Equality for women helps to reduce hunger

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Giving women the same tools and resources as men, such as financial support, education and access to markets, could reduce the number of hungry people worldwide by up to 150 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency estimates that 925 million people across the world are undernourished. Of this number, 906 million live in developing countries.

The greatest burden of economic crisis falls on those less able to sustain it, women and children, particularly in nonindustrialized countries. At the same time, services such as education, health, women’s and children’s health and nutrition sink lower on the agenda of national priorities.

FAO reports that women make up 43 percent on average of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and they tend to be kept in low-paying jobs and have mostly seasonal or part-time work. Plots managed by women tend to be lower, on average, than those managed by men, and they have less access to tools and technology compared to male farmers.

Women have the traditional role of both producers and carers for children, old people, the sick, the handicapped and all those who cannot care for themselves. In Africa, women work an average of 50 percent longer each day than men. I remember visiting the countryside in Equatorial Guinea where I saw what is called casa de la palabra (house of words), where men gather in the afternoon after work and spend several hours chatting or trying to solve some problem in the village or community while their wives continue to work at home. A similar situation probably exists in other African countries.

There is little recognition of the critical role that women can play in increasing agricultural and business productivity. Although some commercial banks are lending more to women entrepreneurs to develop new agricultural services and products, some interventions such as land tenure rights and access to markets continue to leave women out of the picture. In Cameroon, for example, women hold less than 10 percent of land certificates even though they do a significant part of the agricultural work.

Several years of work at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) have proven that improving women farmers’ access to adequate resources, technologies, markets and property rights can help them increase agricultural productivity and improve household nutrition.

This is relevant since many people still go hungry every day, and this has an impact on their overall nutritional status. According to the Global Food and Farming Futures report, the existing food system is failing half of the people on Earth. It estimates that 1 billion people lack crucial vitamins and minerals in their diet.

Women should have easier access to better seeds, fertilizers, time-saving technologies as well as better credit, land and job opportunities. In Kenya, it has been shown that women with the same levels of education, information, experience and farm resources as men increased their farming yields by 22 percent.

There is increasing recognition that women are essential agents of development. That is why all the work, including the special capacities they bring to work outside the home, that they provide should be taken into account by national and international agencies.

As Sandra Bunch and Rekha Mehra write in their ICRW report “Women Help Solve Hunger. Why is the World Still Waiting?,” “If the global community is to increase agricultural productivity and income-generating activities in hunger-prone communities, it must be willing to adjust its vision and see women as central to both food security and agricultural economic development.”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is the author of “Maternal Health,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.