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US Aims to Empower World's Women Farmers

Women farmers in Bangladesh have learned they play an important role that ensures food security for their families.

Experts identify ways to measure female agricultural empowerment

U.S. aid officials are launching a new way to measure whether their efforts to empower women farmers are working.

Women make up nearly half the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa and East and Southeast Asia, but women’s farm production tends to lag behind their male counterparts.

Women face a number of obstacles that men do not. They tend to own less land and have fewer rights to that land. They have less access to credit and training. And they have less input in decision-making.

With world population expected to grow by another two billion in the next four decades, maximizing food production is a key goal for everyone in the agricultural sector.

Women are key

Aid agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development see women's empowerment as key to meeting that goal.

Farmer Celeste Sitoe raises maize and chickens in Lhate village, Mozambique.
Farmer Celeste Sitoe raises maize and chickens in Lhate village, Mozambique.

“Without addressing women, we cannot effectively and sustainably address global poverty and hunger,” says USAID Coordinator Tjada McKenna

To help evaluate their efforts to fight poverty and hunger, USAID called on experts at Oxford University and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to identify ways to measure women’s empowerment in agriculture.

The researchers looked at five areas: control over production, resources, and income; leadership in the community; and use of time. They compared the roles of women and men in the same household in these areas. And they did pilot studies in three very different countries: Guatemala, Bangladesh and Uganda.

Different in different countries

“What is actually quite interesting is that the areas of empowerment and disempowerment are quite different across the three countries,” says IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Agnes Quisumbing.

For example, in Bangladesh, researchers found the most significant factor for women was the lack of authority over resources such as land and livestock. In Guatemala, it was the lack of leadership in the community that was the biggest problem; while in Uganda, it was time burdens that proved the biggest barrier for women.

A female vendor, with her child looking on, offers produce at a roadside market in Ghana.
A female vendor, with her child looking on, offers produce at a roadside market in Ghana.

The research turned up a few surprises.

“Often, we assume that empowered women are wealthy and educated and vice versa. But we found a more complex story,” says Sabina Alkire, director of Oxford's Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Alkire says in Guatemala, for example, three-quarters of the women in the highest wealth category were disempowered.

On the other hand, she adds, “In Bangladesh, completing primary school hardly made any difference to empowerment in comparison with women who had not been to school.”

Signal to policy-makers

One of the most powerful aspects of this new approach is its ability to identify in which areas women are most disadvantaged, says Agnes Quisumbing.

“And so it’s a very clear signal to policy [makers] that this is the area where they have to go in and where you might have the greatest return on your investment.”

USAID’s Tjeda McKenna says the agency will base its funding and programming efforts on seeing improvements in these areas.

“It very much is meant to be a practical tool for us to guide our implementation,” she says.

And the experts say it will be useful as well for others working to improve women’s involvement in agricultural development.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.