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close this bookWomen: The Key to Food Security - Food policy report (IFPRI, 1995, 28 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentInternational Food Policy Research Institute
View the documentPreface
View the documentThree Pillars of Food Security
View the documentWomen and Agricultural Production
View the documentWomen and Economic Access to Food
View the documentWomen and Nutrition Security
View the documentConclusion and Recommendations
View the documentNotes

Women and Agricultural Production

Sustainable production of food is the first pillar of food security. In every region of the developing world, but perhaps most in Africa, millions of women work as farmers, farm workers, and natural resource managers. In doing so they contribute to national agricultural output, maintenance of the environment, and family food security. They make these contributions despite unequal access to land, to inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizer, and to information. A growing body of evidence indicates that if male-female access to inputs were less unequal, substantial gains in agricultural output would occur, benefiting both women and men.

Women as Key Food and Cash-Crop Producers

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where women and men farm separate plots, women farmers have traditionally been responsible for food production. Estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) show that women account for more than half the labor required to produce the food consumed in the developing world, and perhaps three-fourths in Sub-Saharan Africa.1 Aggregate data suggest that African women perform about 90 percent of the work of processing food crops and providing household water and fuelwood, 80 percent of the work of food storage and transport from farm to village, 90 percent of the work of hoeing and weeding, and 60 percent of the work of harvesting and marketing.2 Despite their traditional specialization in food production, women are becoming increasingly involved in cash-crop cultivation.3

In Asia and Latin America, men and women typically do not farm separate plots but work together on the family farm. While it is commonly believed that Asian agriculture relies almost entirely on male labor, women work as hired agricultural laborers or unpaid family workers and contribute between 10 and 50 percent of labor for various crops.4 In Latin America, women play an important role in peasant agriculture. In Guatemala, for example, women contribute a quarter of family labor devoted to growing traditional and export vegetables, and in Peru women’s share of labor across all crops is 25 percent. Women in Latin America also contribute significantly to harvesting, postharvest processing, and marketing.5

Constraints Faced by Women Farmers

Despite women’s importance in agricultural production, they usually have lower levels of physical and human capital than men.

These disparities persist because of legal, social, and institutional factors that create barriers for women.

Weak Land Rights

The laws governing women’s rights to land differ widely in various parts of the world. Some religious laws forbid female landowner-ship. Even when civil law gives women the right to inherit land, local custom may rule otherwise. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where women have prime responsibility for food production, they are generally limited to user (or usufruct) rights to land, and then only with the consent of a male relative. Some resettlement and irrigation projects have actually worsened women’s rights to land by providing formal titles only to men.6 This insecurity of tenure reduces the likelihood that women will invest much time and resources in usufruct land or adopt environmentally sustainable farming practices such as tree planting.

Such unequal land rights are reflected in the smaller farm sizes of women farmers. Women farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, often farm smaller plots of land both in absolute terms and in relation to household size (Table 1). Women also tend to be allocated poorer land, whose quality deteriorates even further as it is intensively cultivated.

Table 1 - Size of holdings by gender of farm manager or household head, selected countries

Country and Year



Household Size

Area per Person in Household








(number of people)


Kenya (1989)







Nigeria (1989)







Zambia (1986)







El Salvador (1988)



Cooperative members







Tenant beneficiaries of land reform program







Sources: Kenya 1989 and Nigeria 1989: K. Saito, D. Spurling, and H. Mekonnen, Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Discussion Paper No. 230 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1994); Zambia 1986: E. Sikapande, “An Evaluation of the Training and Visit (T & V) System of Agricultural Extension in Eastern Province, Zambia” (M.S. thesis, University of Illinois, 1988); El Salvador: S. Lastarria-Cornhiel, “Female Farmers and Agricultural Production in El Salvador,” Development and Change 19, no. 4 (1988): 585-615.

a A manzana is a measure of land area.

Many programs with redistributive objectives, such as land reform programs, often fail to recognize women as potential beneficiaries. A review of 13 land reform programs in Latin America found that the majority have not produced significant numbers of female beneficiaries or even given attention to gender as a beneficiary category.7 Even when female heads of households are included as potential beneficiaries, they may have lower land allocations than male household heads. In El Salvador, for example, among cooperative members on former large estates, male household heads were allocated significantly larger areas than female heads.8 Recent development projects have therefore attempted to give women access to land (Box 1).

