If we’re going to end hunger in our lifetimes, we need to empower women. The statistics are well-known. Women make up to half of the agricultural labour force in many developing countries, but barriers to credit, inputs and extension services, as well as land ownership and rights, limit their production.
We already know that if women had equal access to productive resources, they could increase their yields and feed more hungry people in the world. And women are more likely to reinvest their income back into their families to improve education, nutrition and health. When women flourish, families and communities do too.
What’s not as well-known is how the development community can effectively help women overcome the constraints and barriers they face in agriculture so they can fully benefit from agricultural growth. In essence, we know we need to empower women if we are to end hunger, but we don’t always know how best to do that.
It’s timely then that as the global commitment to women’s empowerment is strong, so is the call for better data, monitoring and evaluation in development. Tools such as the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, (WEAI) developed by the US Agency for International Development (USAid), International Food Policy Research Institute, and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative , are helping to build the evidence base around what works, making empowerment a tangible, measurable concept we can work towards.
At Feed the Future we are incorporating the different needs, concerns, interests and roles of men and women into strategies and interventions at all stages of our activities. Prior to starting any new project, we conduct a gender analysis to understand women and men’s roles, resources and decision-making power, particularly in regards to agriculture. This helps us identify gender gaps and constraints, along with possible ways for reducing those gaps. A good gender analysis, carried out early, is key to designing and implementing projects that women want to and can participate in.
The WEAI measures the empowerment, agency and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector, particularly relative to men in their households. This provides a more robust understanding of gender dynamics within households and communities. It is also helping us understand areas in which men and women in different regions are disempowered so we can target policy and programming there.
When we drill down on individual country results, we see that constraints vary across cultures and contexts. WEAI findings show that in Bangladesh, a lack of access to group membership and speaking in public hamper women’s empowerment and that Bangladeshi women are constrained in their control over use of income. Across the world in Honduras, control over income is also a major contributor to women’s disempowerment, but the greatest constraint for Honduran women is lack of access to productive resources such as credit. In Kenya, women suffer from the same lack of access to loans, but are also hindered by a very heavy workload and control over income.
In many ways, the baseline studies are just the start. There is an insufficient evidence base on women’s empowerment in agriculture so measuring the impact of our work, rigorously and often, enables us to know if our programmes are having the intended effect. We know that addressing empowerment in one area of a woman’s life could exacerbate disempowerment in other areas but even as we course correct, we’re uncovering new challenges. Cataloging those, developing meaningful guidance based on them, and sharing those lessons with the world is what all organisations who recognise the potential of women should be doing. However, we know firs hand that is a challenge in and of itself.
When we first started Feed the Future, and data from our first years of implementation rolled in, we realised our programmes weren’t reaching as many women as we wanted. Even those in the programmes that were reaching more women, we discovered another challenge: few women participate in leadership positions in agriculture and higher up in value chains, such as in processing and marketing. We had to revisit our assumptions and make a concerted effort to reach and empower women, and encourage our partners to do the same We also had to think through how to empower women to better participate in markets and promote women’s leadership in agriculture.
The world still has unfinished business when it comes to promoting gender equality and empowering women. Yet if we are to reach many of the millennium development goals – and soon, the sustainable development goals – we must continue to move from a commitment to gender equality to action. There is a lack of robust evidence on how to do this, so we must share what’s working, but also what isn’t. Both have something valuable to add to our efforts to effectively empower women. Anything less would be failing the farmers and businesswomen we’re all working to reach, the very people who can end global hunger.