Four articles on why women remain central to feed families and the world | Land Portal

Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID, women working in the farm, license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

This digest has been updated on 11 March 2024. Our partners alerted us that one of the figures we used is highly contested. The full clarification is below. We have also included a fourth article to the digest, which was missing in the original post, that contests the 'myth' statistic.



Our latest What to Read digest said:

Fact one, some studies suggest that women are responsible for half of the world's food production, and in some developing nations they produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food. 

Our partners at Landesa and International Food Policy Research Institute responded and alerted us that these figures are greatly contested.

While working for Yale University in 2014, researcher Cheryl Doss reviewed the data behind the 60-80% statistic and concluded that this figure is highly implausible because the best available data indicate that women actually represent little more than 40% of the global agricultural workforce, including in sub-Saharan Africa. She argues: “It could still be the case that women farmers work many more hours than men in agriculture, but the limited time use data does not provide statistical support for this proposition.”

After this alert, we did some further research, and added the latest Doss’ article on this topic to our list of reviewed publications in the digest, as well as a note explaining this data debate. We realized that the unconfirmed 60-80% statistic likely comes from an old FAO reportfrom the 1990’s. Yet, this figure continues to circulate widely – including a 2023 blog published on FAO’s website preserving the apparent ‘myth’.

Like many, we at the Land Portal are susceptible to common, yet unsubstantiated, statistics. We have removed the word "fact" to describe the figures. But rather than removing the figures entirely, we’re issuing this addendum because we believe that if we approach these situations with curiosity and an open mind, there is lots to learn. This event showed us that, even if the numbers are highly implausible, the sentiment that women are still disadvantaged in accessing land and in their work in agriculture is not. We must, however, always double check the available data, consider whether/how it is contested and the purposes that the different numbers or interpretations may be serving. If you want to check all the sources, click here

We hope this message sheds some light to this debate, raised by the immensely valuable feedback from our partners and global community of readers. This is to show our appreciation and to encourage you to help us sustain these important conversations about land. And by the way, we have also commissioned research on other myth-busting facts.


The original What to Read post is below. It is part of the series What to Read.

In times of economic and ecological crisis, ensuring that people can produce enough food to eat and support themselves is a top global priority. Studies show how women are key in guaranteeing food security in households as well as in global food production due to the feminization of agriculture in many developing countries. However, we also know that women’s contribution is done in conditions of high inequality and vulnerability. In honour of International Women’s Day, this What to Read Digest aims to explore the link between land, food security and women, and how it can empower women. 

Consider two key ideas. One, some studies suggest that women are responsible for half of the world's food production, and in some developing nations they produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food (FAO, 1990) -- Please see the clarification above on this figure. Two, in many developing countries land is predominantly owned by men, with intergenerational transfers typically favouring men, excluding women from accessing land and limiting their opportunities to scale up their farming activities (UNDP, 2012). These two assertions prompt questions about the conditions and role of women as farmers, their influence on promoting food security and the barriers stemming from gender inequality that hinder their full potential as food producers.

To delve into these questions, I've curated three articles for this digest. They encourage readers to consider gender roles as central to understanding the issue and to recognize the transformation of these roles as integral to empowering women. The first article examines how limiting perceptions of rural women confine them to local spheres, impeding their participation in global agricultural and food security initiatives. The following piece demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between gender equality and food security, illustrating how inequality contributes to hunger. The final article holds that initiatives to empower women in agriculture are deemed useless if not supported by legal frameworks promoting gender equality as their foundation. --The actual final article has been included on 11 March 2024.

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Women, food security and agriculture in a global marketplace

By Rekha Mehra and Mary Hill Rojas, 2008

This paper takes the discussion on the link between women, land, agriculture and food security to a next level by reflecting on how the perception of women in rural areas explains why they keep facing the same challenges despite development and agricultural programmes targeted to them, and why their sphere of influence regarding food security is mainly limited to the household. 

The authors argue that women continue being regarded as home producers or assistants in farm households and not as farmers and economic agents in their own right. This perception has prevented women from getting the skills and resources necessary to tap into lucrative and growing markets offered by commercial and high-value agriculture, and instead it has constrained them in subsistence agriculture with low yields 

Likewise, the perception of rural women as vital actors in achieving household food security has limited the view of women in agriculture as producers of exclusively food and subsistence crops. This perception has been followed by the fear that women working in food crop sales may threaten household food security.

The authors illustrate the impact of those limited perceptions about women farmers with examples from Africa, Asia and Latin America. They finish the report with recommendations to empower women around two goals: 1) implement gender-responsive approaches to improve productivity in subsistence farming and improve knowledge about women in commercial agriculture, and 2) engender policies and practices of agribusiness. 

Read the full publication




Gender equality and food security. Women’s empowerment as a tool against hunger

By Asian Development Bank, 2013

This report goes a step further in reflecting on what empowering rural women entails by breaking down the relationship between gender equality and food security and showing that both are mutually supportive. It offers a comprehensive analysis on how gender-based discrimination in agriculture and food production affects the ability of households and individuals to access food, with special focus in the Asia Pacific region. The report is structured to cover situations affecting the ability of women to produce, access and use food. 

