Zione Mbewi is a great farmer. In recent years she increased yields on her small plot of maize in northern Malawi, and helped provide for her family. She also had big plans to expand her fields.
Her husband, however, had other plans. He wouldn’t give her any more land. Since, as a woman, Mbewi doesn’t make decisions for her farm, she had no choice but to agree.
Equality is a core Canadian value. Agricultural development, supported by Canada in some of the poorest countries in the world, has a vital role to play in enabling farm women like Mbewi to achieve gender equality, and empower women for lasting change.
Both men and women living in poverty need equal rights and opportunities to improve their farm livelihoods. But analysis that compared men’s and women’s empowerment in 13 countries from five regions found that women have far less control over farm decisions, farm income, their use of time, and the necessary resources for farming—things like land, livestock, agricultural inputs, financial services, and labour to work on their farms.
As well, women often have less formal education than men and fewer opportunities to benefit later on from agricultural education and training. They must balance farming work with a disproportionate share of household chores and child care. On average, rural women in developing countries work approximately 16 hours a day, significantly more than men.
Furthermore, as Mbewi experienced, women frequently lack say over farming decisions, including how income is used. And, far too often, gender-based violence further limits the freedom and opportunities women need to flourish on the farm.
These barriers not only harm women, they come with a large price tag for society at large. Research from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that if women farmers had the same access to resources as their male counterparts, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent, and reduce the number of people suffering from hunger by 100-150 million.
Economies would benefit too. In Malawi, for instance, the agricultural gender gap costs its economy $100 million per year.
A new report from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Equal Harvests: How investing in agricultural development can empower women, presents three key, often overlapping, principles to improve women’s lives through agricultural development.
• Improve women’s access: Women need equal and gender-sensitive access to productive resources (land, water, inputs, labour) and services (finance, knowledge, technology, markets). New technologies and extension services should pay more attention to women’s time constraints, their literacy levels, their traditional crops, and other special needs, such as designing tools to fit women’s bodies.
• Improve agency: Effective agricultural development interventions should improve women’s rights and capacity to make choices that affect their lives, including control over assets and other farm decisions. Both men and women should be included in discussions about gender roles on farms.
• Support collective action: Women can overcome gender discrimination more effectively when they work in groups, whether the group’s goal is learning, managing money or marketing. Agricultural investment should include strong roles for groups, and ensure that women are able to participate fully.
When these principles are implemented, as happened in another part of northern Malawi, positive changes result.
In this case, development workers encouraged farmers to plant more nutritious beans along with their regular maize crop in order to lower high rates of child malnutrition.
But better nutrition didn’t follow—women had little say in household decision-making. Their husbands were selling both the maize and beans for cash.
In response, project leaders introduced agricultural discussion groups. Women and men met separately, then together, to discuss new ideas, including gender roles. Women were also encouraged to participate in farmer-led research groups.
The results? Beans increasingly made it into the home cooking pots and family nutrition improved. More men attended cooking demonstrations, enthusiastically preparing food and sharing it with the group. More men helped their wives with household chores. And they increasingly made decisions together as a family.
Women’s empowerment is important in its own right. But women’s empowerment will also benefit their families, communities and wider society. Effective investments in gender-sensitive agriculture can unleash women’s full potential—for the betterment of all.
Carol Thiessen is a senior policy advisor at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.