Box 1

Strengthening Women’s Land Rights

Some development projects have made innovative attempts to give women access to land. A World Bank sericulture project in India made it possible for women in Jammu and Kashmir to obtain joint titleship to mulberry gardens if they have a “no-objection letter” from the husband or landowner. In Andhra Pradesh, state land grant schemes promoted women’s access to land. In Karnataka, project funds were used to lease land for women’s groups. Similarly, obtaining land titles for female heads of households is a priority in a small farmer service project in Chile. Chile’s experience that farmers with secure land tenure more readily accept new technology has led that country to target rural land titling efforts to the most difficult and neediest cases, with rural women explicitly recognized as beneficiaries.1

1 A. R. Quisumbing, Increasing Women’s Agricultural Productivity as Farmers and Workers, Education and Social Policy Discussion Paper No. 37 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1994).

Limited Access to Common Property Resources

Especially in rural areas, the livelihood of families often depends on women’s access to communal land, nearby forests, and waterways for supplies of food, fuelwood, water for domestic consumption and agricultural production, medicines, and materials for craft production and house building. As wives, females are almost always granted only limited rights to these resources, and their access is shrinking in the face of state takeovers and the shift from common property to private entitlement. Women’s declining access and lack of rights to these resources may reduce their incentives to conserve forest resources (Box 2). Likewise, public irrigation systems are often considered an area of male control, and decisions about the use of irrigation water are made without reference to women’s needs for their own production and domestic purposes.

Box 2

Gender Bias and Property Rights

In Western Ghana and West Sumatra, property rights are evolving from communal to individual ownership and from matrilineal to mixed-patrilineal inheritance systems. The evolution of inheritance rules implies a shift from a system in which members of an extended family have partial rights to land to one in which individual land rights - passed on from fathers to sons and daughters - prevail. While daughters stand to inherit land, there is evidence that land inheritance is gradually favoring sons.1

If property rights to cultivable land are established only for men, women may not have strong incentives to adopt sustainable farming practices. This gender bias will be particularly important in cases where the appropriate practice of natural resource management is labor-intensive, such as tree planting. Indeed, a number of studies in Africa find that women farmers are less likely than men to plant tree crops such as coffee and cocoa.2

1 K. Otsuka and A. R. Quisumbing, “Gender and Forest Resource Management: A Comparative Study of Selective Areas of Asia and Africa” (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., 1994, mimeo).

2 A. R. Quisumbing, Gender Differences in Agricultural Productivity: A Survey of Empirical Evidence, Education and Social Policy Discussion Paper No. 36 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1994).

Lack of Equipment and Appropriate Technology

Female farmers generally own fewer tools than men. Since farm capital contributes positively to yields, female farmers are likely to have lower yields than male farmers. Moreover, new technology has often been inappropriate to women’s needs. Recently, however, international research efforts have developed a number of machines that reduce the drudgery of tasks largely performed by women and that fit women’s ergonomic requirements. These new machines include micro rice mills, direct seeding equipment, transplanters, and threshing machines developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and cassava-processing equipment developed by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

The effect of the adoption of labor-saving equipment for agricultural production, however, depends on whether those affected are a mix of smallholders looking for labor-saving devices or hired laborers depending on employment from larger farm households. For women who farm their own plots, new agricultural technologies may reduce drudgery and increase productivity. But for female hired laborers, adoption of labor-saving devices may mean the loss of employment and income (Box 3). Also, where decisions about investment in equipment are made principally by husbands, investment in labor-saving technologies for women is frequently a low priority.

Box 3

Do Agricultural Technologies Help or Hurt Rural Women?

