The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

So, what’s in a number?

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The importance of the call to strengthen women’s rights and voice is hard to overstate. Open the space to make their voice heard, equip them with the tools to claim their rights, provide them with access to resources they need, and press governments to ensure their equality. Do this, and women can help end hunger.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, people around the world are celebrating accomplishments, marking progress and stock taking on where more work remains to ensure women are full and equal members of society. Among the organizations contributing to this dialogue, the FAO released its State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report, this year on the theme of Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development. The SOFA report concisely documents a number of salient facts that put in stark light the importance of supporting women as farmers, food producers and caregivers. Among the important takeaways:

Organic cotton farmer Fanta Sinayogo in Mali.  Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America.
Organic cotton farmer Fanta Sinayogo in Mali. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America.

• Women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force, though this is likely a low estimate given that women self-reporting on their labor in agriculture may not report all activities or may not count some activities as work.

• Systematic discrimination – legal and/or social – preclude women from receiving the same access as men to the resources they need in order to be fully productive. Whether it is land, extension and financial services, agricultural inputs, secure land tenure, labor-saving technologies, formal education, or even access to markets to sell their goods, women receive less access, less protection, and less support. In Africa, for example, women hold as little as five percent of land in some countries, with an average across the continent of 15 percent. As a result, women do not achieve their full productive potential.

• And the real kicker is that this has very definite, and roughly quantifiable, impacts on the amount of food produced and the number of hungry people around the world. In a survey of the literature, the report finds that men produce on average about 25 percent more than women, but that this difference is largely accounted for by gaps in the use of agricultural inputs. Closing this gap could significantly increase farm yields with a marked impact, potentially reducing the number of hungry people by between 100 and 150 million. Caveats about data quality and methodologies aside, this is a significant indicator of what can be achieved by providing women with equal access to resources.

The SOFA goes on to identify ways of closing the gender gap. None of them will be surprising, most derive directly from the identified need to increase women’s access and use of key agricultural inputs. Buried among the list of recommendations is the call to strengthen women’s rights and voice, the importance of which is hard to overstate.

It was once again brought home to me by the stories and experiences of three women farmers Oxfam America has sponsored to speak at just a few the more than 150 IWD events we are supporting across the United States. One farmer from Mali, one from Haiti, and one from Cambodia all share commonalities despite coming from very different places. They are all farmers, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and mothers. Each has an incredible story to tell, demonstrating that behind the numbers are women who, with the kind of access to resources that men routinely take for granted, can achieve great things for their communities.

In talking with each of these farmers, I was struck by their determination, but also by the thought that there are millions of women around the world just like them. In Mali, Mme. Ivette Cissé is the treasurer of the Mouvement Biologique du Mali (MoBioM), an organic producer association with more than 8,000 members, 2,000 of them women. Struggling for years to eke out a living and caught in a trap of recurring debt that came with every planting season, Mme. Cissé and others in her community took the bold step of switching to organic cotton production. Nearly 10 years later they have not looked back and alongside cotton, they now produce sorghum, fruits, and nuts, much of which goes to export markets. A key factor making it all possible was the basic literacy training that has helped many of the women in MoBioM to understand their rights and the opportunities available to them. Simple things can make big differences.

Open the space to make their voice heard, equip them with the tools to claim their rights, provide them with access to resources they need, press governments to ensure their equality. Do this, and women can help end hunger. This is what the numbers tell us. But having a woman tell us in her own words is the best way to make us understand.

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