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Women and sustainable food security

Women and sustainable food security


The major constraint to the effective recognition of women's actual roles and responsibilities in agriculture is the scarcity of gender desegregated data available to technicians, planners, and policy-makers

Therefore, the first step towards women's empowerment and full participation in rural development and food security strategies is the collection and analysis of gender desegregated data 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, micro-level 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 polishing, women specialise in weeding, transplanting, post-harvest work and, in some areas, land preparation and both take part in seeding and harvesting.

Moreover, Sub-Saharan and near Eastern women play a major role in household animal-production enterprises, where they tend to have the primary responsibility for the husbandry of small animals and ruminants, but 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 milk products and are commonly responsible for their 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 for fetching water for the family.


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 per cent of rural households are headed by women, while in Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia, women head 17 per cent, and 14 per cent, 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. The 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. Therefore in these cases, women's access to labour-saving technology is of particular importance.

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, farm labour force and day-to-day family subsistence, they have more difficulties than men in gaining access to resources such as land and credit and productivity enhancing inputs and services.

Food security' in fact, has been defined by the FAO not only in terms of access to, and availability of food, but also in terms of resource distribution to produce food and 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 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 interrelated 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.

The 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.


Despite their role as the backbone of food production and provision for family consumption in developing countries, women remain limited in their 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 crucial in the development of food security strategies.


In most rural areas, the two most time-consuming activities of women are fetching water and firewood. Widespread deforestation and desertification mean that these tasks are becoming more burdensome and are preventing rural women from devoting more time to their productive and income-generating tasks. In some cases, women also pass part of the burden of these activities to their children, usually female children. Relieving women from such drudgery as fetching water and firewood and food processing would allow them to have more time for productive work and would enable their children to attend school. Thus development interventions to reduce women's drudgery can significantly enhance their contribution to household food security. The provision of water supplies; the introduction of light transport facilities for the carrying of firewood, farm produce and other loads; the introduction of labour saving agricultural tools, the introduction of grinding mills and other crop processing equipment are crucial means of freeing Women's time. Such technologies not only create possibilities for women to enter into more income-generating activities, but also help in reducing their stress and in improving the health and nutrition of women and children.

FAO Women in Agricultural Development, Gender Issues in Rural Food Security in Developing Countries, Rome. 1990.


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 as women tend to spend a significantly higher proportion of their income than men on food for the family.

Women's wage income from farm and non-farm employment and from other income-generating 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 the 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.


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 there enhancing their potential to generate food security Specific policy measures are required to address the constraints facing women farmers and special consideration given en to the needs of female heads of households. The FAO has recommended that such measures aim to:

Women and Population Division

Sustainable Development Department,

Food and Agriculture Organization

of the United Nations,

Viale delle Terme di Caracalla,

00100 Rome Italy

Telephone 39 6 52251

Telephone 39 6 52253152

Telex 625852 FAO 1


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