Can smallholder women farmers feed the world?

Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural labour force. (Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization)

In an earlier blog, I highlighted the potential of smallholder producers to be a part of the solution to the food crisis facing the planet. A crisis that is exacerbated by inaction to reach a global deal to tackle climate change and dwindling support to agriculture in developing countries, in spite of some ambitious but as yet unmet

Changes in global climate are leading to less predictable weather patterns with increasing failure of planting season rains blamed for recurrent famines in impoverished rural areas. Around the world over 500 million people live in vulnerable rural communities, with smallholder farmers and pastoralists supplying food to almost 2 billion of the poorest people on the planet. Supporting these small-scale producers to reach their full potential is one of the simplest strategies that could transform global food systems overnight.

Such a transformation of the role of smallholders in the global agricultural system would also deliver significant benefits to rural women: a critical area where gains are needed most. 

Women comprise at least 50% of the labour force in most of Africa and Asia, with their agricultural duties undertaken alongside existing household and child care duties.

Smallholder agriculture is critically dependent on the input of women, especially for largely unrecognised labour, starkly contrasted with higher-profile male dominated activities. The recent FAO study acknowledged that women comprise at least 50% of the labour force in most of Africa and Asia, with their agricultural duties undertaken alongside existing household and child care duties. 

Closing the gender gap in smallholder farming could bring many rewards: increased crop productivity, improved food security and far-reaching social benefits as a result of an increase in women’s income.  

Women interviewed as part of Oxfam’s Researching Women’s Collective Action project regularly responded that they gain a sense of freedom from their own income, allowing them to prioritise family nutrition and even send their children to school.

Collective approaches offer opportunities to reach scale and can empower women to participate as part of an initiative in a way that defuses social tensions with husbands and fathers, who might see their roles threatened. But supporting women producers will require considerable, good quality investment.

The Women’s Collective Action research programme has identified some of the key challenges to women’s engagement including: access to formal groups, being overlooked by extension services and the need to provide the support women require and in a way that works for women.

By mobilising the latent potential of women smallholder farmers to transform global agriculture, global food security could be improved – almost overnight. Providing equal access to existing resources and opportunities, for example, could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people. Such a transformation could go a long way to feeding the estimated 325 million hungry people on the planet and at the same time enable millions of smallholder producers to feed their families and escape poverty.

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Author: Colin McQuistan
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.