Playing Fair In The Fields

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Women farmers in developing economies are often denied access to the same resources as their male counterparts. This has tipped the scale severely and regaining a balance might just be the thing the food industry needs to secure its future. By Sherlyne Yong

Leymah Gbowee, peace activist and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, once shared a story about a man who attended her workshop. He was very loud and vocal with his displeasure on how his wife did nothing for his family. All she did was stay at home while he went out to earn a living. But this changed when he was tasked to put a monetary value on what she did at home, in other words, the amount he would have to pay if someone else did the things his wife did.

“My wife wakes up every morning at 4 am to make hot water. We have no electricity so she has to burn firewood and do everything. After that, she made sure my water is in the bathroom. She carries the water there. She fixes my breakfast and serves me, brings the children to school, stay home and cook, goes to the market to get food, picks the children up from school,” he said.

In the end, the value of the things that his wife did for nothing came up to about $2,500. Contrite, he went home to apologise.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not a rarity. You might find it unbecoming now that we are in the 21st century, but there is still a huge population of women who are expected to do those things on top of juggling work to support their families.

Gender differences are very real, and this is exceptionally prevalent in rural areas where customs prevail. Women have been boxed into a stereotype that determines what they should do and how much their contribution are worth, simply because they were born as the fairer sex.

Fixed Gender Roles

In most cultures, women are the appointed caregivers whose primary roles are being mothers and wives. According to the UN, women in Asia spend just under 1.45 hours a day preparing meals, while men spend just 15 minutes. In Africa, girls marry young and inherit only a small portion of their husbands’ land that is typically poor in quality.

Patriarchal ideology is rife in most emerging nations, and this has resulted in deep-seated social norms dictating that women stay at home to cook, clean and look after the children, while men should head out to work and bring home the bread.

However, times are changing and it is no longer financially viable for families to rely on one breadwinner, especially in such an open and volatile economy as ours. Women are not just caregivers, but also key food producers and providers. In fact, many have gone beyond their traditional roles such that data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) now shows that they account for 43 percent of the agricultural workforce.

Yet, many of them become workers rather than leaders, even though a vast proportion of agricultural output can be attributed to them. For instance, a joint report by UTZ and Solidaridad found that women took part in 12 out of the 19 stages of cocoa production. But because men generally take responsibility for collecting payment, it is a woman’s relationship to the man that dictates how much she gets.

This is but one of the obstacles that women face. Many more abound in the form of restricted access to resources that their male counterparts can so readily achieve. Despite owning half of all SMEs in Kenya, women entrepreneurs experience less growth in their business that those of male owned businesses, simply because they lack support.

Limited Access To Resources

World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya 

The biggest element that impedes the success of women entrepreneurs and farmers is undoubtedly their access (or the lack thereof) to resources.

Researchers at Harvard University conducted a study in Ghana where they found dramatic gender gaps beyond income and productivity. On cocoa farms, women have a 25 percent lower level of training, 20 percent lower receipt of loans, and 30-40 percent lower access to critical farm inputs such as fertiliser.

Access to land, markets, technology, other inputs and financial services are all key tenets of productivity, which when taken away, severely deprives female farmers of reaching their full potential.


Credit is one of these things, and women often have a much harder time trying to get the loans they need to get their business running. “There are horrible stories from women who want access to credit,” said Ms Gbowee.

“My mother is the one who earns all the wealth, my father is not a wealthy man. She went to a local bank in Liberia for a loan. She said she wanted to buy a bus to start a transportation business. And so she was applying for a $10,000 loan, she brought all the documents and they said to her, two things were missing — her marriage certificate plus her husband, and a prominent citizen in a country. Without these two, they would not give her the loan,” she said.

Unlike men, women often have to fulfil seemingly unrelated conditions before they can be granted what they need, resulting in a huge production gap between the two sexes.

Despite all smallholders facing constraints in access to credit, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) notes that “in most countries the share of female smallholders who can access credit is 5–10 percentage points lower than for male smallholders.” This in turn, reduces the amount of assets that female entrepreneurs own, and goes on to perpetuate a gender asset gap in most regions.

Land & Property

Closely tied to credit, access to land is another condition that can vastly change the circumstances of women farmers in rural areas. In fact, a joint paper by the FAO and Asian Development Bank (ADB) cited land ownership as the single most important factor for the economic empowerment of rural women farmers.

