Women Farmers Key to End Food Insecurity

1.6 billion women worldwide depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, they often lack access or rights to land. In India, women grow 70% of the food, yet only 6% of these women own land in the farming state of Uttar Pradesh. In order to help lift their families out of poverty and strengthen their countries’ food security, women must have improved access to credit and government training programs, says Janeen Madan of Nourishing the Planet. It is time policymakers pay attention to women as agricultural producers and strengthen their agricultural capacity.

By Janeen Madan

Nourishing the Planet

August 6, 2011

may seem surprising, but women are responsible for growing at least 70 percent of India’s food. Despite the enormous responsibility of feeding their country, women farmers confront numerous economic and cultural barriers every day because of discrimination.

In Uttar Pradesh, for example, a survey conducted by Oxfam-India found that only 6 percent of women own land, 4 percent have access to credit, and less than 1 percent has participated in government training programs. Improving women’s access to land tenure, extension services, credit, education, and inputs is essential to boosting agricultural production, lifting the women and their families out of poverty, and helping them combat hunger.

Studies have shown that when women’s incomes rise and they have improved access to credit and training they tend to invest more in the nutrition, education, and health of their family, causing a ripple effect that can benefit entire communities. In a country where 150 million children are malnourished and food prices are soaring, now is the time to ensure women receive the support they need.

Fortunately, there are organizations around the world that are trying to empower women with the tools that they need to succeed. In India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a member-based trade union, is providing support for 1.3 million women farmers and entrepreneurs through its country-wide network of cooperatives, 2100 self-help groups (SHGs), banks, and training centers. SEWA helps address the multiple constraints women face, acting as a support system to end gender exclusion and fostering social, economic and political empowerment.

Through monthly group meetings, women farmers have are provided a platform to identify challenges and discuss potential solutions. SEWA’s Village Resource Centers provide access to much-needed agricultural inputs, such as improved seeds and organic fertilizers. And the SEWA bank also enables women to open their own bank accounts, save money, and take out loans.

Access to training and resources can make a big difference. In Gujarat’s Vadodara village, SEWA introduced women to forestry and vermi‐composting. “We now earn over Rs. 15,000 ($350) per season, an amount we had never dreamed of earning in a lifetime,” says Surajben Shankasbhai Rathwa, who has been a member of SEWA since 2003.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, where women make up 80 percent of farmers and produce 60 percent of food, there is no shortage of organizations that are also finding innovative ways to strengthen women’s voices.

The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), a South African based non-profit, for example, is using its Theater for Policy Advocacy program to carry women’s voices from the countryside to the government. At community gatherings in villages across Malawi, the group performs plays that focus on lack of land ownership and access to input markets. The performances are followed by dialogue workshops where farmers, and especially women, have the opportunity to talk with their community leaders about the challenges they face.

And in West Africa, the World Cocoa Foundation collaborated with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s Sustainable Tree Crops Programme to create Video Viewing Clubs. Women cocoa farmers watch training videos and engage in discussions and hands-on field activities with trained facilitators. This program has proven a successful model for reaching out to women farmers and empowering them to take initiative.

If policy-makers and donors in India and around the world are serious about combating hunger and ensuring equitable development, they must focus on the 1.6 billion women who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Women are not just agricultural producers, but also business women who need access to training, markets, and financial services in order to improve the well being of the entire communities.