On the International Day of Rural Women, it is important to highlight the contributions that women make in agricultural sectors around the world. They grow, process, and produce much of the food that fuels our societies. Yet, they are often unrecognized and marginalized because of restrictive gender norms.
Celebrating the International Day of Rural Women is an important step in bringing to light the critical challenges that rural women face. Below we discuss the important impact that rural women make in the agri-food sectors around the world, the challenges they face, and ways to overcome these challenges to make our agricultural systems more equitable.
The impact that rural women make in the agri-food sector
Agricultural production is dominated by women. On average, women comprise more than 40% of the agricultural labor force in the Global South and rural women make up more than 40% of the labor force in many low-and middle-income economies. Women account for about 70% of total agricultural production and marketing in Ghana, making them central to food security and economic development.
The hurdles rural women face in the agri-food sector
Despite their importance to the labor force of agri-food market systems, rural women are disproportionately affected by poverty, and face many barriers to participating in the agricultural labor market. Two of the biggest hurdles that prevent women from gaining economic empowerment and gender equity include their lack of access to resources (land, finance, and education) and the social norms that prevent them from participating in household and community decision-making.
A lack of access to resources
Women face challenges in gaining equitable access to resources within the agri-food sector. They often lack access to higher-quality land and financial resources to purchase technology and have limited access to quality inputs and high-value market opportunities.
The patrilineal kinship, inheritance, dowry systems, and other practices mean that access to resources and privileges consistently favors men over women. This is supported by the alarming statistic that less than 15% of the world’s landholders are women. The adult male-centered systems of governance (chieftaincy-based, pluralist democracy) leave women under-represented in important decision-making forums.
Women also lack equitable access to other important resources, such as education, entrepreneurial training, and finance. This reality is compounded by inadequate government and private sector services including extension, market information, and health services. In addition to these barriers, there may be an expectation that women are subservient to male family members, meaning they have fewer opportunities and less control over their agriculture efforts and their benefits.
Restrictive social norms
Women’s contributions are often overlooked or ignored by their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, as well as community leaders, extension workers, agricultural planners, and policymakers. Traditional norms, religious beliefs, and social practices dictate that men inherit land rights, leaving women controlling very small amounts of highly unproductive land – just six percent in the Northern Region of Ghana, for example. Wives and daughters are obligated to contribute significant labor in the fields of their husbands and fathers, but men retain control over major agricultural decisions.
In Ghana, productivity is also constrained by social norms that dictate that women plant their plots only after men’s plots have been planted. Frequently, this means women miss ideal planting times. Even after planting is complete, they must often work on their husband’s land before tending to their own crops.
Men, women, government authorities, and extension service providers do not consider women to be farmers. Rather, the most common term used to describe women’s role in agriculture is ‘supplementary’ to the efforts of male farmers. This bias against recognizing women’s full contributions and rights goes well beyond agriculture.
Yet, the benefits of fully harnessing the economic potential of women in the agri-food sector are significant. A study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that if women had access to the same productive resources as men, yields on their farms could be increased by 20 to 30%. This, in turn, could raise total agricultural output in low-and middle-income countries by 2.5 to 4%, reducing global hunger by 12 to 17%.
Moving forward – how to make agri-food markets more equitable
To improve equity for rural women, we should create conditions by supporting men and women to have a voice in how resources are used in development. It also means positioning them to participate in decision-making that will guarantee policies that promote fair access to agriculture and natural resources. Gender, poverty, and institutions are interlinked and cannot be dealt with independently. Recent themes from the International Day of Rural Women, focusing on claiming rights to sustainable development and cultivating good food for all, remain relevant and appropriate. Supporting rural women to secure access to productive resources, decision making among others will address some of the root causes of marginalization. At national levels, governments need to move beyond rhetoric to take practical measures to address the challenges of women. At the community and household level, women and men’s voices should both contribute to decisions on how resources are accessed and utilized.
MEDA prioritizes working with rural women to support them to overcome these persistent and systemic barriers. In the face of these multiple challenges, MEDA supports rural women to build and grow enterprises in the agri-food market system by pushing key levers of change, including:
- Women’s access to and control over resources, including productive assets, skill building opportunities, market opportunities, appropriate and reliable inputs and services
- Women’s agency, or the ability to make and act on decisions related to resources, and to participate in household decisions on business, agriculture and income
- A more just and equitable enabling environment, including positive and enabling attitudes, behaviors, social norms, policies and institutions
MEDA’s programs reflect these priorities. Examples of our work include GROW2 in Northern Ghana, building on the success of the recently completed GROW project, which increases women’s access to productive land, vital agricultural inputs, and higher value markets for their products. In Nicaragua, the Technolinks+ project is enhancing the economic empowerment of rural women by strengthening their knowledge, skills and attitudes through training, economic incentives, access to technology and business entrepreneurship. The RIISA project in the Philippines aims to support 5,400 smallholder farmers (40% women) with market linkages and training to increase their farming incomes.
To truly recognize the value that rural women around the world bring to agricultural systems, we need to address the systemic barriers that prevent them from achieving their potential. Creating awareness of rural women’s participation in the development process with a focus on their needs and rights, highlighting their contributions to sustainable development, promoting household food security, safeguarding traditional knowledge, biodiversity, and peacebuilding are important steps to make our agri-food systems and societies more equitable and prosperous.