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Blog Post
23 January 2024

Advancing gender justice in agrifood systems

Photo credit Jacquelyn Turner/CCAFS.

After an arduous and lengthy negotiation process, the Voluntary Guidelines on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition were finally approved by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) on October 24, 2023. In October 2019, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) approved a policy process to create the Voluntary Guidelines. Negotiations began in May 2022, but the guidelines couldn’t be adopted during its 50th session in October 2022 due to disagreements on critical issues.

The crucial role that justice for women and girls plays in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is widely recognized. However, progress towards the SDGs has been slow and multiple crises have disrupted local and global food supply chains, agricultural productivity, and food prices. Investing in women and girls is an urgent priority in sustainable development: By 2030, if current trends continue, it is estimated that around 8% of the female population, more than 340 million women and girls, will still be living in extreme poverty, with a further 236 million projected to face food insecurity due to climate change, compared to 131 million more men and boys, according to “The gender snapshot 2023” UN report. Additionally, malnutrition, including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity among women and girls, is causing disease and reducing life expectancy. Addressing gender gaps in agri-food systems can reduce food insecurity and boost global GDP by nearly $1 trillion.

The Voluntary Guidelines are ground-breaking because they provide concrete policy guidance for advancing gender justice, empowerment, and leadership in the context of national food security. This document represents the goodwill of member states and other constituencies of the CFS to support gender equality and women’s empowerment. SIANI hopes that this commitment from member states will be translated into action and help dismantle all discriminatory barriers that prevent the achievement of the 2030 agenda.


The 50th session of the Committee on World Food Security at the FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy. Photo by: ©FAO / Giulio Napolitano

According to the FAO report “The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems”, women make up half of the agricultural workforce in the least developed countries and over 40% in low- and middle- income countries. However, available data indicate that only 20% of all landowners globally are women, which is alarming since land rights are a key driver of women’s economic autonomy and power. Empowering women in the food and agriculture sectors is not only a matter of social justice but also an economic imperative. Women play a significant role in agriculture and have been shown to have unique potential to bring about positive change that ensures food security for all. However, women’s working conditions and roles in agriculture are often worse than men’s. In many contexts, women and girls are more involved in irregular, informal, part-time, low-skilled, labour-intensive work, making them more vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. Women are also responsible for most unpaid care work and face greater challenges in accessing markets, financial credit, and land tenure and ownership. These challenges limit their opportunities to fully participate in and benefit from agricultural practices. Women in agricultural households remain significantly disadvantaged in landownership compared with men.

Member states have agreed on the essential aspects, and the acknowledgment of unpaid care responsibilities and domestic work in addition to women’s employment and other work, and of time poverty that women and girls especially experience, is positive. However, some important factors have been left out of the Voluntary Guidelines. Among these is the need to understand disparities that influence factors such as the type of crops farmers produce, as men and women often grow different crops, or decision-making regarding food within households. Customary practices also influence who can eat what, when, and how, often based on gender, age, and other attributes. Women play a crucial role in agriculture and food production, as they produce more than 60% of the food in many developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production. However, gender inequality still limits women’s access to nutritious food, which affects their own food security as well as that of their families.

Some delegations did not reach an agreement regarding the use of intersectionality, which recognises that other parts of one’s identity interact to create unique forms of oppression for different women, girls, and non-heteronormative people. However, it is vital to continue using it to reduce inequalities and establish a more inclusive framework for other gender identities, while also acknowledging the common ground and not rolling back historical advances in women’s human rights. In the agreed text, instead, “multidimensional approaches” is used “to recognise that women and girls often experience multiple forms of discriminations simultaneously based on, inter alia, race, colour, sex, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status which affect their food security and nutrition outcomes.” The guidelines should be grounded in human rights and address discrimination faced by non-binary genders in food systems.

Local communities in Laos are contributing to a feeding program for primary school students by sharing vegetables from their gardens. In this photo, women are cleaning fresh greens. Oudomxay province, Lao PDR. Photo: Bart Verweij / World Bank

All stakeholders involved in food security and nutrition have a responsibility to help deconstruct discriminating social norms and structural barriers which lead to intergenerational consequences of food insecurity and poor nutrition. All actors must come together to recognize, reduce, and redistribute the unpaid care and domestic work to stimulate greater human capital development and economic prosperity. The guidelines call for a multidimensional approach to meet the nutritional needs of women and girls throughout the life cycle, acknowledging the challenges they face in times of crisis.

Voluntary Guidelines promote gender equality by integrating a gender perspective into policies across sectors, paving the way for women’s participation and creating a safer, diverse, and inclusive environment.

Additionally, they encourage the participation of men and boys in enhancing women’s empowerment “as agents and beneficiaries of change as strategic partners and allies”, which improves food security and nutrition for everyone. The guidelines cover many contexts, including access to credit and advisory services, control over resources, humanitarian crises, and gender-based violence, among others.

In summary, the Voluntary Guidelines adopted provide a path forward to enacting concrete policies on food and agriculture that prioritize gender perspectives, highlighting the need to address the structural root causes of gender inequality, including legal and policy frameworks, institutional arrangements, national plans, partnerships, and investments. However, guidelines alone cannot achieve this. All stakeholders, including Member States, civil society, and the private sector, must implement inclusive and gender-responsive food, agriculture, and nutrition policies. Empowering women in the Agri-food sector not only yields economic benefits but also contributes to long-term sustainable development, besides being fundamental for achieving gender justice. We need to address deep-seated inequalities such as discriminatory legal frameworks, unequal access to resources, and social norms that perpetuate gender inequalities. Changing these norms is difficult and slow, and guidelines alone are not sufficient to address deeply ingrained inequalities. Implementation of these guidelines may require financial and human resources and so, in some regions and particularly in low-income countries, limited resources and capacity may hinder effective implementation.