Women working in agriculture “tend to do so under highly unfavourable conditions” – often in the face of “climate-induced weather shocks and in situations of conflict”, a new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concludes.
The report provides insight into women’s participation in agrifood systems at every step of the chain, from production to consumption. It comes more than a decade after the last publication of its kind by the FAO.
Agriculture and food systems are a significant employer for women globally – and are a more critical source of livelihood for women than for men, the report says.
However, women face inequalities that constrain their full participation in the sector, it warns. They are likely to work under worse conditions than men, taking informal, part-time, labour-intensive and low-skilled jobs at higher rates, and earning 82 cents for every dollar men earn.
Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have also affected women’s productivity in agrifood systems, the report notes. For example, women are less likely than men to see their work demands decrease during periods of extreme heat.
Addressing inequalities and empowering women would improve their well-being and that of their households, the report says. Doing so would also reduce hunger, increase incomes and strengthen resilience.
Despite this, the authors warn that few national policies have specific targets to address women’s inequalities in agrifood systems. And while national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement have seen a “modest improvement” on gender equality and women’s rights over the past decade, inclusion of these issues is “often superficial”.
Here, Carbon Brief summarises the key messages from the FAO’s landmark report.
The new report, The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, is “much broader” than the FAO’s previous work on gender, says Dr Lauren Phillips, the deputy director of the FAO’s inclusive rural transformation and gender equality division. The 2011 report focused on women in agriculture alone.
Phillips, one of the lead authors of the new report, tells Carbon Brief that, in contrast, the new iteration covers all agrifood systems and all phases of production, with data disaggregated by gender. The new report also delves into the importance of women’s empowerment in these sectors.
As defined by the FAO, “agrifood systems” refers to the entire range of actors and their activities linked to the production and consumption of both food and non-food agricultural products. This includes products derived from agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture.
Members of a women’s cooperative farm green vegetables in a greenhouse in Makueni County, Kenya, East Africa. Credit: Jake Lyell / Alamy Stock Photo
Overall, the world produces around 11bn tonnes of food annually, and about 4 billion people live in households that depend on this sector for their livelihood.
Such systems are constantly changing and are impacted by economic, social and environmental factors, including – increasingly – climate change.
The new report says that women play a range of roles in agrifood systems, from farmers to wage workers and entrepreneurs. Women also often carry out unpaid activities, such as subsistence farming to feed their families.
Globally, men are more commonly employed in agrifood systems, with 38% of working men employed in such roles, compared to 36% of working women.
But in sub-Saharan Africa and in many south-east Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, women make up half of the agricultural labour force.
As the chart below illustrated, globally, women (purple) make up 38% of agrifood system workers, while men (orange) make up the other 62%.
The share of women (purple) and men (orange) in agrifood system employment, broken down by regions and types of activity: agricultural (top bars) or off-farm (bottom bars). Overall, women make up almost 40% of all workers in agrifood systems, but this percentage varies widely across regions. Source: FAO (2023)
Even within a single region, countries vary in their share of women in the agrifood systems labour force. Although women make up only 36% of agricultural workers in Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, they are 54% of such workers in Bolivia.
Agrifood systems provide many jobs for women and men alike, but both have observed a decline of nearly 10 percentage points in agrifood system employment since 2005. This decrease is due to a reduction in employment in the primary agricultural sector, while employment in off-farm activities – such as food storage, transportation, distribution, marketing or consumption – has remained generally steady.
Where women’s involvement in agriculture has increased, this is sometimes taking place “where the economic viability of agriculture is diminishing because of climate change and other stressors”, the report notes.
One of the report’s main findings is that agrifood systems are a more significant source of livelihood for women than for men in many countries.
For example, in southern Asia, 71% of women work in the agrifood sector, compared to 47% of working men. However, there are much fewer women in the labour force in general in that region.
The report also describes the range of agrifood activities in which women are involved.
Women make up 50% of workers in the aquatic sector – aquaculture and fisheries – and 40% in small fisheries, which includes traditional fishing to obtain small amounts of food and is often carried out by families. However, they hold only 15% of the full-time positions in these primary sectors, while holding 71% of the part-time jobs in processing, making their employment “more precarious”, the report says.
Moreover, it adds, women “tend to trade in medium-to-low-value species and in smaller volumes and are frequently excluded from the most lucrative value chains”.
A similar situation prevails in livestock production. Although there is a lack of specific data on women’s share in the livestock industry, “women continue to be disadvantaged in livestock ownership”, the report says.
For example, men traditionally own the most profitable livestock species, such as cattle, camels and buffalo. Conversely, women typically control less-profitable livestock breeds such as poultry and small ruminants.
The report notes that “livestock ownership is important for reducing poverty among women”, adding:
“It also helps to increase household resilience to climate change and associated shocks. Women who have access to and control over livestock have a higher capacity to improve the health, education and food security of their households.”
Women face several barriers that jeopardise their full participation in agrifood systems, the report explains.
Besides having worse working conditions than men, women deal with high demands of unpaid care, as they often also spend time cooking, cleaning and caring for their families, as well as collecting water in rural areas. All of this “contributes to inequalities in labour market participation” and limits “their opportunities for education and employment”, the report says.
As a result, women in agriculture have lower wages than men: they earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn.
