Closing the Gender Gap in Agriculture: A Call to Action for Investing in Women

The FAO’s 2010-2011 State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) Report, Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development, revealed some compelling and informative findings about the critical but underutilized role women play in the food and agriculture industry globally. It also gave some convincing reasons for why investing in women agriculturalists — including farmers, fishers and others who work in agri-processing and marketing — is so essential to food security, production, economic development, health, and related issues. In response to the SOFA report, this week at the 37th biennial conference in Rome, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) mobilized a call to action under the theme: “The Vital Role of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development” to spur multilateral support for investing in women in agriculture and strengthening the case for making this a global economic priority.

At a side event to the conference co-hosted by the U.S. and Kenyan Ambassadors, “A Dialogue on Women in Agriculture: Where to After SOFA?” — I had the privilege of speaking about the U.S. commitment to improving women’s agricultural contributions, encouraging investments in female farmers, and sharing with my counterparts some exciting initiatives we are implementing to close the gender gap in agricultural development.

It is well known that women are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to owning land, securing land rights, and accessing credit and other agricultural inputs. The contributions of rural women in developing countries are too often overlooked and underutilized. This agricultural gender gap imposes real costs on society in terms of lost agricultural output, food security, and economic growth.

Yet, studies such as the SOFA report have shown that when given equal resources, women can produce yields equal to those of men. Since female farmers are typically starting from a lower point, investing in women would produce on average higher returns than an equal investment in men. According to the SOFA report, providing women with the same resources as men could increase their individual yields by 20-30 percent, which would improve agricultural production in the developing world by between 2.5 and 4 percent. Such an investment in women’s agricultural capacity would reduce the number of people living in hunger by 100-150 million globally. The findings further point out that increasing women’s access to land, livestock, education, financial services, extension, technology, and rural employment would boost their productivity and generate gains in terms of agricultural production, food security, economic growth, and social welfare.

Women are usually the ones doing the household cooking and feeding their families; thus they have a particular stake in ensuring that the food produced is both nutritious and safe. It would seem obvious that leveling the playing field for women in agri-business, fishing, farming, and related livelihoods is another example of “smart economics” which would have tremendous pay-offs to society at large.

By making women a central and essential part of Feed the Future (FTF), the U.S. global hunger and food security initiative, the United States is leading the way. FTF has developed the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, a new tool created in a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI). This index is designed to collect sex-disaggregated statistics to ensure that we can measure and understand the impact of our work on both men and women. Piloted in Uganda, Guatemala and Bangladesh, the index offers an essential tool that will help us determine the equality of and opportunities for women. By disaggregating data by sex, we will be better able to analyze the changes in status, participation, and outcomes of our investments in women relative to men and as part of communities.

Through a concerted effort at the Rome conference, we explored innovative ways to better understand and advance gender equality in agriculture. I am even more convinced that scaling up multilateral efforts toward closing the gender gap in agriculture is a smart business investment that will benefit all humanity. It will enable future generations of women and girls, working in partnership with men and boys, contribute to reducing hunger, protecting livelihoods, and enhancing food security.