Around the globe, women play a crucial role in agriculture. At times obscured by a variety of factors, including cultural norms, land rights, and traditional family roles, women’s contribution to feeding the seven billion people on the planet is nonetheless significant.
In recent years, various organizations have realigned their missions and funding allocations to include support for female farmers. In 2012, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) collaborated with the government initiative Feed the Future to publish the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, a tool designed to assess women’s role in agriculture in the developing world across 5 areas: “(1) decisions about agricultural production, (2) access to and decision making power over productive resources, (3) control over use of income, (4) leadership in the community and (5) time use”. The goal of the tool is to better understand and address the obstacles women face when participating in agriculture in order to empower women as autonomous decision makers in their communities.
Though women producers continue to be a minority in U.S. agriculture, their numbers are steadily increasing. The 2007 Census of Agriculture demonstrated that more than 30 percent of all farm operators in the U.S. are women. Further, women farmers are addressing the challenges they face through coalition building. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a school known for its prowess in agricultural science, houses the Women in Agriculture (WIA) program, formed in 1985 to assist women in achieving their agricultural education and management goals. Since the 1970s, Montana has had an active chapter of WIFE – Women Involved in Farm Economics — which sports a cheeky acronym and the serious goal of improving agricultural profitability through education, political advocacy, and community-based cooperative efforts.
Despite these important steps, women producers continue to face a multitude of challenges, especially in the developing world. In India, a large portion of farm work is done by women, who are the caretakers of a wealth of traditional knowledge, particularly seed saving. However, relatively recent agricultural technologies promoted by companies like Monsanto have contributed to a loss of genetic diversity and an overshadowing of women’s important role in agriculture. Further, exclusive male decision making power makes it difficult for women to exercise any control over market dynamics. To combat these trends, women have created coalitions to promote traditional knowledge and the importance of seed saving for the future of agriculture in India, reaching out through popular social media networks to publicize their mission.
In Africa, women are important agricultural players in addition to their traditional domestic roles as wives and mothers. Although women are responsible for 70 percent of food production and 80 – 90 percent of food processing on the continent, customary land rights and inheritance practices make it very difficult for women to gain ownership over the land they cultivate. When women do have access to land, they are often obliged to hand over the proceeds to a husband or father. According to IFPRI, recent legal reforms have begun to strengthen women’s property rights, but these reforms must be accompanied by stringent enforcement as well as legal literacy programs for communities and implementing agencies. Women must know their rights, and must also be given a voice within local committees in order to enforce these rights and formalize the important role they have played in feeding communities for centuries. An increase in advocacy is slowly strengthening women’s voice, but there is much work to be done to liberate African women from the vulnerability that is the consequence of cultural norms.
A complicated matrix of gender roles, legal rights, agricultural technology and cultural norms surround women’s current role in agriculture around the world. Thankfully, organizations like IFPRI, the United Nations, seed-saving coalitions in India, WIFE and WIA are all working diligently to empower female producers through education, policy and social advocacy. Plentiful research has shown that women in developing countries tend to spend a larger portion of their available income for basic household needs, especially food, compared to men. An enhancement of women’s rights in agriculture will not only lead to empowerment for the women directly involved, it will lead to improved food security and healthier communities.