Food For Thought

Unleash Women Farmers and Feed the World 

“Rural women are active economic agents who could unleash major advancements in hunger and poverty eradication if they were able to participate equally with men in the agricultural economy.”

Ann Tutwiler – Deputy Director-General for Knowledge
Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations

 By Donna Shaver

When we think about agriculture in America, we are likely to picture huge fields of grain swaying in the wind, endless rows of corn in the Heartland, or field after field of cabbage, carrots and onions in California’s Central Valley. We think of mechanized sprinklers making huge circles in an open field, and tractors, combines and other specialized equipment to harvest the crops.   The result is the food on our table, much of which comes from the supermarket, transported there by truck.

But this is not the face of agriculture in the developing world.  The fields are usually small.  Planting, weeding, watering and harvesting are done by hand. The farming is in addition to cooking, fetching water and firewood and caring for children.  The farmer is a woman.

lobally, women are nearly half of the world’s farmers, but that percentage may be far higher.  Women may not identify themselves as farmers, because to them, farming activities are just an extension of the manual labor that is expected of them in their culture.  The person identified as the farmer may be the property owner, who is almost invariably the husband. A significant issue for women in the developing world is their lack of property rights.

This month, Dining for Women is supporting women farmers in the Lebialem Valley in Cameroon.  The project, the Women’s Entrepreneurial Program by Breaking Ground, provides instruction to women in applicable business and sustainable farming techniques to help them go beyond subsistence levels. The project will help them create a community garden, educate them in organic farming, provide seeds for transplantation into the family gardens and instruction on how to include these crops in their diets. The project includes training in other vocational opportunities as well, and includes microloans to help them launch their businesses.

UN Millennium Development Goals



Goal 1:  Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

Target:  Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

According to The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of the population in extreme poverty fell from 56 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2008.  For Cameroon, the Millennium Goals Indicators have data for 1996, 2001, and 2007.  In that time, the percentage of the population living on less than $1/day has dropped from 24.9 percent to 9.6 percent.  The percentage of the population living below the national poverty line decreased from 53.3 percent to 39.9 percent.  But it is important to note that the percentage of rural population living below the national poverty line is at 55 percent versus 12.2 percent for urban areas.

Target:  Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

Regarding the proportion of the population who suffer from hunger, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 states that in Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion dropped from 31 percent in 1990-1992 to 27 percent in 2006-2008.  But Sub-Saharan Africa was the hardest hit by the economic downturn starting in 2008.  The number of undernourished people increased from 211 million to 231 million.  The Millennium Goals Indicators for Cameroon show a similar pattern.  Cameroon has made great progress, from 38.9 percent in 1993 to 14.9 percent in 2009.  But the percentage of undernourished rose in 2011 to 15.7 percent.




Goal 3:  Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

3.1 Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015

Primary Education:  In Sub-Saharan Africa in 1999, 85 girls were attending for every 100 boys.  In 2010, the number of girls had risen to 93.  However, in Cameroon in 2010, the number for girls was 86.

Secondary Education: In Sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, 83 girls were attending for every 100 boys.  In 2010, the number of girls had decreased to 82.  In Cameroon in 2010, the number for girls was 83.

Tertiary Education:  In Sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, 67 girls were attending for every 100 boys.  In 2010, the number for girls had decreased to 63.  In Cameroon in 2010, 81 girls were attending for every 100 boys—up from 64 in 2002.

3.2 Share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector:  

For Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage has risen from 24 in 1990 to 33 in 2010.  For Cameroon, however, the percentage was 19.2 in 1996 to 26.4 in 2010.

3.3 Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament:

In Sub-Saharan Africa, women in single or lower houses of national parliaments held 13 percent of the seats in 2000 and 20 percent of the seats in 2012.   In Cameroon, there has been very little progress. Women held 14.4 percent of the seats in 1990.  They have held 13.9 percent of the seats between 2008 and the present.  For many years in between, their representation was much lower.




Goal 7:  Ensure Environmental Sustainability

Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.

Although there are no specific targets, one measure is the loss of forests.  In Cameroon, the proportion of land covered by forest has reduced from 53.3% in 1990 to 40.2% in 2010.


Women in Agriculture

The role of women in agriculture is of intense interest throughout the world.  With the UN Millennium Development goals in their final months, it is apparent that the world is not close to eliminating poverty and hunger.  But if women had the same access to resources as men, they could increase their crop yields by 20-30 percent.  That alone could reduce the number of people in the world who are hungry by 150 million.  In a 2010 interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then managing director of the World Bank, related that in a World Bank study in Kenya, women showed 40 percent more productivity in their agricultural endeavor than men, when they had parity with men in seeds, fertilizer, and extension advice.

