Gender and Food Security, Empowering Women for Global Food Security


Feed the Future Policy Analysis

– Empowering Women for Global Food Security 


women food crisis haoua-mainIn spite of persistent global efforts to address food security, it still remains an urgent problem.

Women are heralded as the key players in solving the food crisis, however these crises are the result of inequities in the food distribution system; and therefore broader gender dynamics and relations of power need to be considered.

By focusing only on women’s economic empowerment, USAID’s Feed the Future policy and Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), essentializes the roles of women and men, misses the complexity of social life and livelihood building, and does not encompass the complex processes involved in ‘women’s empowerment‘. – economic or otherwise.

There is broad consensus that reducing global food insecurity and poverty requires accelerating growth in the agriculture sector.

Feed the Future (FtF) is a USAID policy that strives to increase agricultural production and the incomes of both men and women who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The focus of this policy analysis will be on the gender integration and inclusive components that the FtF approach incorporates: reducing gender inequality and recognizing the contribution of women to agriculture as critical to achieving food security. To do this, FtF employs a new tool called the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) currently being piloted to measure the empowerment, agency and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector.

This policy brief seeks to explain why FtF and the WEAI is a problematic policy approach for linking women’s empowerment and food security and suggests strategies on how it can be improved.

Essentializing women in policy through a focus on economic empowerment

Feed the Future (FtF) is a USAIDTo global food security policy, women are no longer invisible in agriculture. In fact, there are many programmes and interventions designed specifically for them. However, these programmes largely essentialise women and men and focus narrowly on an economic conception of empowerment and equality, which prevents women from improving their status in agriculture.

FtF and the WEAI in particular take a reductionist approach to women, men and their respective roles in agriculture does not capture the complexity of their participation in agriculture and food distribution or consumption, thereby failing to achieve a sustainable change in women’s empowerment, well-being and resource access.

In order to better include women in agriculture, tackle food insecurity and empower women farmers, it is necessary to understand these complexities.

This is currently an urgent issue as population growth, urbanization, climate change, higher food prices and the devalued status of women farmers all over the world make food security a priority for all. However, gender equality is fundamental in the fight against food insecurity because unequal access to food is about issues of social justice more than about the lack of food available.

Understanding of women’s involvement in the food security agenda

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (McDonald, 2010).

Ester Boserup’sEnsuring food security has been an international priority since the post WWII period, but in the last decades, the role of women in food security has taken a privileged place on international agendas, thanks in part to Ester Boserup’s 1970 study on women’s role in economic development.

In her study, Boserup emphasizes how the European influence in Africa restricted women’s access to agriculture.

Ester Boserup’sThe idea that the invisibility of women in agriculture permeated most development efforts and from this sought to incorporate them into existing mechanisms and markets in order to increase productivity and household income. Food-security and nutrition then grew to focus more on women in their role as mothers and caregivers, which is especially justified in relation to child survival, which is all part of a WID approach.

Food security and its relation to gender justice lack a GAD approach that incorporates not only women’s needs, relations and agency, but also men and boys, who have virtually disappeared from food security approaches.

“…will our empowered women ‘go and dig’? What is their interest in agriculture? Are they simply using it as a means to an end – to get where they want to go?” – Christine Okali, Future Agricultures Consortium

Consequences of focusing on economic empowerment and production in agriculture development policy for gender equality:

The most pressing problem with the FtF policy is that it too narrowly defines empowerment as the improvement of the status of women in economic terms, focusing on women as independently empowered. The underlying assumption is that improving women’s agricultural production will more generally lead to poverty reduction, nutritional improvements, and contribute uniquely to global food security. The FtF strategy aims to provide women with equal access to asset ownership, though there is no clear evidence and limited proof of a linear relationship between asset ownership, empowerment and food security.

men_women_symbolsThe problem with FtF’s reductionist argument is that it places ‘Women in Development’ making a business case for investing in women and does not account for the social relations that are effected and could lead to a different range of outcomes opposite results. This is exemplified through the WEAI’s collection and usage of sex-disaggregated indicators like decision-making and leadership roles of men and women within the household. Moreover, the complex dynamics of cooperation, conflict and negotiation between the household and greater familial or community relations that drive decisions and processes for food production and distribution are left out of the indicators.

The FtF policy is not just imposing a universalistic notion of empowerment and gender equality, but it is also binding social roles without considering the fluidity and dynamism defining relations of people in their everyday lives.

FtF’s focus on specific women and production without relations to men and others does not reflect the reality of food distribution or production. FtF as exemplified through the WEAI connection from production to food security places women as the only caregivers and nutrition-providers and excludes men’s involvement in women’s decision-making. For example, the policy depends on the premise that if women are more productive then they will spend the additional income on nutritious food and not on luxurious food or other items that they could also choose to purchase (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011).

Also, the data collected by the WEAI does not factor in the overall context of social relations and the matrix of inequalities within which both men and women are embedded, such as those of class, race, ethnicity, religion etc. The index does not attempt to capture any dimensions of empowerment or disempowerment experienced by men in their role as agricultural producers.

‘By ignoring the aspect of relation in achieving gender equality, women’s empowerment is too narrowly defined in comparison to men’s roles within the household, rather than being understood within a broader structure of societal relations of domination’.

Recommendations for future policy and practice for women’s empowerment:

Specify the goal as economic empowerment for women in agriculture -Stipulating clearly that the policy is working towards economic empowerment and increased agricultural production as opposed to general empowerment will lead to stronger correlations between what is being measured and what is being achieved, which will be useful to justify funding for practice.

Use differentiated data to analyze social relations for empowerment – Problems of social disadvantage (associated with ethnicity, race, religion, social orientation, caste, descent) need to be analyzed and addressed in the context of social relations in specific situations to measure empowerment. More generally this implies the need to include men more in the data and its analysis, without isolating them.

Analyze the data with a focus on gender relations and their re-negotiation – To counter the static comparisons between women and men, policy should analyze the social change processes, or of the way in which individuals and their interaction with others use agriculture to get where they want to go. There also needs to be a more holistic approach through the incorporation of other sectors for analysis, accomplished by working with national governments.

Post pilot iteration to include operational principles – Given the limitations of a structured process of social and gender analysis inherent in the FtF gender framework, a useful starting point for integrating social differentiation into agricultural development policy is to agree on a number of ‘operating principles’ for a social relations approach to incorporating social differences into agriculture and rural development policy.

Moreover, agricultural policies cannot in their entirety create social change in isolation. USAID can take a multi sectorial, integrated approach in policy and practice by incorporating principles into other important dimensions for empowerment and food security, such as water and sanitation, nutritional policies, etc.

Perfect timing post pilot – This is an ideal time to address the key issues in FtF as it is in its first stages of implementation, having completed its piloting of the WEAI in Uganda, Bangladesh and Guatemala and now conducting initial analysis and iteration.

Development practitioners and policy actors need to be wary of implications of narrowly approaching women’s empowerment and gender equality, and of creating chains of change within which links have yet to be demonstrated. What happens to policies designed to address disadvantage when these outcomes are not achieved?


Feed the Future Policy Analysis – Empowering Women for Global Food SecurityBy Carolina Maldonado, Preetha Prabhakaran and Siera Vercillo


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