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Gender Equality and Food Security in Rural South Asia: A Holistic Approach to the SDGs


Dhaka, 5 January, 2021: Globally, nearly 690 million people were hungry in 2019. Though the number of people who experience hunger in Asia has declined since 2015, the continent still accounts for more than half of the world’s hungry, or undernourished, at approximately 381 million people. Working toward Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2), “Zero Hunger,” will require major changes to the world’s food production systems.

In South Asia, food security and nutrition have not improved significantly despite the region’s economic growth. Importantly, both are deeply influenced by gender relations in the agricultural sector, making SDG 5, “Gender Equality,” key to achieving Zero Hunger. Women’s contributions tend to be vital to food production, and SDG 5’s focus on women’s access to land and natural resources may help increase female farmers’ productivity as well as household nutrition. This is especially relevant considering that women’s already important role in agriculture is expanding in South Asia, resulting in what some call the “feminization” of agriculture.  

Policymakers in South Asia need to take a holistic approach to empowering women in agriculture; supporting women on all fronts is critical to ensuring that individual policies are truly effective. This means enforcing women’s access to land and other productive assets, accounting for rural women’s growing work burdens, as well as targeting childcare, poverty, and equal education.

Access to Land is Critical for Women

Throughout South Asia, women play vital and growing roles in food production. There is widespread recognition of a “feminization” of agriculture throughout the region as increasing male out-migration from rural areas drives up the share of women working on farms. In Bangladesh, rural women make substantial contributions to food production through activities including raising seedlings, food processing, and fishnet making. Moreover, approximately 60 percent of agricultural workers in Bangladesh are women. Although this number is only 29 percent in Sri Lanka, women’s private contributions to food security, including by maintaining kitchen gardens for subsistence food production, tend to be considered chores rather than work and are therefore excluded from data collection.

Despite their importance to food security, women in South Asia can be constrained by their lack of land ownership and access to other resources due to patriarchal farming systems and gender discrimination. In Bangladesh, for example, even as the inheritance law stipulates equal land ownership, women own only 12 percent of plots, which are usually smaller than those owned by men or those jointly owned by men and women. In India, nearly 40 percent of smallholders are women, yet women also have more difficulty accessing agricultural credit. Additionally, agricultural support systems in India are mostly composed of men, affecting women’s access to resources to increase their incomes.

But equal land access remains critical to both food security and gender equality overall. In Nepal, for example, evidence suggests that women who own land tend to have greater decision-making power in the household, while land ownership among mothers halves the probability that their children are severely underweight. Besides its immediate benefits to food production, land ownership is a significant factor that strengthens women’s power and mobility, often helping them to obtain financial credit and leading to greater access to education and sanitation.

Policies establishing equal access to assets can boost women’s household status and ability to contribute economically. In 2005, the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra in India reformed the Hindu Succession Act, giving daughters, both married and unmarried, equal land inheritance rights. Mothers who profited from this reform invested twice as much in their daughter’s education, and women became more likely to own bank accounts.

Empowering Women or Increasing Their Work Burdens?

However, it is important to keep in mind that increasing access to land and other assets does not always translate to economic or social empowerment. Rather, often when you ask a woman to be more involved in agriculture, she ends up spending more time working, and the increase in workload may have not great impacts on her, said Agnes , Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

In Sri Lanka, for example, women are already more likely than men to spend the most time in their families doing unpaid housework. The increased work burden of agricultural and subsistence activities adds to women’s existing, unpaid responsibilities at home like childcare—which then harms women’s overall wellbeing.

As agriculture in South Asia undergoes “feminization,” policies that target equal access to land and other assets are only part of the equation. In order for these policies to be effective, accompanying measures must account for women’s existing domestic duties. For example, this might involve policies that provide childcare when mothers are engaged in farm work. This is something that you need to be aware of if you’re designing programs which focus on women’s empowerment—that you don’t also increase her work burden, said Quisumbing.

Supporting Rural Women Through Childcare, Education, and Poverty Alleviation

Policy solutions are already underway in some countries in South Asia, but gaps between policy and practice remain. And more can be done to ensure a truly holistic approach. India’s equal land inheritance laws are a step in the right direction, but women’s lack of awareness regarding their legal rights, as well as social norms that continue to favor sons, override these laws in some communities. A study conducted by Landesa in India found that women were not always aware of their land ownership and inheritance rights—among these women who were unaware, 64 percent came from families living below the poverty line, 60 percent worked in agriculture, and 56 percent had never been to school. As well, patriarchal practices and resistance from their families and communities can discourage women from inheriting land despite the law.

Again, in this case where implementation can be slow, empowering women in agriculture requires more than giving them equal land rights on paper. It might require enacting paralegal programs to encourage women to claim those rights and improve their legal literacy. On top of that, more pro-poor approaches in land administration could help. In fact, improving women’s education, especially in rural areas where women rely significantly on agriculture for their livelihoods, can be an effective way of elevating women’s household decision-making status. Such measures can reinforce women’s land rights in practice and empower women both at home and on the farm. 

In 2011, a “Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill” was proposed in India that aimed to recognize women as farmers; give them equal rights to land, credit, and other valuable resources; and increase their representation in agricultural policymaking. The bill fell through in 2013, but such policies that aim to specifically support rural women in agriculture could potentially change gender relations at all levels. Acknowledging women’s contributions, guaranteeing equal access to resources and decision-making, and emphasizing the need to share the burden of productive and reproductive work between men and women are all essential components of empowering women in agriculture.

To achieve SDGs 2 and 5, policymakers and development actors must understand how women’s agricultural empowerment means not only equal access to resources, but also adequate childcare, poverty alleviation, and increased women’s education. A holistic approach is especially necessary considering how climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are further threatening global food security. “You really need to take into account how different things interact with each other,” said Quisumbing. Effective policies like those that reform property rights, inheritance law, and marriage law will lay the foundation for women’s empowerment, she said, and level the playing field for women in agriculture.

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Posted by on Jan 5 2021. Filed under Food security, News at Now. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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