The distribution of the costs and benefits of technology adoption depends on the specific cultural and social characteristics of a particular location. In one location in the Philippines, the introduction of a mechanical thresher relieved both men and women of threshing and substantially speeded the threshing process. As a result, rice farmers were able to grow a second crop of rice, which in turn led to increased employment for women in transplanting, weeding, and harvesting. The benefits substantially outweighed the small cost of reduced opportunities for manual labor in threshing. In Bangladesh, however, the substitution of a mechanical rice mill for a traditional threshing implement had a negative effect on poor and landless women who had previously earned income by providing hand-pounding services. The negative effect resulted from cultural restrictions on women’s leaving their homestead for alternative employment.1

1 T. R. Paris and P. Pingali, “Do Agricultural Technologies Help or Hurt Poor Farm Women?” paper presented at the International Workshop on Enhancing Incomes of Rural Women through Suitably Engineered Systems, May 10-13, 1994, International Rice Research Institute, Manila, Philippines.

Limited Contact with Agricultural Extension

Despite women’s prominent role in agriculture, they do not get an appropriate share of agricultural extension advice and other services (such as seeds, fertilizer, and credit delivered through the agricultural extension system). In Africa, since women farm separate plots and since husbands do not necessarily share extension information with their wives, women’s access to extension services is important. Evidence from a number of Sub-Saharan African countries, however, suggests that male farmers have greater contact with extension services than do female farmers (Table 2). A similar pattern is evident among land reform beneficiaries in El Salvador: male-headed households have significantly higher access to technical assistance than female-headed households.9

Table 2 - Technical assistance received, by gender of household head

Indicator of Technical Assistance

Male-headed Household

Female-headed Household

Percent of families ever visited by extension worker

Kenya (1989)



Nigeria (1989)



Tanzania (1984)



Zambia (1986)



Technical assistance scorea

El Salvador (1988)

Cooperative members



Tenant beneficiaries of land reform program



Sources: Kenya 1989 and Nigeria 1989: K. Saito, D. Spurling, and H. Mekonnen, Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Discussion Paper No. 230 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1994); Tanzania 1984: N. M. Mollel, “An Evaluation of the Training and Visit (T & V) System of Agricultural Extension in Muheza District, Tanga Region, Tanzania” (M.S. thesis, University of Illinois, 1986); Zambia 1986: E. Sikapande, “An Evaluation of the Training and Visit (T & V) System of Agricultural Extension in Eastern Province, Zambia” (M.S. thesis, University of Illinois, 1988); El Salvador 1988: S. Lastarria-Cornhiel, “Female Farmers and Agricultural Production in El Salvador,” Development and Change 19, no. 4 (1988): 585-615.

a Based on a score of 0 for no technical assistance, 1 for access to technical information (from mass media, for example), and 2 for visits from agricultural extension agents.

Four primary constraints limit women’s access to extension services. First, in many places, cultural restrictions prevent male extension officers from meeting with women farmers. Second, domestic responsibilities sometimes limit women’s mobility, making it harder for them to attend meetings and courses away from home. Third, women are less likely than men to speak the national language, and extension services are often not offered in the local language. Fourth, there are not enough female extension agents (Table 3).

Table 3 - Number of farmers per extension agent and share of female extension agents


Farmers per Agent

Women as Percentage of

All Extension Staff

Field Extension Staff





Asia and Pacific




Near East




Latin America








North America




Source: K. Saito and D. Spurling, Developing Agricultural Extension for Women Farmers, Discussion Paper No. 156 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1992).

One potential remedy is to increase the number of women receiving appropriate training to be agricultural extension agents. A second is to give agricultural training to women trained as community development or home economics officers so that they can work directly with women farmers. In Guatemala, home economics officers were trained in agriculture and farming systems research. They are now cultivating demonstration plots with women farmers, and in some places they have helped expand the use of improved varieties among women farmers by encouraging women to form groups to produce seeds of maize, beans, and tomatoes for themselves and for sale.

A third strategy is for extension agents, whether men or women, to meet with farmers in groups. This practice would reduce or remove the cultural constraints against interaction between individual male extension agents and female farmers and would have the added benefit of enabling the sharing of information by the women in the groups. The group approach has been used successfully in Botswana, Kenya, and Nigeria. In Zambia, farmers’ field days at which farmers look at experimental materials are held separately for men and women.

