Seeing Women Farmers Oppressed by Unequal Rules, You 'Want to Do Something About It'

March 7, 2016

Kenyan women working in the field.

  • Closing the gender gap in agriculture is key to reducing poverty and improving food and nutrition security.
  • The biggest challenge for women farmers is gaining access to services, resources and opportunities along the food system.
  • Reducing women’s workloads through labor and time-saving technologies, better and safer infrastructure, and child and elderly care arrangements have been shown to be effective at reducing gender inequality.

Women farmers can make a huge difference for their countries and families, but they often don't get the same opportunities as men.  The World Bank's Gender in Agriculture team is working to change that. In time for International Women's Day, Agricultural Gender Specialist Sanna-Liisa Taivalmaa talks about how and why the Bank is helping women farmers get a leg up.  

1. How are you improving gender equality in agriculture?

We are trying to ensure that both men and women benefit from all of the Bank's agriculture projects. So we review project plans, develop tools and guidelines, as well as advise project teams on integration of gender in project activities. There are plenty of projects which successfully benefit both men and women:  This is often carefully planned in the design phase, but sometimes it evolves "naturally," during the course of the project, since working with men and women can reveal the right steps for success.

Two examples of successful interventions from a gender perspective are an irrigation project in Zambia where both men’s and women's access to land has been ensured through continuous dialogue with communities. In Bolivia, the Community Investments In Rural Areas Project has benefitted around 25,000 rural families in extreme poverty.  Forty percent of these "community investments"  have been implemented by indigenous women.

2. Why is a gender-based perspective needed in rural development?  And why use the term "gender" instead of "woman"?

Most of the world’s poor live in rural areas, where a majority of people’s livelihoods depends on agriculture. There is, however, a huge gap in access to and control of productive and financial resources. Closing this gender gap could reduce poverty and improve food and nutrition security. And the gender gap is expensive for national economies, as a recent study in Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda shows.

Gender is not only "women."  Men also have and reproduce gender norms and values that affect families and society. Some of those behaviors or notions are restricting to the other members of the family. Engaging both men and women is crucial in addressing gender inequalities and providing a path to change. 

A woman harvesting crops in Bangladesh.
Scott Wallace / World Bank

" Without addressing gender equality and the changing roles and responsibilities [of women], it is not possible to reach the Bank’s twin goals: eliminating extreme poverty and sharing prosperity. "

3. What are the biggest challenges women farmers face?  Have they changed over the years? 

Gender gaps in agriculture vary between countries, regions and livelihoods. Generally, the biggest challenges for women farmers are access to services, resources and opportunities along the food system.

Limited access to and control of land is one of the main obstacles. When women don't have access to land, they have a harder time getting access to finance or membership in farmer organizations.

Women also need access to knowledge and skills so that they can produce more on their farms and feed their families more nutritiously, negotiate better prices for their goods and sell them in better markets. Knowledge also gives women more confidence and skills to take on active roles in their communities and organizations. Lastly, women often experience "time poverty" because they balance agricultural production with caring for their family. Providing child care for rural women enables them to join training and concentrate on field work. 

4. What kind of interventions work to improve gender equality in agriculture? 

First of all we need to have a deep understanding and analysis of the context to identify the gender gaps.  The first step is often securing womens' access to collective action, e.g. women's groups, farmers' associations and water user associations, all of which empower women and give them a voice, especially when coupled with relevant  capacity building.

Using technology and innovative approaches to spread knowledge, ease transactions and provide training—such as through mobile phones, radio programs, videos-- all improve gender equality. Providing the means to reduce women's workloads through labor and time-saving technologies, and better and safer infrastructure or child and elderly care arrangements have been shown to be effective. It can be as simple as providing communities with a rice husking machine—work that used to take women hours can be done in a few minutes.

At the policy level, supporting governments to provide an enabling environment for both men and women (e.g. joint titling of land, labor laws, constitutional rights, inheritance law) is crucial for creating change at scale.  

5. Why is gender equality in agriculture important to achieving the World Bank's development goals?

Most poor people live in rural areas and their livelihoods depend mainly on agriculture. In agriculture-based economies, women provide a significant share of agricultural labor. Moreover, in many areas where men have left to seek jobs in cities, women are taking on new roles on farms. Without addressing gender equality and these changing roles and responsibilities, it is not possible to reach the Bank's twin goals: eliminating extreme poverty and sharing prosperity.  

6.  What drives your commitment to promoting gender equality in agriculture?

Look at the potential and opportunities that both men and women have in rural areas to improve their and their children's livelihoods and food security. When you realize that half of this potential and talent is not fully used and the opportunities for this half are oppressed through unequal rules, norms and legislation, you cannot but want to do something about it.