by Stephenie Foster
In the next two years, the world’s population will reach seven billion people. Today, approximately 925 million people, or 16 per cent of the developing world’s population, are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty. Despite some progress in alleviating hunger in 2010, world food prices rose 15 per cent between October 2010 and January 2011. The poor, who spend well over half of their income on food, have been hurt the most. Since June 2010, these increases have pushed 44 million more people into poverty, according to the World Bank.
The key to food security is to strengthen developing countries’ internal capacity to produce enough nutritious food for their citizens and to make that food available and accessible. The development of effective food policy and programs to meet these needs requires attention to the different, gendered, roles of women and men in agriculture.
Most Americans think of a farmer as a man driving a large John Deere tractor, tilling a huge field with mechanized irrigation systems and chemical fertilizer for his crops. Around the world, the more typical farmer is a subsistence farmer, and that farmer is often a woman, like Mariam.
Mariam is a small-scale farmer who lives in a village a few hours from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso with her husband, his second wife and 13 children. Mariam’s typical day begins at 5 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. She works three different sets of fields in a day: her husband’s fields, her own and the communally-owned fields. She is responsible for planting, hand watering, weeding and harvesting. There is no irrigation or farm equipment, beyond small homemade hoes, so everything is done by hand—slowly. Most days she must go to a well to get water and gather firewood and cook, tasks which take another five hours a day. In addition to her daily chores, Mariam has financial responsibilities: paying school fees, clothing the children and covering any health expenses.
There are many women like Mariam (learn more at Women Thrive Worldwide, of which I am a board member). In 2007, according to UNICEF, women did 66 percent of the world’s work, produced 50 percent of the world’s food but earned only 10 per cent of the world’s income and owned only 1 per cent of all property.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that across 63 countries, women’s education led to more productive farming and resulted in a 43 per cent decline in malnutrition. But globally, 85 per cent of agricultural extension agents—those who work in the field individually with farmers to help them develop better skills—are men, and women farmers received only two per cent to 10 per cent of extension services worldwide.
Investing in these women farmers can make a big difference in combating hunger and the political unrest that can come with food scarcity. Women invest more in their families, thus their income affects children’s education, health and economic growth. Yet, yields on plots managed by women are lower than those managed by men—not because they are bad farmers—but because they don’t have the same access as male farmers to what they need: land, seeds, credit, time and labor saving tools, and skills training. If women have better access to farm land, fertilizer and agricultural training, the UN World Food Program predicts that yields in sub-Saharan Africa would improve by over 20 percent. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, simply providing women farmers the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men could increase agricultural production and reduce the number of hungry people worldwide by 100-150 million.
This is optimal, but women face multiple challenges that will make such gains harder to achieve given the competing demands on their time. Women not only farm, but trade, cook and take care of their families. In some places, women spend up to five hours daily carrying water. Reducing water collection to one hour a day would enable these women to earn an additional US $100 a year. Women need land title, credit in their names and basic literacy and numeracy in order to maximize yields and market profits from crop sales.
In order to be effective, food and agriculture policy needs to address these gender differences, which are often overlooked. One of the most effective ways to do this is to ensure that women farmers and the organizations that represent them are part of that discussion. Governments and nonprofit organizations should make sure to collaborate and consult with women and understand the different roles and responsibilities men and women have in farming. Without this, policies and programs won’t work as well as they could. There are simple, yet profound, changes that can make a difference and help women farmers produce more and, in turn, feed their families and their communities.
Stephenie Foster works with groups internationally on issues ranging from public/private partnerships, global networking, political strategy and lobbying. She has served as chief of staff to United States Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT). She is a professorial lecturer at American University and is a board member of Women Thrive Worldwide and Partners for Democratic Change.