Hunger Games: Global Gender Bias Against Women’s Farming
By Tricia Glazebrook & Samantha Noll | April 6, 2021
Tricia Glazebrook is a professor of philosophy and Samantha Noll is an assistant professor of bioethics at Washington State University.
The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than Africa’s 680 million women combined. Rural African women’s poverty is deeply connected to their agricultural livelihood. Over a quarter of the world’s hungry—220 million people—live in sub-Saharan Africa, where a massive humanitarian crisis in food security is underway.
Many African women are farmers trapped in both ‘the feminization of poverty’ (the world’s poor are increasingly female) and ‘the feminization of agriculture’ (women are increasingly responsible for food security). Women in sub-Saharan Africa are more than a fifth of the agricultural workforce of the global South. These 500 million women are mostly subsistence growers who do not sell their crop but farm to feed their families. At a time when climate change is changing rain patterns and reducing crop production, their labor is crucial for food security, yet their economic contribution often goes unrecognized.
At a time when climate change is changing rain patterns and reducing crop production, women’s labor is crucial for food security, yet their economic contribution often goes unrecognized.
While their material circumstances may be different, women farmers in the global North face many similarly gendered barriers to their productivity and success. To thrive in a changing world, we need a new revolution in women’s farming.
Women’s Invisible Labor Feeds Millions
Across Africa, women’s farming is marginalized and hampered by persistent social inequalities and biases. Ghana provides an example. Because the government cannot afford to pay its employees adequately, many make ends meet by returning to their childhood home regularly to eat their mother’s crop. Ghana’s economy cannot be sustained without women’s farming, yet measures of the national economy do not include their crops.
Women farmers typically carry a larger labor burden than men by at least 10 hours per week. They have poor access to bank accounts and loans. Almost always disallowed land tenure, they cannot control the land they farm. Their resource access is limited: their standard tool is a hand hoe. They collect animal dung to make fertilizer, but can be denied even that by landowners. When hiring a man with bullocks to turn the soil before planting, they often pay with only a meal and promise of a portion of the crop. Because the men give priority to paying customers, women often plant late.
Climate change impacts can be disastrous in Africa, where only four percent of farms use irrigation. Traditional crops like millet and peanuts depend on rain daily; sporadic rain stunts their growth. To reduce risk of crop failure, women are turning to drought-resistant strains of rice. Millet contains high levels of calcium and protein that are important for growing children and pregnant or lactating women. Peanuts are also high in protein, needed for brain and muscle development. Rice, on the other hand, provides carbohydrates that have little dietary value. The women must sacrifice their nutritional base to ensure they have something to feed the family.
International Interventions Fall Short
Failure to prioritize women farmers’ needs virtually invites humanitarian crises in hunger. Yet the international community provides little support, while international debt paralyzes Africa. Multinational corporations investing in agriculture usually export to the global North with little benefit to Africans. Their ‘land grabs’ typically displace women farmers. Exports that raise gross domestic product can make countries look richer while women’s poverty increases.
Ghana submitted its first Poverty Reduction Strategy to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a funding request. Government officers held meetings with rural women’s groups in the northern regions where women grow as much as 87 percent of what is eaten. The Strategy prioritized gender equity as a driver for sustainable growth, poverty reduction, and protection of the vulnerable.
Ghana’s first Poverty Reduction Strategy prioritized gender equity as a driver for sustainable growth, poverty reduction, and protection of the vulnerable. In response, the IMF found the Strategy ‘narrow’ because it neglected market factors.
In response, the IMF found the Strategy ‘narrow’ because it neglected market factors. The women appeared not as indispensable food growers, but as poor economic contributors. Ghana estimates today that approximately 1.2 million Ghanaians suffer food insecurity and are vulnerable to any sudden change affecting food consumption patterns. The IMF failed Ghana’s women farmers and the people who depend on them.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals also under-serve women farmers. The fifth Goal, on gender empowerment and equality, recognizes inequities, including land ownership and access to resources and technology. But it separates women farmers’ needs from other Goals, when in reality needs intersect across Goals.
The Goal on water discusses women’s hygiene but not crop irrigation. The Goal on ecosystem management says nothing about women farmers, despite their impact on land and responsibility for sustainability. The Goal on hunger neglects the connections between poverty, gender, and food security.
Similarities Between the Global South and North
The feminization of agriculture is also underway in the global North. Women are now more than a quarter of Canadian farmers and over a third of American, while Europe is experiencing a steady rise. Women farmers are being recognized, much as Ghana’s Poverty Reduction Strategy recognized them. For example, the U.S., where farming is often a family affair, used to acknowledge only one ‘primary producer.’ This made women partnering with male farmers invisible. The USDA recently changed its census to allow more than one primary producer, allowing women contributors to be reported.
At the same time, women farmers in the North face inequalities and barriers similar to those of their counterparts in Africa and the global South. Distribution of resources, property, and economic opportunities is often gender-biased and constrains women’s land management and income. Research focuses on male farmers’ experiences and needs. For example, women farmers in the global North tend toward organic and sustainable agriculture that prioritizes community health and well-being over increasing crop yields, but typically male-owned, large-scale agriculture largely determines agricultural research, farming environments, and access to social resources.
Women farmers in the global North tend toward organic and sustainable agriculture that prioritizes community health and well-being over increasing crop yields, but typically male-owned, large-scale agriculture largely determines agricultural research, farming environments, and access to social resources.
We Need a New Agricultural Revolution
Without effective interventions to address the roots of gender inequality, women farmers’ situations are unlikely to improve. The policy gap breaches justice, humanitarian principles, and ecosystem health, while seemingly blind to climate threats to global food security.
The policy gap breaches justice, humanitarian principles, and ecosystem health, while seemingly blind to climate threats to global food security.
For the global South, international aid and finance should open their eyes to women farmers’ potential and come together to establish policy accords that provide women’s collectives access to productivity-increasing resources that develop their capacity for market presence. Denial of women’s land tenure can only be remedied by desperately needed federal policy revision with strong implementing Action Plans for UN member-states. The UN, World Bank, and IMF could easily request such changes of national governments.
In the North, women need more robust financial support, especially for the small-scale, organic, and sustainable agriculture that women farmers dominate. Among research funders, such as the USDA, policy changes aimed at small-scale farming would support sustainability and counter the potentially damaging impacts of multinationals, while also increasing resource availability for diverse agricultural practitioners. Research funders and lending institutions could also ask for gender impact assessments and gender budgeting in applications.
In both South and North, women need better access to credit. In the South, women are a lower risk than men in the microcredit market, where small-scale farmers benefit the most. In the North, since the U.S. 1975 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, for example, average FICO scores have become almost identical across gender. Yet in both South and North, lender bias impedes women’s farming. Agricultural data collection policy requiring consistent gender disaggregation would enable recognition of women’s contributions.
Gender quotas have successfully obliged inclusion of women in governance, and there is good reason to take this approach in agricultural policy to counter gender bias in finance. A sustainable future demands governance and corporate policy changes aimed at rejecting gender bias in agriculture and creating a new global paradigm that values women’s food security labor.