But improving women’s agricultural output is complex.  It has to factor in the long tradition of women’s agriculture in mostly growing food crops for the family and sale in the market, the inequity of inputs for women, the constraints on women in terms of their time, and women’s lack of property rights.  The current interest in women and agriculture is reflected in these major initiatives:

  • Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index:  International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Agriculture and Rural Development:  World Bank:   (with a strong gender component)
  • Feed the Future:  United States Government’s global hunger and food security initiative

In addition, two recent major reports on agriculture focus on gender:

  • State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011:  Women in Agriculture:  Closing the Gender Gap for Development from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • World Development Report 2012:  Gender Equality and Development from the World Bank


Agriculture in the developing world is highly gendered.  Cash crop agriculture is largely reserved for men. Women grow food crops to feed the family and sell in the market.  The distribution of land reflects the inequity:  Men retain the larger plots of  farmland and women are relegated to less productive land, and smaller plots.

When a food crop that women grow starts to have more serious market value–such as a biofuel–it is then co-opted by men as a cash crop.  (When the men take over and the profit increases, child nutrition actually decreases, as the income goes to the husband.  Women put far more of their profits from any of their endeavors into the care of the family than do their spouses.)

Women also have the burden of inequitable inputs—little access to credit or agricultural training, fertilizer and high quality seed, no mechanization for planting or harvesting and difficulty with transporting crops to market. In addition, the women have no respite from other time-consuming chores such as hauling water and firewood, tending children, cooking, washing and working in the husband’s fields.

The share of farmers using mechanical equipment and tools is quite low in general, but it is significantly lower for farmers in female-headed households, sometimes by very wide margins.  Unequal income between men and women is a major factor in acquiring equipment.



In Africa, a donkey-drawn intercrop cultivator would cut weeding time per acre in half, but no woman can afford it and the men won’t invest the cash when they have free access to women’s manual labor.

Gender Sourcebook – World Bank



The World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative lists gender-responsive actions that work:

  • Design interventions that explicitly target women.
  • Do not exclude men:  It is most effective to design programs that include both men and women.
  • Promote collective action among women:  It builds capacity and builds leadership (as does this month’s DFW recipient, the Women’s Entrepreneurial Program).
  • Cultivate women’s profit orientation:  Women have been consigned to supporting roles, and need encouragement to aim higher.
  • Protect women’s rights and control over economic gains:  Special policies and provisions may need to be written into a program to prevent men from taking control over assets produced by women.
  • Ensure women’s voice and representation:  Quotas may be required.
  • Recruit and train women as service providers:  Especially important in frontline roles.
  • Involve rural women in the design of innovative products and services.


In addition to their traditional agricultural roles, women also play a major role in commercial agriculture. They are 20 to 30 percent of the 450 million people employed worldwide as agricultural workers.  Most of them are unskilled and hired on a weekly or seasonal basis without a contract.



Property Rights

A major barrier to women’s agricultural success is the fact that very few of them have title to the land they farm.  Cameroon is typical in that regard.  Traditional culture throughout the developing world reserves most, if not all, ownership of land to men.  When a husband dies, his family takes ownership, and may or may not allow the wife to farm the land or even continue living on the property.

According to the Cameroon Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, women produce 80 percent of Cameroon’s food needs.  But according to the Cameroon Gender Equality Network, women own just two percent of the land.  The Cameroon Movement for the Right to Food, a local NGO, is working with other NGOs and civil organizations to change the law to make land ownership more inclusive, especially of women.

Throughout the developing world, the “family” is defined as patrilineal, and therefore, if a widow inherits property, the property is presumed to have left the family.  The tradition of male ownership of property is deeply entrenched, often based on the (inaccurate) assumption that men are the breadwinners and therefore all the property is the result of their labor.  Women’s work is discounted because it is often not income-producing—even though it is vital to feed and maintain the family.  In some cultures, a widow is expected, or even required, to marry her brother-in-law, with a primary intent to keep all property in the family.

If land carries a legal title, it is almost invariably registered under the man’s name.  In Bangladesh, the Agriculture Input Assistance Card (AIAC), which is required to access government subsidies, is based on land ownership.  But many of the men have left to work abroad or in the cities.  Women therefore, have great difficulty obtaining the inputs they need to farm effectively because they cannot access the resources.



“We’ve seen it in our work from Rwanda to India, when women have secure rights to the land either jointly with their husbands or on their own, the family does better in a host of ways: improved education, improved nutrition, improved health.”

Renee Giovarelli – Landesa Centre for Women’s Land Rights



Laws are changing, but many rural women don’t know about their rights.  In Tanzania, the Land Act of 1999 made room for joint or spousal registration of land rights.  A Tanzanian NGO, Women Wake Up (WOWAP) has been educating women throughout the country on their rights. As a result, many women have taken advantage of WOWAP’s paralegal unit to reclaim land seized by their late husband’s family. And in Botswana, the High Court has overturned a customary law that prevented women from inheriting the family home.  (The Botswana Constitution guarantees equality for men and women.)