Chapter three, on improving the productivity of women food producers, is of particular importance for land governance. The author argues that securing land tenure is key for women empowerment because it is often a precondition to access financial services. That is because land is often a collateral for credit, and a condition for social inclusion, reinforcing women’s status as citizens. He separately examines each of the modes for women to acquire land, such as from their family (inheritance, gift, marriage), through government programs, or by purchasing it. 

The second part of the chapter is devoted to examining other obstacles constraining women’s productivity in agriculture. They include limited access to extension services, financial services and agricultural research and development efforts. One of the reasons why these mechanisms fail to support women is that they ignore the diversity of roles and interests of women. The author finds that the lack of adaptation of these mechanisms to the diversity of women’s circumstances leads to situations where microcredits for women end up supporting the males in the house, or cases where the deals are signed by the male but the work is done by the female such as in contract farming. 

The author reminds us that by removing the obstacles that women face in their roles as food producers, as waged workers, as beneficiaries of social protection measures, and as primary caregivers, and by incorporating a gender dimension in rural development projects the whole society will benefit. 

Thus, this assessment on the agriculture-food nexus from a gender perspective indicates that challenging the constraints women face is key to overcoming hunger and malnutrition. Data supports the change needed: “if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent”. 


Read the full publication




Supporting an enabling legal environment for women’s empowerment in food and agriculture

By Deborah Rubin and Philippine Sutz, 2021


Initiatives to empower rural women are more likely to succeed when they operate in a supportive environment. Challenges such as inadequate legislation and insufficient enforcement hinder rural women's access to services and protection.

This legal brief explores how national laws can support the empowerment of women in agriculture and food security, as well as the necessary conditions for effective legislation. The authors discuss four key areas where legislation can promote women's empowerment in agri-food systems.

The second area concerns women's access to land and natural resources. Laws should not discriminate based on gender when allocating rights to these resources. Family, property, and inheritance laws are important considerations, especially in regions where different marital and inheritance systems coexist. It's essential to include explicit provisions safeguarding women's rights, particularly where customary laws operate alongside the formal legal system.

The third area focuses on women's participation in cooperatives and producer organisations, which can enhance profitability and food security. Legislation should mandate quotas or other measures to promote women's involvement in these groups, both as members and leaders.

Lastly, many women work in the agricultural production, processing, and marketing sectors. They often face challenges such as informal employment, long hours, and low wages. Key legal provisions should aim to protect women from harassment, ensure fair working conditions, and support work-life balance, enabling their active participation in the labour market and contributing to economic growth.

For each area, the authors provide a list of essential legal provisions and examples from various countries where such provisions are legally upheld.

Read the full publication




Women in agriculture: Four myths (added to this digest on 11 March 2024)

By Cheryl Doss, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Agnes Quisumbing and Sophie Theis, 2018

Women in agriculture: Four myths

Reliable and sufficient data on women, agriculture and food security is scarce. Some of the data available have turned into generalizations based on a simplified understanding of reality. The authors of this paper point out how those “stylized facts” promote stereotypes of women either as victims or as saviours. In this paper, they analyse four gender myths: 1) 70% of the world’s poor are women; 2) women produce 60 to 80% of the world’s food; 3) women own 1% of the world’s land; 4) women are better stewards of the environment. In their opinion, none of these myths are based on sound empirical evidence. 

One of the problems with the first myth is that it is based on income, expenditure and asset data collected at the household level, rather than at the individual level. The problem with household level data is that it ignores women living in male headed households and men living in female headed households, and it tends to assume that all members of the household benefit equally from all the inputs received by a household.

One of the challenges with the second myth is the difficulty to attribute a share of the food that is produced to women, when most smallholder production relies on the labour of both men and women. According to the authors, the kernel of truth in this myth is that women are important for food security especially in their households -working in their kitchen gardens or homestead plots, which do not count as agriculture-, and in providing dietary diversity. They argue that this data may underestimate women’s involvement in agriculture. 

According to the authors, the data in the third myth present two challenges. One is the definition of ownership, considering that much agricultural land is under customary tenure without titles, common property, and that the terms owners and managers are used interchangeably in discussions about women’s land rights. The other challenge is how to handle land that is jointly owned by a man and a woman. The authors argue that this myth masks the diversity of tenure situations. 

Finally, the fourth myth contains the kernel truth that women’s traditional roles, like gathering firewood or collecting water, are greatly affected by natural resource depletion, which increases women’s incentives to conserve resources. However, the authors hold that this myth relies on a selective reading of the evidence, it treats women as a homogenous group, and simplifies the relationship between women and nature. 

The authors argue that to rely on these myths can lead to ineffective food security and land policies and programs. In their opinion, effective policy and program making requires “recognizing variation between and within groups of women, women’s strengths as well as limitations, and the roles of men”. 

Read the full publication

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