The Vital Role of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Food and Agriculture Organization
Rome, Italy
June 27, 2011

Thank you. I want to thank U.S. Ambassador Ertharin Cousin and Kenya’s Ambassador Gaita for co-chairing this dialogue on the vital role of women in agriculture and rural development.

It is a privilege to join colleagues from around the world for this ministerial and to join all of you here to discuss and explore the theme of this year’s conference, a theme that brings into the spotlight one of the most vital concerns for food security in our world: the equality and integration of men and women throughout the agriculture sector.

I want commend the FAO for its work on advancing our understanding of the vital role of women in agriculture and for undertaking the Gender Audit. We encourage the FAO to increase its emphasis on gender in all strategic objectives. Moreover, the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) Report focuses on women for the first time in its 27-year history. The report clearly sets out our challenge: to end the gender gap. Millennium Development Goal 3 calls for gender equality and is essential for the realization of all Millennium Development Goals. This is certainly true for Millennium Development Goal 1: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

In many developing countries, women are the backbone of the economy. In some places they even comprise the majority of small hold farmers. There is a strong economic argument for focusing on investmenting in women in agriculture–as farmers, fishers or workers in agri-processing and marketing. Yet women farmers do not have equal access to resources and this significantly limits their potential in enhancing productivity. They are often at a severe disadvantage when it comes to securing land tenure rights or owning land outright, owning livestock, accessing financial services, receiving the kind of extension services and resources that will grow her output.

Secretary Clinton described a woman farmer’s typical circumstances this way: “She lives in a rural village and farms a piece of land that she does not own. She rises before dawn and walks miles to collect water–if there is water to be found. She works all day in a field, sometimes with a baby on her back. If she’s lucky, drought, blight or pests don’t destroy her crops, and she raises enough to feed her family–and maybe has some left over to sell. But there’s no road to the nearest market.” Moreover, her work is not counted in many economies “as economically active employment.”

Several years ago, when I was traveling with then First Lady Hillary Clinton, a government official was going on and on about how women in his country have no role in the country’s economy. Mrs. Clinton stopped him and said, “Sir, as far as the eye can see, (we were traveling in a van), women are bent over with children on their backs doing the farming, carrying wood, carrying water…if they all stopped but for a day, your country would shut down.”

The SOFA study shows that when women are provided with equal resources, they can produce yields equal to those of men, if not more. But because there is a gender gap in access to resources like seeds, fertilizer, technology, and so much more, bringing women up to the same level of resources as men provides an important opportunity to improve overall productivity. Research also indicates that women are more likely than men to use their incomes to improve the well being of their families and communities. This is especially the case for children, as greater investments in education, health and nutrition for them will have long-lasting value.

This year’s edition of SOFA shows that closing the gender gap and providing women with the same resources as men could increase their individual yields by 20-30% that would in turn improve agricultural production in the developing world between 2 ½ and 4% and reduce the number of undernourished people by 100-150 million globally. We know from the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report that in the countries that are closer to closing the gap between men and women on four metrics, including economic empowerment, those countries are more economically competitive and prosperous. Gender equality is smart economics.

Agriculture is central to economic growth when women can learn the best way to grow and cultivate their own nutritious food, they can feed their children and sell at markets. So closing the gender gap in agriculture is an imperative if we want to grow productivity and ensure food security–as I know we all do. Governments and stakeholders need to invest in women farmers–who shoulder a significant proportion of agricultural work in the developing world–so they can become more productive.

I have seen firsthand how, with proper training and networking opportunities, women farmers have organized associations to promote greater productivity, successful markets and effective advocacy for better policies and programs.

Food security is a foreign policy priority for the United States. The Obama Administration has developed a major initiative called Feed the Future, to advance food security worldwide. Let me make three points about what we are doing in respect to gender and Feed the Future. First, we are integrating gender into all aspects of this initiative because of the significant role women play in agriculture and the persistent economic constraints they face. We are working to improve and expand the involvement and participation of women at all levels of decision-making and to ensure they have equal access to a range of resources they need.

Another key focus of Feed the Future is to reduce under-nutrition which also requires a focus on women and is so critical. We are working to ensure that our development efforts are carefully considered and our decisions based on strong evidence. We need to engage in rigorous monitoring and evaluation. To do so successfully–to ensure that we can measure and understand the impact of our work–we are committed to collecting sex-disaggregated statistics.

In the 20 Feed the Future focus countries, we will work with governments and partners to ensure that we have the data we need to understand the scale and nature of the problem and establish a baseline against which to measure our progress. The US Dept of Agriculture is a global leader in agriculture research and statistics, and they are an integral part of our Feed the Future team. We will be collecting statistics on 33 gender-sensitive indicators, including counting the value of agriculture loans received by women, the number of women producers using improved technologies or management practices and the number receiving help to develop their agriculture businesses. By disaggregating data by sex, we will be able to effectively analyze the changes in the status, participation and outcomes of investments in women relative to men in the agriculture sector.

But data alone is not sufficient. We need the tools to compile, evaluate and interpret the data. That’s why through Feed the Future we are creating the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, which is being developed in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, and USAID. While still in development, the Index is being piloted in Uganda, Guatemala and Bangladesh–three countries on three continents–an essential tool to measure change in five domains: women’s household decision-making, access to credit and land among other areas of productive capital, adequacy of women’s income in relation to food access, community leadership roles and women’s labor time allocations. By the start of 2012, we aim to have the index deployed to the field to be used in all countries supported by Feed the Future, and, of course, shared with all of our partners through USAID.

The Index is a start and we hope it will prove to be very useful too. We also hope that others will partner together to better understand and advance gender equality in agriculture. We look forward to working with all of you in the weeks and months ahead. Ensuring gender equality in agriculture is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing. When the status of women improves, agricultural production increases, poverty decreases, and nutrition improves. Unleashing women’s potential by closing the gender gap in the agricultural sector is a win-win strategy.