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Investment in Women is the Key to Global Food Security

Image credit: Food and Agriculture Organization

Women, particularly in developing countries, face numerous challenges, including sexual violence, limited access to health resources, barriers to education and economic opportunities. These factors are responsible for making women a disproportionate amount of the world’s poor — some estimates are as high as 70 percent.
In March, Olivier de Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, released Gender and the Right to Food, a report on the state of gender equity and food security. De Schutter’s report demanded that more work be done to eliminate discrimination against women at household and state levels alike. While the situation of women throughout the world is improving, there is still much progress to be made  progress that could finally help to achieve global food security.

From May 28-30, 2013, the organization Women Deliver will host its annual conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where international leaders in the women’s movement  including myself; Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations  will discuss solutions to address these challenges facing women across the world.

We are entering the final 1,000 days before the Millennium Development Goals — which call for, among other things, the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases — expire in 2015. Addressing the ways in which world leaders, private sector actors, and other stakeholders can support and undertake both investment in women and protection and augmentation of their rights is of the utmost priority in order to meet this deadline. Improving women’s access to education, health and economic resources will lead to better nutrition for not only women and children, but for the whole world.

Unfortunately, the cycle of women fighting for food security is often a self-perpetuating one; especially in rural and agricultural sectors, a lack of access to reproductive health services can lead to women having bigger families than desired.

“Overcoming hunger is a game-changer for a girl living in a developing country,” says Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of Food Tank. “Fifty-three percent of children who drop out of primary school are female – mainly because they need to work to help feed their families. Girls who stay in school are empowered to make positive decisions that affect their entire lives, such as waiting to have children and acquiring the skills they need to support to them.”

According to Women Deliver, if the international community spent an additional US$12 billion per year, women around the world would be able to receive sufficient family planning and maternal and newborn care. By reducing deaths of mothers and infants, such an investment would lead to US$15 billion in gained productivity. In addition to investing in health, investment in economic opportunities for women, particularly in the agriculture sector in developing countries, is crucial. Research from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that if women had the same access to resources as men, global malnutrition could be reduced by at least 12 percent.

Up to 80 percent of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women, but they don’t have the same access to credit, land and extension services. Studies show that by empowering women and providing them with these resources, yields increase and household nutrition is improved.

In anticipation of the Women Deliver 2013 Conference, Food Tank is recommending five ways to invest in women and girls through food and agriculture:

Supporting girls’ access to education and success in school: The World Food Programme is currently collaborating with Groupon to provide school meals to girls in schools in 14 South Asian countries. Ensuring food security during the school day not only makes sure that girls are able to concentrate in class, but also takes pressure off of girls to work to be able to feed themselves and their families, instead of attending school.

Teaching women sustainable farming practices: Women Going Green, founded by Rose Karimi, is a five-year project in Kenya enabling women coffee farmers to adopt low-cost climate change adaptation strategies, such as using fruit trees to shade their coffee crops. These practices can help women not only feed their families, but also increase their incomes. Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is working to implement solar technology in developing countries to reduce poverty. A recent SELF initiative is the Solar Market Gardens project in the West African nation of Benin, which will enable groups of women farmers’ cooperatives to grow more crops through solar-powered drip irrigation.

Giving women control of their health choices: The Jane Goodall Institute is helping to address some of the most serious health issues that women in sub-Saharan Africa face, such as HIV/AIDS and mother and infant mortality. It provides essential health services and equipment, along with educational programs to better inform women and their families on family planning methods and HIV/AIDS prevention education.

Addressing violence against women: Using data from the World Health Organization (WHO), FAO’s report on Rural Women and the Millennium Goals showed that rural women — who make up the vast majority of women in agriculture — were more likely to suffer incidences of abuse. Líderes Campesinas, a coalition of women farmers in California, is working to improve the public support system for female agricultural workers who have been victims of sexual assault and/or domestic abuse.

Providing credit to women in agriculture: The One Acre Fund is an organization devoted to helping smallholder farmers become self-reliant by providing families with high-quality seeds, soil nutrients, advice and financing, with a special focus on helping women. Additionally, Kuapa Kokoo, a cocoa farmers’ cooperative in Ghana, established a Gender Programme to give women access to credit without requirement of any collateral.

By directing research and funding where it’s most needed, more progress can be made toward achieving true equality for women in all aspects of their lives. The Women Deliver 2013 Conference will be a significant step toward ensuring that women do not get left behind as we move toward a more equitable, sustainable, and productive planet.


Danielle Nierenberg is an author and researcher based in Chicago and an expert on food and agriculture issues. Over the last fifteen years she's had pieces published in hundreds of publications around the world, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune,… [Read more about Danielle Nierenberg]


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