Measuring women’s empowerment to close the gender gap in agriculture

In the past ten years there have been tremendous efforts to develop methodologies and tools to measure women’s empowerment in the context of agriculture in a comprehensive and standardized way

©FAO/K. Pratt


Perhaps the most prominent among those efforts is the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), a ground-breaking tool launched in 2012 that aims to measure women’s (and men’s) agency, empowerment and inclusion in the agricultural sector.

To mark 10 years since its launch, WEAI experts, high-level officials and members of grassroots organizations shared their views and experiences working on women’s empowerment and the importance to measure it during a virtual side event held on 24 March 2022 at the sidelines of the 66th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66).

Nearly 250 participants followed the session Measuring What Matters: 10 Years of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, why has it mattered, and what’s next?, co-hosted by FAO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Through live exchanges and pre-recorded testimonies, speakers elaborated on the gender-based constraints in rural contexts, emphasizing how critical measuring women’s empowerment is to identify gender gaps more accurately, substantiate research, and motivate the development of better-targeted gender-responsive policies and programmes for Zero Hunger. Participants also mentioned the benefits of empowering women not only for women themselves but also for households and communities in terms of food security and better nutrition and beyond.

“Women’s empowerment enhances overall development in the society,” summarized in a video testimony Dorcas Njuki, who became a female community leader in Kenya’s Nakuru County after gaining advocacy and leadership skills through the local women-focused movement GROOTS.

In India, video stories from the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) illustrated how women can thrive in business through capacity development, engagement and solidarity: “Through SEWA, I got an opportunity to learn several new things like agricultural modernization. I pass on these learnings to poor and marginal sister farmers,” said in one of these video stories Seemaben Padhiyar, a smallholder woman farmer in Anand district who helped link about 90,000 poor informal workers to the Indian government’s e-shram, a newly launched social security scheme.

Gender statistics are key to make women visible in agri-food systems

Given the two-way links between gender inequality and food insecurity, international development organizations such as FAO rely on gender data to better understand the different constraints women and men face in agriculture and food systems, in order to formulate programmes and projects that are gender sensitive to promote sustainable, efficient and inclusive agri-food systems for food security and nutrition. However, finding sufficient data is often a major challenge.

“The continued scarcity of sex-disaggregated data and gender statistics hinders a comprehensive understanding of rural women’s and men’s roles, status and contributions in agri-food systems. It also prevents an understanding of the gendered distribution of benefits from participating in agri-food systems, and thus it hinders the design of gender-responsive and transformative policies to achieve sustainable development” stated Máximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist.

“Without complete accurate data, entire groups of people are invisible to us. All too often they are the ones we most need to see. And all too often they are women,” highlighted Samantha Power, USAID Administrator, who called for an increased use of the WEAI to expand data availability and make the index a mainstream methodological reference point. “Together, we can make women’s empowerment a top priority and close the gender data gap in agriculture. If we expand the WEAI, streamline it, improve it, if we measure what is hard to measure, we will not just make women visible, we will serve them, we will empower them, we will learn from them, we will prove that they matter.”

“If the goal is to end hunger, we cannot do it without understanding the needs of women. After all, they are doing much of the food production in places with a high concentration of hunger, and we know they face many challenges men do not,” said Enock Chikava, Interim Director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Team.

The index at a glance

Launched in 2012, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) aims to measure women’s and men’s agency, empowerment and inclusion in the agricultural sector. The tool is made of two sub-indices: the Five Domains of Empowerment (5DE), which measures production, resources, income, leadership and time; and the Gender Parity Index (GPI), which examines a woman’s empowerment relative to the man within their household.

“It is quite different from other indices because it interviews both men and women in the same household,” stressed Agnes Quisumbing, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, one of the developers of the WEAI who has worked on it since its creation ten years ago. In light of other existing measures, she added, the WEAI’s strength is about measuring people’s agency – “the ability to make important choices and to act on them”.

The index was first piloted in three countries – Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda. Since then multiple versions of the WEAI have been developed containing different number of indicators and modules to fit diverse projects and objectives. It has been adopted and adapted by over 230 organizations across 58 countries.

Looking ahead

Panelists agreed that, despite the perceived progresses on measuring women’s empowerment, many efforts are still needed to ensure sufficient data availability, hence enabling more efficient development strategies and actions. “Policy-makers are not demanding data that is focused on women’s empowerment or gender equality. We need to sensitize policy-makers about these issues, and then we will hopefully see an increase (in the use of such data),” highlighted Athur Mabiso, Senior Technical Specialist at IFAD, who also called for more investments in capacity development to increase the available expertise on data collection.

Given its innovative value and success, the WEAI has set the basis for the Women’s Empowerment Metric for National Statistical Systems (WEMNS), a new system that is being developed by IFPRI and Emory University in close collaboration with the 50x2030 Initiative to Close the Agricultural Data Gap, of which FAO, IFAD and the World Bank are implementing partners. Recognizing the increasing livelihood diversification in developing economies, WEMNS will be applicable to both agricultural and non-agricultural livelihoods.

“These next ten years will be important to scaling up empowerment metrics and their use by development practitioners worldwide,” concluded Jemimah Njuki, Chief of Women’s Economic Empowerment at UN Women, who moderated the event.

Watch the event:

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