The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

The Feminisation of Food Security: Women as Smallholder Farmers

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on October 6, 2011

Agriculture in developing countries has experienced a wave of feminisation in recent decades, as women’s work in the sector becomes increasingly visible and involved. Women’s long-important role in the production of food as smallholder farmers is growing in Asia and beyond in response to household survival needs and economic opportunities.

Women perform on average 43% of agricultural labour in developing countries. The figure is higher in East Asia, where women perform on average 48% of agricultural work. Chinese women’s participation in the agricultural labour force is the highest in Asia at just over 50%. These figures are thought by some to be an underestimation in some instances, given a lack of distinction between women’s agricultural and domestic work.

Smallholder farmers are vital to global food security, with approximately 2 billion people living and working on the world’s 500 million small farms. These micro-producers are, however, encountering immense challenges in the face of climate change, changing food demands and modernised supply chains. The importance of policies and interventions to support smallholder farmers is recognised at high levels. Smallholder farmers themselves are adopting several adaptation techniques in response to emerging challenges and opportunities, such as the growing trend of family members from smallholder farms seeking employment in urban and peri-urban areas, often leaving women of the family to manage the farm.

Despite their strong and growing participation in agriculture, female farmers in developing regions consistently have lesser access to resources including market information, machinery, farming inputs, finance and education than male farmers. Women are also much less likely to own the land they work on, and typically the land they do own is less arable than that of male owners. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that the gender gap in access to agricultural resources results in women’s yields being 20-30% less than their male counterparts. Under conditions of equal access, it is estimated that global food production would increase 2-3%, potentially generating enough additional food for 100 to 150 million of the world’s hungry.

Specific policy and development programs focusing on the empowerment of women in agriculture are in place in Asia and other regions, however it is estimated that gender issues are integrated in less than 10% of official development assistance directed towards agriculture.

Gender gaps in smallholder farming are relatively under-acknowledged by food security stakeholders given the scale of inequality and the potential for productivity, social and economic gains. The issue of women’s unequal access to agricultural resources must therefore be more readily integrated into mainstream analysis, strategy and policy-making addressing the future of smallholder farming.

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