ADB: Gender equality means food security for Asia-Pacific

Members of a women self-help group that work together to produce agricultural products to improve their financial situation. Women who are fully empowered on land ownership and as food producers have a huge impact on food security and hunger reduction in Asia and the Pacific, according to a study authored by a United Nations special rapporteur. Photo by: Betsy Davis Cosme / UN Women Asia & the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

Knocking down gender barriers like land ownership and access to credit is key to ensuring food security in Asia-Pacific, according to new report published by the Asian Development Bank.

The study, authored by U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter, says that if women are ever fully empowered on land ownership and as food producers, that will have a “huge” impact on food security and hunger reduction all over the region.

Devex spoke about this issue with ADB senior social development specialist for gender Imrana Jajal, a former human rights lawyer in her native Fiji who said that “gender equality is the single most important determinant of food security” and gives five tips for the aid community to help achieve this goal.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Jalal: 

What are the most striking findings of the study?

Focusing the lens of promoting gender equality and on women and girls is the most inexpensive and effective tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Gender equality is the single most important determinant of food security. 

Paying women a decent wage, improving their access to tools, fertilisers, and credit, and guaranteeing their right to own and access land will have a huge multiplier effect on food security and hunger reduction. Closing the gender gap in access to productive resources such as land, credit, machinery or chemicals could eliminate yield gaps of 20 to 30 percent among women and men, increase domestic agricultural output by 2.5 to 4 percent, and mean up to 100 million fewer people living in hunger.

Worldwide, around 60 percent of undernourished people are women or girls, and data shows that giving them access to education and employment opportunities has a strikingly large impact on reducing overall hunger and improving child health and education. However, restrictions on female land ownership, limited access to credit and farm advisory services, and a lack of education hamper women’s ability to produce and access more food and earn decent incomes.

Women’s access to land is extremely poor  without land there is little means of gaining access to funds as there is no collateral. For instance, women in the Philippines who own land only account for a little over ten percent of all landowners in the country. 

Land is the most valued form of property and a source of livelihood security in rural areas. It acts as a buffer against economic shocks, providing almost complete insurance against malnutrition, as it reduces the dependency of the household on market prices for food commodities. For women, land is a pivotal resource for meeting subsistence needs, and for accessing other goods and services, such as credit. Access to credit often depends on the ability to use land as collateral. The Philippines is second only to Malaysia where women landowners comprise about 12 to 13 percent of the total number of landowners. In other ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, women comprise less than ten percent of the total number of landowners.

What about specific recommendations?

Overall promoting gender equality through policies, laws and programs. Investing in women and girls! But gain the support of men and boys in doing so. Countries, banks and development agencies need to put their support behind this  many are already doing this but more investment is needed.

Policymakers tackle laws and regulations which discriminate against women, particularly in land ownership, initiate programs to boost gender equality in agriculture and the labor market, while updating education and employment policies to be more gender sensitive.

Food security strategies must also be developed to improve women’s access to childcare, farmer support mechanisms, and credit and agricultural services. Social protection programs, such as active labor market programs with targets for women’s employment should also be fine-tuned to incorporate women’s needs. 

How can the aid community improve its performance to better help knock down gender barriers to secure a food future?

Multisectorality. Measures in different sectors must be combined and complement each another. Some of the most promising practices identified were successful because of such complementarities. For instance, school feeding programs that source local raw materials that are cooked by poor local women in school mid-day meal schemes at the same time improve girls’ school enrollment, support access to markets by small-scale farmers, and employ local women with few other sources of income. 

Women’s organizations. Gender-sensitive food and nutrition security strategies should identify how the emergence of women’s organizations can be facilitated and encouraged, whether in the form of unions, cooperatives, or NGOs. Getting organized is of great importance to women who are small-scale food producers. With effective organization, women can improve their access to land and credit using social collateral. 

Inclusive decision making. A shift from top–down, technocratically driven strategies and programs to bottom–up, participatory ones is urgently required. The arguments for such a shift go beyond the question of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The poor understand the obstacles they face and are generally hugely inventive in identifying solutions. Policy-makers that involve them in design and decision making will make choices that are better informed, better understood, and ultimately more effective.

Phased approach. Gender-sensitive food and nutrition strategies should be phased, multiyear strategies, reflecting the reality that not all changes can be implemented at the same time. 

Rights-based strategy. Two characteristics distinguish a gender-sensitive food and nutrition security strategy that is rights-based. Such a strategy goes beyond a policy commitment by government authorities to implement certain plans. It is enforceable, and progress is monitored by use of indicators that are aligned with the normative components of the right to food and the rights of women.

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About the author

  • Carlos Santamaria

    Carlos is a former associate editor for breaking news in Devex's Manila-based news team. He joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE ,and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York, and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.