Policy Seminar

Helping Women Respond to the Global Food Crisis

What We Know and What We Still Need to Know
Jun 17, 2008 - 07:30 pm to 09:00 pm UTC

Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a senior research fellow in IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division and chair of IFPRI’s Gender Task Force, launched the seminar by noting that gender analysis has been largely absent from discussions of the current food price crisis. Yet more than 15 years of research on gender and intrahousehold resource allocation suggests not only that men and women will be affected differently by the global food crisis, but that, as both producers and consumers, they will have different stocks of resources to draw upon to respond to rising prices. Although the food crisis calls for an urgent response from national governments and the international community, urgency is not an excuse for misguided policies that fail to address the gender implications of the crisis. Rather, the food price crisis provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of women’s contributions to agricultural production and household welfare and to emphasize what we have known for many years: that gender discrimination impedes agricultural productivity and rural development, and that women are not passive victims but a necessary part of ensuring food security.

Cheryl Morden, director of the North American Liaison Office of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said that women, predominantly from urban areas, have played a significant role in the protests against high food prices that have succeeded in capturing the attention of the world’s leaders and the media. Yet despite the fact that 70 percent of economically active women in low-income, food-deficit counties are employed in the agricultural sector and play a pivotal role in growing, processing, and preparing food, the international response to the food price crisis has been gender-blind. It has failed to recognize that women are agricultural producers who face specific challenges and constraints, including lack of access to agricultural inputs and complementary assets. This institutional response reflects incomplete gender mainstreaming within development organizations, neglect of the agriculture and food security sector as a whole, and a lack of sufficient financial resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment within the agricultural sector.

Decisionmakers should ensure adequate treatment of gender, from conceptualization to implementation, in the international frameworks being developed to respond to the food crisis, including the United Nations Comprehensive Framework for Action. Concerted efforts must also be made to raise awareness of the gender implications of the food crisis among policymakers, many of whom are new to the agricultural sector. In the short term, gender analysis should be employed to ensure that women benefit from efforts to boost production in the next growing season, and it should be used to strengthen information and knowledge to inform longer-term actions. In the medium term, women’s access to productive resources should be improved, and resources should be budgeted for gender equality work and women’s empowerment. Just as critically, women must participate in making decisions that affect their lives.

Harold Alderman, social protection adviser for the Africa region at the World Bank, talked about the implications of high food and fertilizer prices for subsistence farmers, many of whom are women. In the short term, net food purchasers may need income support to pay for the higher cost of food until their wages adjust. Net producers may need increased credit to respond to high fertilizer prices, but they can recoup their costs through the higher price of their outputs. Subsistence farmers, however, will be hard pressed to maintain subsistence levels if they can no longer afford to purchase fertilizer. There is also a risk that fertilizer subsidy programs focused on achieving market surpluses will exclude subsistence farmers. The policy challenge in the short term in low-income countries is to compensate for the absence of safety nets and targeting capabilities. Short-term policies should ideally support, and definitely not undermine, long-term priorities.

Agnes Quisumbing, a senior research fellow in IFPRI’s Food Consumption and Nutrition Division, presented a menu of promising approaches to addressing the needs of poor women farmers in the context of the food crisis. Women are often constrained from responding to agricultural incentives; for example, they may lack the assets and income needed to respond to increasing food prices. They are also subject to several gender-based vulnerabilities, including fewer benefits under customary or statutory legal systems than men, lack of decisionmaking authority, greater time burdens, and threats of acts of physical violence. Interventions designed to help women cope with rising food prices must take these unique dimensions of women’s poverty into account. Such interventions cannot be one-size-fits-all, but instead must be tailored to the specific sociocultural context in which gender relations unfold. Important differences among women, such as age or marital status, must also be recognized to ensure effective targeting. Although many promising interventions to address rural women’s needs have been tried, most of them have undergone very limited rigorous evaluation. Where evaluations have been done, little attention has been paid to gender impacts. Without evaluations, it is difficult to recommend which programs can be scaled up, but these can inform the international community’s response to the food crisis in both the short and long term.

One promising approach involves increasing women’s access to soil fertility inputs and technologies. Given the attention paid to increasing fertilizer use in order to increase food supplies, coupled with the rapidly rising costs of fertilizer, fertilizer and seed vouchers may be an important short-term intervention. Fertilizer and seed vouchers should be targeted to smallholders with explicit efforts to reach women farmers in poor female- and male-headed households. Where women do not have enough cash to pay for fertilizer, fertilizer-for-work programs can be implemented or fertilizer can be sold to women in small bags at lower cost. Like many other promising approaches, however, gender-targeted fertilizer voucher programs have yet to be implemented and rigorously evaluated.

Michael Usnick, director of the U.S. Relations Office for the World Food Programme (WFP), talked about the importance of food aid in the context of the global food crisis and the WFP’s programmatic emphasis on women, which includes targeting food aid to women and involving women in decisionmaking at all levels. Food aid targeted to women benefits the whole household because women are more likely than men to distribute the rations within their households. Women are often, however, uninformed about how to receive food aid and may be restricted from registering for it, especially in areas with high levels of gender segregation that restrict male-female interaction. In such cases, males may dominate the distribution of food. Better strategies are thus needed to ensure that women are central actors in food aid distribution.

Harold Alderman is the Social Protection Advisor, Africa Region at the World Bank. Cheryl Morden is the Director of the North American Liaison Office of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Agnes Quisumbing is a senior research fellow in the Food, Consumption and Nutrition Division at IFPRI. Michael Usnick is Director of the U.S. Relations Office for the World Food Programme. Ruth Meinzen-Dick is a senior research fellow in the Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI.