those often primarily responsible for marketing, women farmers have been most severely hit by this loss. The decline in investment in rural infrastructure, such as feeder roads that link rural areas to markets, also affects women's access to markets. In addition, lack of access to membership in marketing cooperatives also limits women's ability to market their produce. These constraints act as a disincentive to women farmers to produce surplus food, since the difficulties of marketing it are too great if not insurmountable.

IV. Conclusions

Gender and food security are closely interrelated.

In recent years there has been increased recognition of the crucial importance of women's contribution to food security. In most developing countries, rural women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture, farm labour, and day-to-day family subsistence. Efforts to alleviate rural poverty and improve food security will not be successful unless issues relating to women as producers and providers of food are taken into account. These issues include the contribution of women to household food supply and income, access to productive resources, and the impact of policy reforms on the economic and social roles of women and household food security.

Many studies show that although there is a wide diversity in household production patterns, women in all regions play a predominant role in household food security through agricultural and food production. The pooling of incomes of household members is often a precondition for survival as neither female nor male members alone tend to receive adequate incomes to support all household members. The relative share of income that a household member contributes to particular items of essential expenditure are often a function of societal traditions. However, the direct responsibility for household food provision largely falls on women, and that the improvement of household food security and nutritional levels is associated with women's access to income and their role in household decisions on expenditure.

In almost all countries female-headed households are concentrated among the poorer strata of society and often have lower incomes than male-headed households. The problems faced by such households vary according to their degree of access to productive resources including land, credit and technology.

Moreover, although women farmers play a predominant role in food production, they often lack access to agricultural services. For instance, lack of land ownership restricts women farmer's access to credit as land is often used as collateral. Membership in cooperatives also tends to be based on land ownership or "head of household" criteria and thus excludes women. In addition, training and extension services have, in practice, been predominantly directed towards men. Since the possibility of improving household food security can only be realized if female farmers, in addition to their male counterparts, have access to agricultural services. The need to incorporate the constraints women face in obtaining such services in household food security policies and programmes, should be emphasized.

Many agricultural development policies and programmes have yet to adequately address the needs of small farmers, particularly those of women. While initiatives have been made to include rural women in agricultural development activities, either through direct projects, WID Units, or national women's organizations, a major impediment to incorporating gender issues into such activities has been the lack of comprehensive data on the nature and role of women's contributions to food and agricultural production.

In general, the majority of agrarian reform and land settlement schemes entail the division of land into separate holdings based on the "head of household" concept as mentioned previously. Thus ownership of land has overwhelmingly bestowed on the male household head who has ultimate legal authority over land use and its utilization as collateral for credit, even when absent from the household.

The impact of structural adjustment programmes on household food security is a major area of policy concern. Changes in employment and income-earning opportunities, coupled with a reduction in government subsidy programmes, has had adverse affects on food consumption, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Due to the crucial links between the environment and the role of rural women in ensuring household food security, there is an increasing need for policy measures to enhance the participation of women in rural development programmes, especially in the areas of forestry and energy supply. Policy makers and planners should recognize that women should participate in rural development on an equal basis with men and fully share in improved conditions of life in rural areas. They also should recognize that the integration of women's roles and needs in the development paradigm is a prerequisite for successful rural development planning and programme implementation.

The role of women as producers and providers of food should be promoted and therefore the importance of gender to household food security emphasized.

Governments should continue to facilitate and strengthen the contributions of women to agricultural growth and the alleviation of rural poverty. This in turn will enhance the availability and stability of food supplies while ensuring access to food by all.

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