Why gender inequality and food security go hand-in-hand

Addressing gender inequality in farming sector of developing countries could increase global food security, Paul writes. Women are more likely to adopt new techniques in farming practices to enhance household nutrition.

AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi/File
Afghan women work in a saffron field in Gozara District of Herat, Afghanistan. Womens' unequal access to land, livestock, labour, education, extension, financial services, and technology has led to a significant gender yield gap, on average 20 to 30 percent lower than men’s fields, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Research has shown that addressing gender inequality in agriculture would see a much-needed increase in global food security. The same is also true in the context of climate change: for example, rural women are often more vulnerable than men to climate shocks, but given the right support, they can significantly boost yields and help make farming more resilient. This is why gender has been flagged as one of the six issues we need to tackle in an issues paper co-authored by CARE International, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) for the COP 20 U.N. Climate Conference in Lima, Peru.

Gender is clearly an issue in the farming sector of developing countries. Despite providing half of the agricultural workforce and a strong role in ensuring proper family nutrition, especially for children and vulnerable household members, a great majority of women in the 500 million smallholder farming households worldwide don’t often have much say in how the farm resources are allocated. Womens' unequal access to land, livestock, labour, education, extension, financial services, and technology has led to a significant gender yield gap, on average 20 to 30 percent lower than men’s fields, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Climate change will amplify such inequalities as resources and access to goods and services become constrained. In the Kaffrine region in Senegal, for example, custom dictates that men first plant for themselves right after the first rains in early June, then they plant for their wives about a month into the season. When rains become erratic, late crop planting penalizes women.

The Kaffrine region is one of the target areas for piloting climate adaptation technologies under the climate-smart villages (CSV) initiative, led by the CGIAR Research Program on CCAFS, which co-published the issues paper. Participatory research in villages around the world has shown that improved farming practices (e.g. techniques that save irrigation water; more diversified crop farming systems like agroforestry; and tailored climate advisories through mobile phones), can raise farms' productivity and incomes, as well as their resilience. Women are often less likely to be aware of climate-smart agricultural practices; but when they are aware, they are just as likely as men to adopt these practices. Part of the CSV approach focuses on involving women so that they can identify the most effective and beneficial set of practices.

Community-based adaptation planning is another effective way to design climate-resilient livelihood strategies, and address the underlying causes of vulnerability. Karl Deering, CARE International’s Africa regional climate change coordinator who co-published the issues paper, knows how essential it is to find ways to improve women’s empowerment so they can become an active part of the climate-smart revolution. CARE follows a grid of 23 social change dimensions (for example, looking at a better control of women’s own labor) that allows the participants to shift from a gender-blind to a gender-transformative community. For instance, discussion in pastoralist communities of Dakoro district, Niger, led to a more sustainable and equitable division of labor between men and women.

However, the risk is that such successes remain isolated to communities with healthy research-and-development support.

As a center for agricultural information, CTA is documenting proven practices, policies, information, and communication technologies that are increasing the productivity and resilience of agriculture in a changing climate. They provide much-needed support to stakeholders to scale up proven cases in African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries.

The question about scaling up is a very pressing challenge. According to Bruce Campbell, who leads the CCAFS program, in order for climate-smart agriculture to become the rule rather than the exception, key elements need to be in place, including mechanisms to reach large numbers of farmers. These mechanisms include mobile-phone-operated information services, and government action to integrate climate considerations in all agricultural investment plans.

The example of CSVs highlights the potential for a rapid transformation of agriculture. Dozens of these villages in South Asia and Africa have tested new technologies where villagers worked with scientists to assess problems and solutions, and have piloted a range of practices, from crop diversification to a tool that assesses the precise amounts of fertilizer needed in a given plot of land. Now, the Indian state of Maharashtra (population 112.3 million) is scaling this up by planning to establish 1,000 CSVs.

Adaptation to climate change in the agricultural sector has cost an estimated around US$11 to US$12 billion per year in 2030; but the human cost will be greater if we do not help families to cope with the changing climate. Warmer temperatures will worsen the already grim global malnutrition picture, as yields of essential staple foods like legumes (up to 25 percent decrease predicted for beans) and potatoes decrease.

“No one can deny that urgent action is needed. Climate change is not an abstract concept. Impacts are already happening as we are on a four degrees rather than 1.5 degrees temperature increase pathway,” says Sven Harmeling, CARE’s climate change advocacy coordinator. “IPCC has assessed that this will bring major impacts on food security and that it exacerbates existing inequalities,” he adds.

One way forward for certain is to tackle gender inequalities at all levels. Closing the gender gap would boost global food and nutrition security. FAO estimates that agricultural production would rise by 2.5 – 4 percent globally, reducing the number of hungry by up to 17 percent. Tackling gender inequities would also improve the household capacity to adapt to climate change.  

Better access to land and setting up women’s cooperatives are among the options for women to be at the center of local climate action. Women are especially keen to find ways to improve their daily family meals. Home gardens, including the cultivation of micronutrient-rich vegetables like orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, and the keeping of small livestock are examples of agricultural interventions particularly accessible to women, examples which are likely to enhance household nutritional outcomes.

Gender and nutrition, local action, and scaling up are only some of the key issues that need to be addressed in a changing climate. CARE, CCAFS, and CTA debated the way forward during a special seminar during the COP20 in Lima, Peru.

Alina is a communication specialist and a photojournalist based in the UK. She is currently working with ICRISAT, a CGIAR consortium institute specializing in research on nutritious and resilient crops like millets, pigeon pea, groundnut and chickpea, to improve livelihoods for smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa.

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