Women seed change – it’s time we recognize it

September 29, 2019

When women farmers are treated like the experts they are, it’s not just women who benefit, but entire communities.

By Jane Rabinowicz and Brianne Godsman

Take a moment to remember the last meal you ate. Now imagine the farmers who brought it to your table. Does a woman farmer come to mind? She should.

Women produce a large proportion of the food that ends up on any given table around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates women comprise about 43 per cent of the agricultural labour in “developing countries.”

In so-called “least developed countries,” 79 per cent of economically active women report farming as their main means of income.

In rural areas, where the the majority of the world’s poorest people live, most women spend their days tending to crops and farm animals to feed their families. It’s one task among many, but their harvests are the backbone of local food security.

Biodiversity also relies on women’s farming. Women farmers typically grow a larger variety of crops than men. They use more rare breeds and underutilized crops, and they monitor and manage the wild foods that become so crucial in times of harvest failure.

Despite these essential contributions, women farmers face many barriers – just because they are women.

They have less access land. They are often pushed to small parcels with poor quality soil. In many societies, laws and tradition bar women from owning and inheriting land.

Women farmers are more often excluded from decision-making at the household and political level. They have less access to credit, agronomic support, or aid programs than men. For example, only 10 per cent of global agricultural, forestry and fishing aide goes to women.

The World Health Organization found that women in rural settings experience more instances of physical abuse than women in urban settings, and are less likely to report the abuse. Fostering gender equality to buck these trends and transform societies starts with recognizing women’s work for what it is: absolutely essential.

When women are empowered on their own farms, communities are transformed. They can dictate their own working conditions, generate a sustainable income for themselves, and grow confidence to become leaders within their communities.

Because women generally have higher responsibility for food preparation and the care of children and the elderly, they place a high priority on food security and good nutrition. Because they are the guardians of much of the ecological knowledge passed down from previous generations, they also tend to pay closer attention to ecosystem health. This careful observation makes them researchers in their fields, noticing how crops react to a changing climate and breeding new varieties that are better equipped to deal with new conditions.

When women have equitable support and access to resources, it is an investment in the nutrition of generations to come. When women are taken seriously as farmers, they are empowered stewards of the land, preserving knowledge unique to each region and culture.

When women farmers are treated like the experts they are, it’s not just women who benefit, but entire communities.

We see this all the time in our programs worldwide, working with farmers of all genders to support them in practising agroecology – sustainable agriculture that uses Earth-friendly techniques like intercropping, compost and organic inputs.

Jeidy and her coffee crop. (Photo: Kath Clark/SeedChange)

For example, in Honduras, Jeidy Marilú Domínguez Morales wanted to be a farmer from the time she was a little kid. But she wasn’t sure how to go about it, since in Honduras, it’s usually men who own land and manage crop sales. As a result, training opportunities and membership in farmers’ co-ops tend to be offered to young men only.

There was a time when Jeidy thought she couldn’t overcome these barriers. She began planning to leave her home in Honduras to find work in another country.

But a door opened when Jeidy took our training in sustainable coffee production. Today, at age 23, she owns her own land, where she grows vegetables, fruit and shade-grown coffee. She teamed up with other women farmers to sell her coffee directly to buyers, which gets her a better price. By breaking the mold and becoming self-reliant, Jeidy is also growing a world where more women like her can gain control over the resources they need to run their own farms.

Now a young farmer and entrepreneur who is in charge of her destiny, Jeidy is a perfect example of the change that comes when women farmers face fewer barriers.

It’s time to recognize and empower women in agriculture. In doing so we protect biodiversity, we help communities cope with climate change, and we feed the world, sustainably and equitably.

Jane Rabinowicz is Executive Director of SeedChange. Brianne Godsman is journalism student at Carleton University.

Top photo: Jeidy Marilú Domínguez Morales, Denia Liseth Palma Murillo, and Sitan Diarra

SeedChange is a nonprofit founded in 1945 and rooted in the notions of human dignity and equality. Today, we work with farmers in 12 countries, including Canada, to shift the way we grow our food.