But even in areas where widows have property rights, there are many reports of the family of the deceased husband threatening or using violence to ensure that the widow does not press her legal claim to property.

In several countries—Nepal, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ghana – a strong link has been made between women’s lack of property rights and malnutrition.  In fact, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, countries where women lack ownership rights or access to credit, have on average 60 percent to 85 percent more malnourished children.  Women with land ownership allocate a larger proportion of the budget to food.   Many states in India have recognized this and are putting land into the hands of women, and ensuring that their names on the title.

During its 54th session in 2013, The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted a recommendation—Economic consequences of Marriage, Family Relations, and Dissolution, on how to protect women’s equal right to property upon divorce or death of a spouse.   CEDAW states that women’s equal rights to property must be globally recognized in all world regions and legal systems.



Land Grabs  

In addition to women’s traditional lack of property rights, there is a new threat to their ability to raise food to feed their families or cash crops for family income – land grabs.

Particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but in developing countries in South America and Asia as well, there is a growing interest from foreign investors in acquiring large tracts of land for investment opportunities. According to Oxfam, as many as 561 million acres of land, an area the size of Western Europe, have been sold or leased since 2001—mostly to international investors.  Most of these transactions are recent, evidently fueled by the crisis in food prices in 2007-2008.  As Oxfam notes, “The land deals are very often intended to produce for foreign food and biofuel markets.”


These deals are mostly between the government and outside investors. The local population, who may have been living on the land for generations—long before the era of land titles—have not been included in the negotiations.  Often the land seized has been used by women—in addition to growing food – for grazing livestock, collecting firewood and water and medicinal plants.

But it is not just traditional populations who are affected.  Many smallholders who have a title to their land lack the power to defend their rights.  In some cases, people have been forcibly removed from their lands.

In Cameroon, Article 1:2 of the 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance states that “the state shall be the guardian of all lands. It may in this capacity intervene to ensure rational use of the land or in the imperative interest, defense or the economic policies of the nation.”  Given this language, there is no legal recourse when traditional lands are seized and turned over to outside interests.

A 99-year lease of 73,000 hectares to a U.S.-based agribusiness has been temporarily halted by a Cameroonian court, but the Cameroon Movement for the Right to Food claims there is evidence a palm oil plantation is proceeding on the property despite the court order. Greenpeace says the production could impact some 45,000 people, with women losing the land they farm.



“The majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land in Africa, including forests, rangelands and marshlands are claimed by governments while communities who often have lived there for centuries say the land belongs to them.”

Astrid Zweynert, Thomson Reuters Foundation


According to Sustainable Development Institute Liberia and Friends of the Earth Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government has granted over a third of Liberia’s land to private investors for logging, mining and agro-business.  Over 1.6 million acres have been turned over for palm oil production.  More than a million people live in the palm oil concession area, and many may lose access to their homes, property and other resources such as forest and water.

Almost five percent of Africa’s agricultural lands have been bought or leased by investors since 2000, as documented in a database of international land deals compiled by a coalition of researchers and NGOs and published online by the Global Policy Forum.

One particularly disturbing aspect of large-scale agriculture is the loss of an increasingly scarce resource in Africa—water.  According to a 2012 report from GRAIN, an NGO working to support small farmers, the large foreign agricultural enterprises will entail a massive use of water.  These major land deals tend not to mention water, leaving the new owners free to build dams and construct irrigation canals, which may divert water from local populations.

Land acquisition and exploitation by non-African commercial companies is complex and troubling.  To list a few of the issues that must be addressed:

  • Corruption,
  • Use of lands for biofuels in place of food production,
  • Cooption of local water resources,
  • Exploitation of dispossessed people for cheap labor,
  • Decreasing space available for local people to produce their own food (the land that is sold or leased is often the most fertile land)

Women, of course, are more profoundly affected by land grabs.  When there is competition for resources, women in the highly patriarchal cultures of Africa are the first to be pushed aside.  Since women do most of the growing of food for their families, when their land is taken from them, they are left with almost no resources.  With their family obligations, they cannot easily pull up stakes and move to cities to search for work.  Because they are desperate, they provide a very cheap labor source for the commercial agriculture enterprises that now occupy their land, with almost no hope of improving their lot.


For an analysis of the impact of land grabs on women in Africa, see the April 2013 report from Oxfam: Promises, Power, and Poverty: corporate land deals and the rural women of Africa.

Note: Agriculture is a vital component in sustainable development and the reduction of poverty, but there are other elements of sustainable living such as water, fuel and sanitation.