Empowering women smallholders and increasing food security

Women are a critical component of agriculture in developing countries, comprising an average 43 percent of the agricultural labour force, and contributing to ensuring food security and nutrition. Due to their specific roles in food production, many women are the repositories of knowledge about cultivation, processing, and preservation of nutritious and locally adapted crop varieties. Given the right possibilities, such knowledge can allow women to be innovation leaders in sustainable agriculture.

Unfortunately, despite their wealth of knowledge and capacity, women farmers are neglected by policy makers, face gender discrimination and are often disproportionately affected by poverty and hunger.

Overcoming gender inequalities can have powerful social and economic impacts. Research indicates that women are more likely to channel the income that they control into the nutrition, health and education of their children. Thus, improving the status of women within the household and at the community level would deliver significant improvements to agricultural production, food security, child nutrition, health and education.

A new report from nine international development agencies (ActionAid International, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide UK, Find Your Feet, Oxfam GB, Practical Action, Save the Children UK and Self Help Africa) shares the lessons learned based on their experience of promoting gender equality and working with women smallholders and rural women over many decades. The paper concludes with a number of recommendations for policy makers on measures to help close the gender gap in agriculture. The conclusion and recommendations are reproduced below.

The paper is available at:  

With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching
Third World Network

131 Jalan Macalister,

10400 Penang,




What works for women: Proven approaches for empowering women smallholders and improving food security

Conclusion and Recommendations

Women employed in agriculture continue to face many specific barriers preventing them from fulfilling their potential as farmers and entrepreneurs and undermining their food security, nutrition, health and incomes as well as that of their families and communities. The robust approaches documented in this paper attest to the effectiveness of targeted support to women smallholder farmers. Nonetheless, current agricultural policies and programmes continue to be gender-blind and largely disadvantageous to women smallholder farmers.

The inability to fulfil their potential also hinders the achievement of national food security goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Furthermore, despite clear evidence that tackling the gender gap can lead to improved food security and nutritional outcomes, many multilateral and bilateral donors are still failing to invest in gender- sensitive interventions. Indeed, gender issues are explicitly incorporated into less than 10 per cent of official development assistance (ODA) that is directed toward agriculture; and the 2011 Gender Audit of the FAO found ‘woefully meagre financial resources for, and time allocated to, gender mainstreaming.’

Creating a more enabling environment for women smallholders and improving food security outcomes requires agricultural and nutrition policies, resources and programmes that recognise the potential of women’s multiple roles as food producers and providers, such as those documented in this paper. With the G8 Summit and the EU 2014-2021 budget plans afoot and the MDGs deadline looming in 2015, the golden moment for change is now.

Recommendations for national governments

Address discrimination in land ownership and tenure by taking immediate steps to guarantee equal rights to land, property and inheritance for men and women, independent of their civil status; and implement policies and programmes to facilitate women’s access to and control over land, water and other natural resources.

Overhaul extension services to make them gender-sensitive, for example by increasing the number of female extension agents, creating accessible demonstration plots within villages, establishing pro-female farmer field schools and farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and setting up gender-sensitive learning and evaluation mechanisms to improve extension service delivery. Given their many responsibilities, women may not have time to access extension services so these need to be tailored to women’s routines and needs.

Engage women in policy-making and planning processes at all levels, for example by establishing quotas and targets for women in decision-making roles, legislating to remove barriers, and encouraging the establishment of effective collective structures that are gender-sensitive.

Integrate gender dimensions in nutrition and agricultural policies and research by uncovering the social, economic and political barriers to women’s participation in agricultural production and marketing and seeking to minimise them.

Ensure that disaster risk reduction at all levels addresses the different vulnerabilities and risks faced by women and men (especially in the most marginalised and vulnerable communities). Community-level structures and mechanisms for disaster risk reduction, such as disaster preparedness programmes, crop diversification, and agrobiodiversity preservation, should be adequately resourced and offer equal opportunities for women, men and children to contribute to decision making, planning and implementation of disaster preparedness, mitigation measures and disaster response.

Increase investments in gender-sensitive public services and infrastructure such as clean and renewable energy and childcare centres, which can significantly optimise women’s time and resources spent in care and reproductive activities, and allow them to engage in other productive and leisure activities.

Invest in rural infrastructure beyond agriculture, including health, education, and water and sanitation services, to reduce burdens on women’s time, and increase their health and well-being to enable improved livelihoods.

Increase investment in women smallholders and ensure funding is gender-sensitive and reaches women smallholders. Governments should use sex-disaggregated data to track funding and improve food security planning and policymaking, as well as to track progress against gender specific indicators. Nonetheless, policies that specifically target women are not enough on their own. Existing policies that intentionally and unintentionally reinforce gender discrimination must be addressed. For example, some government-sanctioned cooperatives require household heads to be members; this often leaves out women. To address embedded gender barriers such as these, governments should implement planning processes that identify the specific constraints women smallholders face to accessing information, knowledge, markets, technologies, and natural and productive resources such as time constraints caused by unpaid care work.

Recommendations for multi-lateral and bilateral donors

Allocate the necessary financial, human and material resources to strengthen gender-sensitive food security and nutrition interventions with priority given to supporting sustainable smallholder farming and gender- responsive essential services in rural areas. Gender responsive budgeting and budget tracking can help to achieve this aim.

Support more research partnerships involving collaboration among poor farming communities, extension services and agricultural scientists and ensure research programmes examine what kinds of sustainable agricultural techniques, equipment and crops can most benefit women.

Introduce a nutritional dimension into agricultural programmes; this could involve increasing the diversification of smallholder agriculture, providing a range of local varieties rich in micronutrients, monitoring nutrition-related outcomes, and supporting agricultural research that is conducted from a nutritional perspective.

Encourage national governments to develop, implement and monitor gender-sensitive policies and legislation, relating not only to agriculture, food security or nutrition, but also to issues such as property/land rights, access to productive resources, social protection and basic services, and protection from domestic violence and non-discrimination.

Collect, track and analyse comprehensive sex and age-disaggregated data on food security and nutrition that is timely, accessible and comparable; and promote gendered analyses of food security and nutrition related issues, including - but not limited to - food price volatility, large-scale land acquisitions or “land grabs”, and land titling. A good example is the monitoring and evaluation system of Feed the Future - the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative - aims to track gender impacts through three main approaches: 1) engendered performance monitoring; 2) gender-focused impact evaluations; and 3) the development and utilisation of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI).

Support and engage actively with women’s civil society organisations and networks (such as farmers’ groups and women’s cooperatives) and facilitate their systematic inclusion and participation in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of agricultural research, policies and programmes.