Women’s Empowerment Crucial to Food Security

A recent publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) analyzes gender inequalities which constrain women’s roles in agriculture and food production and ultimately undermine the achievement of food and nutrition security in the Asia and Pacific region.

The book, entitled “Gender Equality and Food Security – Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger” highlights how women and girls across the globe face many constraints and inequities in two main ways. The first channel is through limiting their access to education and employment opportunities, which curtails their economic autonomy and weakens their bargaining position and voice within the family. The second channel is through discrimination which exposes them to material deprivation and also makes it harder for them to fulfill their vital roles in food production, preparation, processing, distribution, and marketing activities.

The report explains how challenging gender discrimination is fundamental in effectively combating hunger and malnutrition and concludes that such an endeavour is achievable, inexpensive, and can be highly effective. Interventions should go beyond amendment of gender-discriminatory legislation to ensuring the empowerment of women. This means a greater role for women in decision making at all levels, including the household, local communities, and national parliaments.

At the country-level, effective gender-sensitive food and nutrition security strategies should incorporate the following characteristics: multisectorality, strengthening women’s organizations, inclusive decision-making, and a rights-based and phased approach. At the project level, there is an urgent need for more inclusive ways of consultation that go beyond community meetings to ensure the full participation of women in setting priorities and formulating policies. Secondly, because the perceptions, expectations, and preferences of women vary from group to group, context-sensitive approaches that place the participation of women first and refrain from the top–down imposition of values from the outside are required.

The Executive Summary is reproduced below and the full report can be downloaded from

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Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger


This report explores how gender equality can contribute to food security. Its focus is on Asia and the Pacific, though developments in other regions are also referenced. The report describes the relationship between gender-based discrimination and the different channels through which households and individuals access food. It concludes that while equality of treatment between women and men and food security are mutually supportive, gender equality remains an elusive goal in many regions, and a transformation of traditional gender roles is urgently needed. Such a transformation can be enhanced with improved information about the range of inequalities and specific constraints facing women. A simultaneous and integrated pursuit of such information and transformation is essential for gender equality strategies and food security strategies to complement each other and maximize their synergy. Measures that only help relieve women of their burdens and recognize their largely undervalued contributions to household chores and the “care” economy are insufficient. Such measures must be linked with strategies that pave the way to transformed, equitable gender systems.

Women and girls worldwide face many inequities and constraints, often embedded in norms and practices and encoded in legal provisions. Some laws, such as those governing access to land, include inequitable and exclusionary provisions, thus institutionalizing discrimination. Where such legislative measures are not in place, customary rules and practices often have restrictive consequences for women limiting their access to key resources such as land and credit, and affecting household food security and nutrition. Not only are women and girls affected directly, but members of their households and communities are also affected inter- and intra-generationally.

Women and girls are affected through two main channels. One is the limits on their access to education and employment opportunities, which curtails their economic autonomy and weakens their bargaining position within the family. Their weakened bargaining position translates into little or no voice in household decisions, differential feeding and caregiving practices favoring boys and men, food and nutrition insecurity, and lower health and nutrition outcomes.

Second, the discrimination they face not only exposes women to material deprivation, it also makes it more difficult for them to fulfill their vital roles in food production, preparation, processing, distribution, and marketing activities. Challenging the constraints women face must therefore be treated as a key component in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Such an approach is achievable, it is inexpensive, and it can be highly effective. The cost to society of not acting urgently and more decisively will be considerable.

However, more than good intentions are required to remove the inequities and obstacles facing women and girls. Nor is amendment of legislation that is gender-discriminatory by itself sufficient. Social and cultural norms and the gendered division of roles they impose must be challenged. Empowerment of women is required. This means a greater role for women in decision making at all levels, including the household, local communities, and national parliaments. Women’s empowerment is not only a priority goal in itself but an intrinsic human right, already recognized as such in pledges and commitments by governments. It is recognized also because it has instrumental value and is a condition for society to benefit from the increased contribution of women to food security and adequate nutrition. Society urgently needs the full potential of women’s contribution, but it can only materialize with wider recognition and acknowledgment—by women and men alike—of its benefits to all society, and the vital importance of reshaping social structures.

This report opens with an overview of the links between gender empowerment and food security, and the importance of the Millennium Development Goals and their follow-up. Global challenges confronting the world in the form of food price increases, economic and financial crises, and the ecological crisis are then reviewed. The relevance of these developments to the gender dimension is then discussed, particularly their impact on women and girls.

The five chapters that follow convey the report’s central messages. The different dimensions of food and nutritional security—availability, access, and use—are examined in turn to show how policies that are more gender-sensitive can be more effective in supporting advances in each.

The role of women as small-scale food producers is assessed in chapter III. Women are increasingly important as farmers and livestock herders as a result of the agrarian transition and its gendered nature. Their autonomy as food producers, however, is usually very limited by the significant obstacles they face in accessing land, financial services, extension services, and markets, and in benefiting from agricultural research and development. Removal of these obstacles through gender-sensitive approaches would result in significant productivity gains benefiting not only the women concerned, but their households, communities, and society as a whole.

The choices implicit in policy approaches are then discussed, including the relative benefits of reshaping existing farmer support modalities to ensure that women, as well as men, can improve their productivity and maximize their income-generating potential. Other forms of support may be required for home-based farming geared toward satisfaction of family and community food needs. The latter forms of support would serve the values of resilience, autonomy, and stability and be less oriented toward profit and market competiveness. Examination of the role of women in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors concludes chapter III. Women play an important role in these sectors, which are growing and are of particular significance in Asia and the Pacific.