In the Philippines, agricultural extension services have successfully used radio to transmit information. Radio was used, for example, for a course on integrated pest management (IPM), with farmers periodically sending in homework and tests for evaluation.10 The use of radio was less successful in Mali, however, in large part because the language on the radio was different from that spoken locally.

Lack of Access to Credit

Women face a number of barriers to obtaining credit. Property that is acceptable as collateral, especially land, is usually held by men, and formal financial institutions often deem the types of valuables held by women (such as jewelry) unacceptable. The transaction costs involved in obtaining credit - transportation costs, paperwork, time spent waiting - may be higher for women than for men owing to higher opportunity costs from forgone activities. Indeed, in rural Kenya, distance to a bank is a significant determinant of the probability of obtaining credit for women but not for men.11

Social and cultural barriers, women’s lower educational levels relative to men, and their lack of familiarity with loan procedures may also limit their mobility and interaction with predominantly male credit officers or moneylenders. Exclusion from local groups, such as farmers’ groups, may prevent women from receiving not only extension advice but also credit, particularly if the extension worker plays an important role in credit delivery. Women also tend to be involved in the production of relatively low-return crops that are not included in formal sector lending programs.

Since the early 1980s, a number of alternatives to the formal sector have given women access to credit and financial services.12 Most programs do not heavily subsidize interest rates, and they link repayment to future lending. Successful programs typically reduce transaction costs, charge commercial interest rates, establish deposit facilities, target poor clients, develop income-generating skills, strengthen existing local institutions like farmers groups, and emphasize the provision of financial services rather than business training.

Lower Levels of Education

In the early 1980s, average literacy rates for men in developing countries were over 50 percent, while over two-thirds of women were still illiterate.13 This disparity continues to be larger in rural areas, where educational attainment is lower, and persists despite high private rates of return to women’s schooling14 and high social returns to women’s education.15 This gap has serious implications for agricultural productivity and incomes. Better-educated farmers are more likely to adopt new technologies and to have access to extension services. For example, a study of coffee, a high-value crop, in Kenya found that increasing the primary education of women farmers not only causes them to plant coffee trees more readily, but also increases the adoption of coffee by other women farmers, who are more likely to copy women than men farmers.16 Underinvestment in women’s education thus has high opportunity costs.

Gains from Removing Constraints on Women Farmers

Barriers to women’s increased productivity and the use of their experience and knowledge may impose a large opportunity cost to society in terms of forgone output and incomes, the magnitude of which is only now being realized. For example, many studies show that plots of land controlled by women have lower yields than those controlled by men. These lower yields are usually the result of lower use of labor and fertilizer per acre rather than managerial and technical inefficiency (Box 4).17 Unequal rights and obligations within the household, as well as women’s limited time and financial resources, prevent women from applying the optimal levels of inputs.

Box 4

Agricultural Inputs and Female-controlled Farm Plots

Detailed data from Burkina Faso show that resources are allocated inefficiently across plots controlled by different members of the household. Plots controlled by women are farmed less intensively than similar plots controlled by men in the same household and simultaneously planted with the same crop. Much less male labor per hectare is devoted to plots controlled by women than to similar plots controlled by men. Child labor and unpaid exchange labor are also applied more intensively to plots controlled by men. Lastly, virtually all fertilizer is concentrated in plots controlled by men, even though each additional unit of fertilizer applied to a plot results in progressively smaller increases in output. The less intensive application of resources on women’s plots results in lower yields. One study estimates that the value of household output could be increased by 10-20 percent by reallocating currently used inputs across plots.1

1 H. Alderman, J. Hoddinott, L. Haddad, and C. Udry, Gender Differentials in Farm Productivity: Implications for Household Efficiency and Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumption Division Discussion Paper 7 (Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 1995).

Given equal access to resources and human capital, women farmers can achieve yields equal to those of men or even, as some studies show, significantly higher.18 One study estimates that yields among Kenyan women farmers could increase by 7 percent if they were given the same average levels of age (or experience), education, and inputs as those possessed by the entire sample of male and female farmers.19 Yields could increase by as much as 24 percent if all women farmers had primary schooling.20 If women had the same experience, education, and inputs as men, yields could increase by 9 to 24 percent. These results, however, need to be taken with caution since the simulations do not address how input levels can actually be increased.21 To the extent that better-educated farmers are more likely to use modern inputs, the key to increasing agricultural productivity may lie in educating women in rural areas and increasing their human and physical capital.