Furthermore, women in the world’s lowest-income countries are more likely to work in agrifood systems than women in higher-income countries. They often work in family agriculture and under extreme climate conditions, and are less likely to be entrepreneurs.
That has led to a crop yield “gap” of 24% between female- and male-managed farms of the same size, according to the FAO report.
Limited access to essential resources for agrifood systems, such as land tenure, services, finance and digital technology, is another barrier that women face. Women also have less access to improved seeds, fertilisers and farming equipment than men, the report says.
The number of men who own agricultural lands is twice that of women. However, women have increased their land ownership in 10 countries over the last decade, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
The report highlights that “discriminatory social norms and rules” are significant drivers of gender inequality, adding that these are “slow to change”. Examples of such norms include the expectation in many places that women and girls will perform unpaid domestic labour, which limits the amount of work they can do outside the home.
The report says that the Covid-19 pandemic had a “greater negative impact on women’s livelihoods in agrifood systems than they do on men’s”. During the pandemic, women suffered the most from food insecurity and lost more jobs (22%) than men (2%).
Similarly, climate change and extreme weather events disproportionately affect women. Studies have also shown that addressing gender-based inequalities is important for climate resilience.
Climate change also affects women’s capacity to adapt. For example, discriminatory norms can reduce women’s access to climate information, which is crucial to understand how to adapt to global warming.
At least 939 million women aged 15 or older experienced moderate to severe food insecurity in 2021, compared with 813 million men, the report says. The map below displays the countries with higher food insecurity among women (red) and men (turquoise), with blue indicating countries that do not have significantly different rates of food insecurity between men and women. Countries with higher levels of food insecurity for women are concentrated in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and south-east Asia.
Countries with higher food insecurity among women (red) and men (turquoise). Blue indicates countries where food insecurity does not significantly vary between women and men. Source: FAO (2023)
The report also notes that women in rural areas, “who have limited resilience capacity and consequently restricted options to respond to changes in climate, often have to resort to short-term coping strategies at the expense of their long-term resilience to climate shocks and stressors”. In India, for example, “women often resort to decreasing the number and size of meals they consume during droughts, with negative effects to their overall health”.
The report offers a snapshot of how social norms are changing over time and how they create inequalities in agrifood systems, but it also provides an overview of the policies that have been successful in either closing gender gaps or empowering women, Phillips says.
It highlights that tackling gender inequalities and empowering women in agrifood systems will reduce hunger and poverty, boost economies and strengthen resilience to pandemics and climate change. It says:
“Reducing their barriers to their participation and changing the norms and rules that constrain it has great benefits for women’s well-being and for wider society as a whole.”
For example, closing the gender gap in farm productivity and the wage gap in agrifood systems would boost the global economy – increasing global gross domestic product by 1% (nearly $1tn) – and alleviate food insecurity for 45 million people.
Two women driving pigs along a street of a small town in Peru. Credit: Florian Kopp / Alamy Stock Photo
The report also emphasises that projects empowering women bring higher benefits than those that only mainstream gender.
Mainstreaming gender means integrating both women’s and men’s concerns into the planning, development and implementation of a project, so that everyone can benefit equally.
Women’s empowerment, on the other hand, means providing women with the capabilities, rights and resources to make their own decisions, thus transforming discriminatory social norms that perpetuate inequalities. For example, Phillips says, a project might ensure that women have appropriate mobility so they can easily travel from their homes to their work.
The authors estimate that if half of the small-scale producers benefited from projects that support women’s empowerment, it would increase the income of 58 million people and the resilience of 235 million people worldwide.
However, the world is not yet on that path. The report notes that while “more than half of bilateral finance for agriculture and rural development already mainstreams gender, only 6% treats gender as fundamental”.
It cites several international agreements that address gender equality, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which call for gender equality and empowerment for all women by 2030.
Gender-transformative actions are considered a solution to change discriminatory norms that affect women in agrifood systems. The report observes that “such approaches are cost-effective and have high returns”.
For example, interventions that improve women’s productivity are more successful when they alleviate women’s unpaid work demands, such as by providing access to childcare.
Such gender-transformative approaches can make a change at the local level, but they need to be deployed at a much larger scale in order to change social norms more broadly, Phillips tells Carbon Brief. She adds:
“There’s been positive change so far that more and more countries acknowledge women in their national policy frameworks around agriculture, but not many of them are necessarily proposing specific and concrete actions.”
This is reflected in climate policies, the report says, noting a “modest improvement” over the past decade “in the degree and way in which gender equality and women’s rights issues are introduced in climate-related policy”.
For example, the report cites a 2021 review of national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement, where the percentage of reviewed pledges with mentions of women and/or gender increased from 40% in 2016 to 78% in 2021. The report says that “agriculture was the sector with the greatest degree of integration of gender”.
However, despite some positive changes, “national agricultural and environmental policies that mention gender-related vulnerabilities to climate change often still do not include policy measures or strategies to address them during implementation”, it says.
Phillips notes that some countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have increased their budgets for implementing policies addressing gender and inequality. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest number of such policies. She says:
“If policies were already responsive, and included women in policy processes, they’re much more likely to help women withstand shocks and to be resilient to shocks when they arrive.”
However, the report warns that “evidence from Central America, east Africa and Nepal indicates that integration of gender equality and women’s rights issues in national climate and agriculture policy is often superficial, with passing mention of ‘gender’, often merely acknowledging its relation to climate change”.
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