The discussion shifts in chapter IV to efforts to improve income security by promoting better access for women to waged employment—on-farm, off-farm, and in both the informal and the formal sectors. Improved access to waged agricultural employment can bring important benefits to women. Various obstacles continue to limit their access and control, however, including their overrepresention in the “peripheral” segment of the workforce. This segment is characterized by low skills and wages, a lack of formal contracts, modes of remuneration that disfavor women, and ample evidence of discrimination and violence against women. The need for women’s better access to decent off-farm employment is also emphasized. This requires education and employment policies that are more gender-sensitive.

The benefits of better education of girls and women are assessed, as are existing obstacles and successful strategies for their removal. Programs that will improve girls’ access to school are essential for poverty reduction and improved nutritional outcomes. Better education of girls delays the age of marriage and the number of children per family. Obstacles that limit girls’ access to school, particularly in rural areas, need to be aggressively tackled to overcome the cycle of disempowerment. Girls’ lower schooling limits employment opportunities and increases their vulnerability to discriminatory practices, which in turn serve as disincentives for family investments in their education. The only way to exit this cycle is to ensure strong girls’ education outcomes and adequate and equitable compensation for women workers.

Chapter V examines how social protection can support access to food for low-income households— especially those headed by women—when incomes are insufficient for adequate living standards.

The specific impacts of existing government social security programs on women and on gender equality remain largely ignored. Since these programs typically do not acknowledge the specific situation of women, women usually do not benefit from them as much as they should. Additionally, the opportunity these programs represent for gender empowerment may be missed. Analyses of the various components of social protection using a gender lens are provided with an assessment in turn of programs for cash transfer, public works, asset transfers, and school feeding, as well as voluntary insurance associations.

Chapter five concludes with a discussion of four tools through which social protection can be transformative for women—not simply addressing symptoms, but challenging the structural causes of poverty and vulnerability resulting from social injustice and disempowerment. These tools illustrate how the implementation of social programs can be used as opportunities to empower beneficiaries, and to accommodate the specific needs of women while at the same time challenging traditional gendered role divisions. Social development measures can also be delivered in the course of social program implementation, as can contributions to other interventions that in time will provide households with a way out of dependency on public support.

Nutritional security is investigated in chapter VI. Improved food intake translates into better health and nutritional outcomes only if accompanied by access to adequate education, health services, water, and sanitation. This chapter shows how gender-sensitive policies that empower women within households can contribute to nutritional security. Provision of child-care services and the redistribution of power within the household are shown as vitally important—not only to allow women to make the choices and provide the care that matter for infants, but also to ensure that men value and contribute to such care. The apparent dilemma between income and care is examined, concluding that the “income effects” of mothers’ employment outside the household generally more than compensate for any negative effects on nutritional outcomes that may be associated with less time devoted to housework and child-care by mothers. The report finds, however, that the gradual redistribution of household responsibilities must be a central component of any gender-sensitive employment policy.

The effects and dangers of the nutrition transition is then investigated, where in many countries a widespread shift is seen away from traditional diets to diets relying more heavily on processed foods and food prepared outside the home. Assessment of the agriculture–food–health nexus notes that investments in agriculture aimed at improving productivity and access to markets, while essential components of food security strategies, will not necessarily translate into improved health or nutrition. Such investments should have the complementary aims of reducing micronutrient deficiencies through promotion of sufficiently diverse and balanced diets, and reducing rural poverty. The gender dimension is critical to addressing these links and to the effectiveness of support to agriculture. Support needs to increase the incomes of the poorest households, and within these households, benefit women in particular. Support also needs to incorporate an expanded role of women in decisions regarding the priorities of agricultural research and development.

Chapter VII provides conclusions and recommendations. The report recommends support of country-owned food security strategies that maximize the synergy between gender equality and food security. Such strategies should cut across sectors, support women’s collectives, and adopt a rights-based approach in order to improve accountability and encourage independent monitoring of progress. National strategies should be developed in a participatory fashion, involving women in particular, but incorporating appropriate participation of men. Men should be co-opted into strategies aimed at improving the situation of women to increase their chances of success. Strategies should be phased and multiyear, particularly components that are to be transformative of existing gender roles. Any strategy must incorporate a time frame sufficient to undertake its challenges.

Integrating gender equality issues and concerns has assumed steadily growing importance in the work of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In April 2013, ADB approved the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Operational Plan, 2013–2020: Moving the Agenda Forward. The plan emphasizes the need for deepening gender mainstreaming and for direct investments in women and girls to close remaining gender gaps and achieve better gender equality outcomes. Investments are needed in women’s and girls’ education, health, and economic empowerment, as well as in public transport facilities, better water services, and clean energy sources—especially in rural areas. The plan highlights the importance of supporting the efforts of ADB’s developing member countries to establish and strengthen social protection strategies and programs that integrate gender dimensions in their design and implementation. Emphasis is also placed on support for investment in agriculture through technology transfer; through enabling infrastructure such as irrigation systems, farm-to-market roads, and vendor markets; and through measures that benefit women’s cooperatives and other associations. All such support should incorporate measures that ensure the participation of women.