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With more rights, female farmers could help tackle hunger? FAO

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 19 Sep 2011 05:28 PM
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In Asia Pacific, almost half of all farmers are women. Yet they control less land and have less access to credit than men, experts said in Bangkok last week.

Such discrimination mean farms controlled by women are less productive than men, sometimes by up to 30 percent, experts said.

But if they were given the same access to resources as men, women farmers in Asia Pacific could help feed the region’s millions of people who go hungry, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO) said in a report.

The region, where agriculture employs around 40 percent of the workforce, is home to two-thirds – or some 578 million – of the world’s hungry and undernourished, FAO figures showed.

“For the region as a whole, about 47, 48 percent of all agricultural workers are female. We also see that for the women who are working, agriculture is the most important sector,” senior FAO economist Terri Raney told TrustLaw.

“In the Asia Pacific region, like much of developing world, women are very important in agriculture and agriculture is very important for women,” she added.

Yet, for all their contribution to subsistence economies and food security, the work of rural women is often unpaid, often not considered to be productive work and often their contribution is not sufficiently reflected in a country's or farm's economic accounts.

LACK LAND, CREDIT, RESOURCES

Women also control less land, and have less access to resources such as fertiliser, pest control measures, mechanical equipment and seed varieties. Even if women control the land, it is often of poorer quality and their tenure is insecure. Women also own fewer working animals needed in farming.

“For many countries in the region, the most significant source of gender inequality is related to agricultural lands in terms of inequality in land ownership and size of cultivated land,” Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO representative for Asia Pacific, told journalists.

For example in Cambodia, female-headed households (where husbands are absent) own about 18 percent of total plots used for agricultural activities, five times less than male-headed households, he said.

Access to credit is another challenge. In Vietnam, latest figures showed 24 percent of female-headed households could access loans compared to 33 percent of male-headed households, FAO said, despite women’s proven track record of repaying loans through microfinance initiatives.

“Microfinance has shown that women can be very good credit risk, that women can be relied on to repay their loans,” Raney said.

“But this is a micro programme. In most countries it’s often not a government programme. It’s operated outside of the government and in some cases despite the government’s laws that restrict women access,” she added.

There is inequality in terms of knowledge and education too, with only 7.5 percent of women in Vietnam receiving agricultural information compared to 23 percent of men.

MILLIONS MORE COULD EAT

“Women universally have less access than men. It’s the one thing you can generalise about women in agriculture around the world,” Raney said.

This is partly due to a complex mix of cultural practices and legal inequality which give women less of a voice, she said.  

FAO argued in this year’s flagship report, which focuses on women and agriculture, that helping female farmers is not only good for women but also for agricultural development, especially as growing populations raise governments’ concerns about food shortages.

“The gender gap imposes real costs on society in terms of lost agricultural output, food security and economic growth,” said the report, launched in March but unveiled in Asia Pacific officially only last week.

It said if women farmers – who make up 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce – had the same access to productive resources as men, then yields on their farms would increase by 20–30 percent and up to 150 million people would no longer go hungry.

Such gains would represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the social benefits that could come from gender equality in farming, the report said.

“When women control additional income, they spend more of it than men do on food, health, clothing and education for their children,” it said, adding that this in turn spurs better human well-being and economic growth.

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