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7 June 2023

Gender equality in triple crises: how transform the status of women in agrifood systems?

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz / Pexels

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published a report titled The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, which provides a detailed overview of the current state of women in this field. This report is significant because it is the first of its kind in over a decade. It expresses FAO’s commitment in their Strategic Framework 2022-2031 to mainstream gender equality and women’s empowerment in efforts to achieve their Four Betters Better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life. This report is exciting for SIANI – it provides cutting-edge data, lessons learned and recommendations forward to close the most pressing gender gaps related to agrifood systems. Building on FAO’s 2011 report Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development, The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems goes beyond the manifestations of gender inequality to focus also on the barriers and structural drivers underlying gender equality.

Globally, approximately one-third of working adults are employed in agrifood systems. However, in some regions, the number of women working in these systems is significantly higher than men. For instance, 71% of women and 47% of men work in agrifood systems in southern Asia, and 66% of women and 60% of men do so in Subsaharan Africa. Women working in the sector tend to more often be poorly paid, part-time and informal – from food production to distribution. But the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises also hit women harder. While globally, 2% of men lost their jobs in the off-farm segment of agrifood systems in the first year of the pandemic, 22% of women lost theirs. The gender food insecurity gap doubled from 2019 to 2021, widening from 1.7 to 4.3 percentage points. The new report’s focus on rural women is significant: for them, food insecurity worsened disproportionally; since the start of the pandemic. Closing the gender gap in farm productivity and in wages in agrifood systems would be estimated to reduce global food insecurity by 2%, or 45 million people.

‘If we tackle the gender inequalities endemic in agrifood systems and empower women, the world will take a leap forward in addressing the goals of ending poverty and creating a world free from hunger’, writes Qu Dongyu, FAO Director-General.

Focus on informing a gender-transformative approach

Patriarchy is systemic, and achieving gender inequality requires a systemic approach. Underlying norms are behind unpaid domestic labour, discriminatory practices that confine women to marginal positions in the agrifood system, and gender-based violence. A key learning in FAO’s report is that combined interventions are more effective. Gender-transformative approaches have potential to change norms, are cost-effective, and have high returns, and are therefore needed in programming and policymaking.

In the agrifood systems sector, as in other sectors, gender-transformative approaches need to be strengthened and applied more widely. Critical interventions in the agrifood sector address constraining social norms and rigid gender roles, including those aimed at closing gender gaps related to access to assets and resources. Securing landownership and land tenure for women is key: In 40 out of the 46 countries that have reported on Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 5.a.1., men have greater ownership or secure tenure rights over agricultural land than women. To address this issue, it is crucial to reform land registration policies, provide support for women’s participation in local land institutions, increase awareness about land rights, and ensure access to legal aid. Gender-transformative approaches, in order to work, need to engage men and boys. These interventions seem especially successful when they address care and unpaid domestic work, and provide education and training opportunities to women.

Understanding cumulative stressors

The COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing economic crisis, and increasing impacts related to climate change raised attention to cumulative stressors, to which this report dedicates an entire chapter. Shocks tend to impact women more negatively. At the same time, gender gaps exist in access to land, services, finance, and digital technology. During the last years, several of these factors coincided and contributed to increased gender equality in agrifood systems, increased care work for women and soaring gender-based violence, especially domestic violence and abuse against women and girls.

Triple shocks and stressors, such as health and economic crises, require addressing gendered resilience to shocks. This FAO report shows that group-based approaches increase women’s empowerment and resilience to stressors. In groups, it is not just about technical knowledge transfer, but also about transforming intangible conditions for equality in relationships and mindsets. FAO also highlights the power of social protection programmes for gender-transformative outcomes in empowerment and resilience.

The way forward

To achieve gender equality in agrifood systems, the report points to the need for sex-, age- and further disaggregated data. Collecting data disaggregated by sex, age, and other forms of social and economic differentiation, is not sufficient, though. Progress towards gender equality requires meticulous application of qualitative and quantitative research to understand what works, and under what conditions. Despite recent progress, significant gaps remain in the collection, availability, scope, and granularity of such data.

FAO also echo calls for localisation of the humanitarian and development sector, and caution against scaling up interventions that work in one context too quickly. The third recommendation extends this focus on intentionality to the need for transformative intentions at every step of programming and policymaking. Programmes that have gender equality and women’s empowerment anchored explicitly as objectives tend to be more effective towards these goals explicit actions are necessary to implement gender-transformative approaches effectively. Only 19% of policy documents regarding agriculture and rural development from 68 countries include policy goals related to gender.

‘The very existence of Indigenous Peoples’ food and knowledge systems today and their capacity to preserve 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity in the planet constitute two of the most important contributions made to the world ́s sustainability,’ highlights FAO in The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems.

Finally, the FAO’s call for methodological pluralism is to be welcomed. The report includes a spotlight on Indigenous women, in commitment to which FAO published the Indigenous People’s food systems report in 2021.

FAO’s report on The status of women in agrifood systems, therefore, represents an important resource for SIANI. Focusing on women in agrifood systems is both needed to achieve gender justice, and a pathway for achieving other SDGs such as SDG1 Ending poverty and SDG2 Zero hunger. A focus on women, particularly rural women, is needed. Achieving gender justice in agrifood systems, however, implies gender equality for gender minorities as well. Understanding better the status of gender minorities in agrifood systems would thus present an important next step.

Written by Laura del Duca, Research Associate at SEI Headquarters.