Gender Equality in Agriculture Essential for Food Security
Africa and the Middle East have two of the most expansive agricultural sectors worldwide. Yet, both regions face unprecedented challenges regarding food security.
According to Deep Knowledge Analytics’s Global Food Security Q2 2022 report, the 25 most food insecure places at risk of a food crisis are Central Africa and Middle Eastern countries. Increasing conflicts, a lack of resources and climate change exacerbates this dire scenario.
As nations grapple with finding solutions, one aspect of building a more resilient agriculture sector gets overlooked — the smallholder woman farmer. Addressing gender equality in agriculture could be the answer to protecting food security.
Women Disproportionately Impacted by Hunger
Studies show hunger disproportionately and severely impacts more women than men. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (UN) has highlighted that 31.9 percent of women endure extreme hunger — nearly 4 percent higher than men.
Unfortunately, food assistance is hard to come by in places like Central Africa and Yemen, where starvation among women and children is rampant. Following agricultural and economic disruptions from the pandemic, women’s access to food resources is more dire.
Food insecurity is highest among those living in poverty. Estimates suggest 388 million women and girls were living in extreme poverty in 2022 and projections indicate the number could rise to 446 million.
Gender Gaps in Agriculture
Gender gaps in farming are nothing new, especially as many have long regarded women as housekeepers and caregivers to children and older adults. Yet, women are vital to the agricultural labor force in rural regions.
The gender gap is steep in Malawi at 28 percent, while Nigeria is even higher at over 30 percent. Of course, this should come as no surprise, considering women are equal to men in only 12 countries worldwide. A UN Women's policy brief highlighted the driving factors of agricultural gender inequality, which includes the following:
- Less access to male family labor;
- Fewer high-quality crops due to product market discrimination;
- Fewer credit and land rights;
- Gender burdens — for instance, domestic care — leaving less time to invest in farming; and
- Lower incomes resulting in less access to equipment and emerging technologies.
Even basic equipment takes a lot of work to come by. For instance, women could harvest hundreds of acres or a small area of the farm with a harvesting machine — also made in a compact size — allowing them to boost productivity and efficiency.
Yet, some women have demonstrated their importance in creating a more robust food system. Take Jeet Kumari of Nepal, who received no education before marrying at 16. Having lost her husband and one of four children, she struggled to afford health care as she continued operating their small farm. Poor soil quality couldn’t hold her down, though — Kumari is now a well-respected farmer after formal training and runs a women’s agricultural cooperative.
Women Producers Are the Key to Food Security
Kumari is just one smallholder woman farmer closing the gap in gender equality and food security in her little corner of Nepal. Meanwhile, women producers worldwide are demonstrating how important they are to agriculture amid rising hunger.
Women farmers show greater support for fellow women farmers, often creating cooperatives similar to the one Kumari established. These cooperatives enable networking and provide agricultural aid for women-operated farms to increase crop yields. Women growers are also better stewards, implementing sustainable practices on small-scale farms to combat climate change-induced farm conditions.
Overall, smallholder producers generate 29 percent of global crop yields on 24 percent of agricultural land. They also account for 32 percent of the food supply, of which women farmers contribute significantly. Therefore, supporting smallholder women growers through increased funding, supplying the necessary equipment and offering better training could be vital to fighting food insecurity.
Closing the Gender Gap to Fight Hunger
There’s never been a more critical time to boost women-led agriculture in Africa and the Middle East, where hunger strikes the most. Closing the gender gap in farming could ultimately safeguard the food supply amid climate change and feed a growing and hungry population.