As the world pins hopes on more effective farming to end cycles of hunger in many developing countries, an important factor holding back food production is a persistent cultural opposition to giving women more power over the land. Nearly half the farm labor in the developing countries is done by women, who are hardworking and persistent. Yet they are often denied land titles, agricultural training or the credit necessary to improve their plants and equipment.
Taking advantage of the focus on women in agriculture in the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, in progress at United Nations headquarters through March 9, a new measure of women’s empowerment – or not – in agricultural development is being introduced by a partnership of experts. The roles of women and men are being surveyed for inequalities that can seriously affect the productivity of rural families and villages.
To put both statistics and real-life stories behind the loosely understood hurdles that farming women face, the new tool, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, studies five factors in farming households: who makes decisions about what will be produced, who has the power to decide about land and livestock choices, who decides how income is spent, how time is used and whether women have leadership roles in their communities.
The index draws on the expertise of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations and international organizations; the United States Agency for International Development and its Feed the Future program; and the Oxford University Poverty and Human Development Initiative, which recently created a new measure of multidimensional poverty that has been used by the UN Development Program and other UN agencies. The US government plans to use the new women’s empowerment index to track programs in countries being assisted by the Feed the Future program.
Revelations in three countries
Three very different countries, geographically and culturally, were selected to test the index: Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda. There were some surprising findings in unexpected places.
The surveys raise questions about old assumptions, among them that the amount of education and/or money a woman has are indicators of power. In reality, surveys found, these factors do not guarantee that women will enjoy greater say in their lives.
In a statement announcing the first findings of surveys for the index, the pilot results showed, for example, that in the western highlands of Guatemala, three-quarters of women in the wealthiest two-thirds of the population were not empowered as measured by the index. In Bangladesh, women in a sample survey were comfortable speaking out in public, even though they may have ranked low in other aspects of life. In rural Uganda, a lack of control over family resources and time constraints were major reasons for keeping women down.
The conclusion: no one solution fits all rural women everywhere, and agricultural assistance projects need to be adjusted locally.
Numerous UN agencies know that it is difficult to change male-dominated cultures and longstanding traditions, and development experts not wishing to be intrusive are often loathe to challenge social and economic patterns that hold women back from using their full potential. This applies as much to women’s reproductive health choices – family planning, above all – as it does to economic decisions families make, even when burdened with feeding more children than they can afford.
In agriculture, a lack of decision-making power leads to continued inefficient farming, as women are relegated to marginal patches of land or are forced to work larger farms without the capital to spend on enhancing or extending their crops or livestock. When a surplus occurs, women often have to walk miles to rudimentary markets to try to sell their produce, grain, eggs or meat, much of which may go to waste at the end of the day.
Leaving big decisions to men
Visits to rural areas that were done for the index produced some paradoxical comments from women who were interviewed. One remark heard widely was that although a woman may have a nearly equal partnership in home and family labor, she accepts that big decisions will be made by men, who usually control household assets. When a man dies, his wife is often left with no rights to the family home and land.
In Bangladesh, a 25-year-old woman named Aysha, who shares the work of the family farm with her husband, Monir, told an interviewer for the empowerment index that she and her husband always resolved differences through discussion, but that in the end he had the final say. “In the hadith,” she said, referring to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, “it is stated the strength of the male is more but the women is always less.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.