This is because access to other productive resources is often dependent on land ownership, especially to ensure security of tenure, and it is also vital for social inclusions, such as in Asian societies where ‘face’ matters. Most importantly, how can one farm without any land?

To paint a small picture of gender differences when it comes to property ownership in rural areas, a Guardian article revealed that a village in Dadun, China has a scheme that allocates houses according to the number of sons in a family. Daughters purportedly have none because they will be ‘married out’ eventually.

Similarly in other parts of China, when women farmers marry into their husbands’ families, they will lose the rights to the land that they have farmed on their entire lives to their brother or brother’s wife.

Meanwhile in Cote d’Ivoire, one of the world’s largest exporters of cocoa beans, CARE International found that 86 percent of men had legal rights to their cocoa plots, but in 67 percent of the cases, the land accessed by women was not owned by them. Again, this disparity can be attributed to deeply entrenched traditions.

Labour, Technology & Inputs

Last but not least, women have a higher tendency of being relegated to temporary jobs and menial tasks that are deemed as less important or impactful. Men have a greater command over labour in rural areas, where family members are often enlisted to help without remuneration, and these tend to be their wives and sisters.

In Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico, women are often hired on short term contracts, as well as for seasonal jobs in sectors such as fruit production, even though they make up the majority of the workers. According to the UN, nearly 80 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa are in vulnerable employment.

Another reason for this is that women require flexibility to fulfil their familial responsibilities. As a result, they are more likely to work part-time, or drop out from the labour force altogether, which in turn prevents them from attaining the knowledge or experience they require.

Perhaps due to perceptions that men are better suited for managing farms, they tend to get essential inputs more than women do. Researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that 79 percent of studies concluded that men have higher mean access to inputs such as fertilisers, seed varieties, tools and pesticides. This only serves to perpetuate yield gaps between genders, as highlighted by a study in Burkina Faso that found men’s plots to be 30 percent more productive than female-managed plots because labour and fertiliser were more intensively applied.

Limited access to essential resources creates a vicious cycle where already disadvantaged female smallholders will suffer even more. It is a downward spiral where male-owned farms will continue to grow and be favoured over female-managed ones as they can produce more yield.

According to the World Bank, firm managers in China prefer to sign export contracts with men because women have limited access to productive assets, lack statutory rights over land, and have less authority over family, and in turn, potential farm labour.

Disempowering women through these limitations serves as a huge opportunity cost for the world. If women were being accorded the same resources as their male counterparts, the FAO predicts that the yield gaps of 20 to 30 percent between sexes can be removed, domestic agricultural output could go up by 2.5 to 4 percent, and up to 100 million fewer people could be living in hunger.

The food and agriculture industry has to work together to remove gender differences from the farms, especially since the trade is becoming increasingly feminised as men are leaving to seek better jobs in the city.

Empowering The World

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics 

The ramifications of gender equality are huge. By closing gender gaps, women can contribute more, resulting in a diverse workforce, increased economic productivity, greater sustained periods of growth, and the improved standing of females among their communities.

However, it is not all about the money. Female empowerment leads to other kinds of social and cultural benefits too. "Paying women a decent wage, improving their access to tools, fertilisers, and credit, and guaranteeing their right to own and access land will have a huge multiplier effect on food security and hunger reduction," said Lourdes Adriano, practice leader for Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development in the Regional and Sustainable Development department at ADB.

Agricultural yields are being threatened by climate change and a growing world population, while the state of hunger in the world is being exacerbated by an unstable global economy and the fluctuating prices of commodities.

With so much of agricultural production being dependent on women—up to 80 percent in some regions according to Oxfam International—imagine the amount of extra food that can be produced if they were given the access to what they need.

With global supplies dwindling, be it cocoa, coffee, cattle, wheat or corn, female empowerment could be the single most effective solution that the food industry can engage in. Supplying women with the resources they need is easy and inexpensive. Rather, it is the overhauling of mindsets and dated traditions that requires some work.

“Women’s role in the world that we live in, taken from the textbooks, taken out of the superficial thinking, is something that each and every one of us will see as value. Once we bring that value into everything we do, in every industry that we’re in, the game has changed, for the better instead of for the worse,” said Ms Gbowee.

And that–realising the value of women– is something that the world needs to try harder in.