Women’s Untapped Potential for Contributing to Agricultural Research

Unrecognized Expertise

Women suffer not only from lower levels of education and lack of access to information, but also from a lack of recognition of the expertise they have acquired. Women have detailed, complex knowledge of seeds and the growing systems of which they are in charge. In Zambia’s intricate chitimene system, for example, in which forest and fallow areas are brought into crop production with the felling, harvesting, and burning of woody vegetation, both men and women have detailed knowledge of local woodland and fallow land species, their growing patterns, their agronomic attributes, and their uses. Each sex, however, specializes in knowledge of certain species.22 Recent research is demonstrating the value of women’s indigenous knowledge base as a source of productivity growth (Box 5).

Box 5

Using Women’s Indigenous Knowledge Base

Scientists at the Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Rwanda (ISAR) and the Centre Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Colombia collaborated with local women farmers to breed improved bean varieties. Previously, the breeders’ predictions of the 2 or 3 bean varieties that displayed most potential under actual growing conditions had resulted in mildly successful increases in bean productivity. In this collaboration, the women farmers were invited to examine more than 20 bean varieties at the research station and take home and grow the 2 or 3 they thought most promising. The women planted these varieties using their own methods for experimenting with new varieties. Although the women’s criteria for selection were not confined to yield, which had been the breeders’ primary measure for ranking, the selections of the women farmers outperformed the selections of the bean breeders in terms of yield by 60-90 percent. Farmers were still growing their own choices six seasons later.1

1 L. Sperling and B. Ntabomvura, “Integrating Farmer Experts into On-Station Research,” in Tools for the Field: Methodologies Handbook for Gender Analysis in Agriculture, ed. H. S. Feldstein and J. Jiggins (West Hartford, Conn., U.S.A.: Kumarian Press, 1994).

Few Women Agricultural Scientists

The number of women who work as agricultural research scientists or extension agents has been, until recently, minuscule. All continents are now experiencing a rising enrollment of women in agricultural science, but the numbers are still low. Once trained as scientists, they are often given responsibility for anything to do with women, whether it is within their discipline or not. Their skills are underused, and they face workplace difficulties related to their minority status.

One innovative program, the Winrock International program for African Women Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment, focuses on increasing the number of African women scientists through access to education and African-based research opportunities for M.S. and Ph.D. students. The program recognizes that scholarships and degrees are not always enough for women scientists to be effective and to attain higher positions. The program therefore includes managerial training for women, with specific preparation for being a minority in a male-dominated workplace. The program also trains both male and female scientists in gender analysis, to improve their diagnostic skills about desirable new technologies and to help them to understand women farmers and their specific needs.

Women’s Absence in Agricultural and Environmental Decisionmaking Bodies

Women are overlooked as decisionmakers both at the farm level and at the policy level. For too long, much agricultural research has ignored the on-the-ground reality of farming systems and farmer preferences, resulting in lost opportunities and miscalculated priorities. Several international agricultural research centers have demonstrated that incorporating the views of farmers early in the research process results in more productive research, and these centers have helped many national systems do the same. These centers, however, have focused on male farmers; the explicit inclusion of women’s knowledge and perspectives in this process has been much slower, and this delay remains an obstacle to meeting the needs of women producers.

The process of listening to - and learning from - female farmers can be facilitated by increasing the representation of women in agricultural policymaking bodies. Relatively few women have yet reached senior management positions in public and independent research and training institutions, ministries with responsibilities for agriculture and the environment, and environmental nongovernmental organizations.

One interesting attempt to ensure that women’s views are incorporated into local decisions is taking place in Burkina Faso, where the World Bank has undertaken a project on community decisionmaking about community land management. The implementation manual has specific instructions on how to ensure the participation of women, including the stipulation that in voting on community land management plans, 30 percent of those voting in favor must be women for a plan to pass.23