Gender equality: Essential for food and nutrition security

The majority of producers in developing countries are women. Although they contribute significantly to the food security of their families, they remain chronically disadvantaged in male-dominated agriculture in terms of access to land, credit, technology and education.


Women vegetable farmers in Burkina Faso. Photo: Michael Jooß, GIZ
Women vegetable farmers in Burkina Faso. Photo: Michael Jooß, GIZ

Carsta Neuenroth

Carsta Neuenroth is gender adviser at Bread for the World. Her focus is on gender policy in the context of development cooperation and gender mainstreaming within the organization. Before that she worked as trainer and consultant for gender, agriculture and food security, project management and impact orientation with a German consultancy firm. Through her work she gained experience in many Latin American, African and Asian countries. As a development worker she lived in Guatemala for many years. She holds degrees in agriculture and development studies.

Brot für die Welt (BfdW)

Brot für die Welt


Food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences. Food and nutrition security is achieved by having monetary income available to buy food/and or producing food in agriculture. What and how much these two sources contribute to food and nutrition security depends on people’s life circumstances. Whether in the countryside or in the city, in small or large families, young or old, women always play an important role in food and nutrition security both as wage earners and food producers.


Women use their income to ensure the food and nutrition security of their family

The money women earn is becoming increasingly important for the food and nutrition security of many families, particularly in cities. Urban households are much more dependent on purchased food than rural. This, in turn, increases the dependency on monetary income and the ways to earn it.


The income that women earn is usually low but essential for feeding their families, even in households in which several people work. Many men can frequently no longer fill the role society prescribes them as the sole breadwinner of their families due to a lack of jobs and low wages. Additional income earned by women is crucial. More and more households in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and many countries in Asia are not only dependent on the unpaid care work but also the money that women earn. The situation escalates in families in which men react violently against women and children due to these changes that challenge their role.


Saleswomen offer their products. Photo: Klaus Wohlmann, GIZ
Saleswomen offer their products. Photo: Klaus Wohlmann, GIZ

For women who have no partner or husband, the economic situation is usually even more difficult, particularly if they have young children. They remain solely responsible for taking care of and feeding their families. Due to low education and training opportunities, the poor access to the formal labour market as a result and the responsibility of looking after the house and family, they rely on employment in the informal sector that is marked by social insecurity, particularly if they live in a city. According to the ILO (2018), women make up to 90 per cent of the employees in the informal sector in the African countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, this figure is two thirds. The structural disadvantage that results in women and girls having a lower social, educational and economic status compared to men, affect the ability of women and girls to determine their lives themselves and to use their right to sufficient food and a balanced diet, particularly if they are poor.


Women ensure food and nutrition security as farmers

In rural areas, women can often grow and sell food themselves in order to feed their families. Women play an important role as farmers and managers of natural resources, particularly in Africa. However, they are faced with many challenges in this area. An analysis conducted by the FAO (2011) shows the severity of the situation: If female farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase their productivity by 20 - 30 per cent. This could result in an increase of food production in developing countries by 2.5 - 4 per cent.


However, agriculture is globally considered a man’s domain. In most contexts, the typical gender-specific division of work is the trend: Women look after the farming household and support the men as helpers or workers, not as equal farmers even though they have agricultural knowledge, expertise and experiences. This attitude is maintained, frequently by the women themselves who do not question the typical allocation of roles, even if reality is changing and men are employed outside of agriculture, for example in construction, mining, trade or in the transport sector.


Women thresh rice and separate the chaff from the grain in the village of Banankoro Mali. Photo: Joerg Boethling, GIZ
Women thresh rice and separate the chaff from the grain in the village of Banankoro Mali. Photo: Joerg Boethling, GIZ

While men work in better paid jobs and may even migrate, women remain in agriculture that, as a result, has become feminised. Although women are frequently responsible for food and nutrition security, it is usually men who own the land and decide how it is used. However, women can only fully develop their potential as farmers if their agricultural skills, experience and knowledge are recognised and encouraged by the men in their families and communities as well as by state and non-state development players who are present in rural areas. This include reducing or redistributing the workload of women as well as the equal access to and control of resources.


Restricted access to and control of land - a particular challenge for female farmers

Due to their weak position in society, women often only have restricted access to and control of land, water and other resources. In Uganda, for example, women do most of the field work. However, hardly any of the fields belong to them. Only 14 per cent of women own land compared to 46 per cent of men. 40 per cent of men and women do own their land jointly (FAO, 2017). Legal inequality such as in inheritance law or also in local legal systems prevents, or in many countries in the Global South, restricts the access to and control of land, for example in the form of land ownership of women. In order to feed their families, it is not only important for women to own their own land, but also have access to public or community land to gather water, fire wood, animal feed, herbs and fruit. The right to use this land is frequently regulated by local land rights systems that generally benefit men. Widows, divorced or abandoned women must expect them being denied access to this land.


In order to meet the climate-related challenges for small-scale farming, women and men must equally provide their perspectives and equally look for solutions.


It can also be observed that women frequently cultivate land that is less fertile, which results in low harvest, while men grow cash crops on more fertile parcels of land and sell them to generate income. Since women are responsible for caring for their families, they usually choose to grow a wider range of food crops compared to men, which contributes to a varied and healthy diet and to biodiversity on the fields. Women also frequently keep animals such as chickens, goats or pigs that increase the food supply or contribute to their income. The farming families live the gender-specific distribution of resources and labour depending on the region and context with more or less flexibility and permeability.


Woman at harvest. Photo: Dorothea Hohengarten/GIZ
Woman at harvest. Photo: Dorothea Hohengarten/GIZ

Lack of equality puts food and nutrition security at risk

The restricted access to and control of land are not the only challenges that female farmers face. Women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to access to loans, technologies including digital technologies, training and further education in the areas of agriculture and marketing as well as consulting, which is usually provided by men for men. With the feminisation of agriculture, feminising agricultural consulting should have long since followed in terms of concepts, content and staff.


Disadvantaging women also has a negative impact on food and nutrition security in times of climate change. Women and men have local knowledge on which agricultural production is based. Women use their experiences and knowledge to adapt to climate change in the best possible way. Due to their limited access to capital, information and knowledge about climate change and the adjustment strategies, they suffer from the consequences particularly severely and differently to men. In order to fully understand the challenges that climate change presents to small-scale farming, women and men must equally provide their perspectives and equally look for solutions. Failure to do so increases the risk that women will continue to be at a disadvantage with negative consequences for the climate, small-scale farming and food and nutrition security.


Members of the Kufuna Kwefaako Farmers Group in Uganda visualize the gendered division of labor in their families. Photo: Carsta Neuenroth/Brot für die Welt
Members of the Kufuna Kwefaako Farmers Group in Uganda visualize the gendered division of labor in their families. Photo: Carsta Neuenroth/Brot für die Welt

Sustainable development goal 2 addresses the described problem with a sub-goal of doubling the agricultural productivity and the incomes of women and other marginalised groups through better access to land, markets and other productive resources by 2030 (UN, 2015). The corona pandemic has caused the number of men, women and children affected by food and nutrition insecurity to increase dramatically, so the efforts necessary to achieve this goal must be considerably increased.


The people affected by food and nutrition insecurity are lacking political influence, the technical and financial resources to implement constructive solutions as well as income security to improve their situation. Ultimately, they have to overcome economic, social and political marginalisation so they can achieve food and nutrition security and ensure their right to food. This article has demonstrated why this cannot happen without the equal participation of women.

Go back