The Role of Gender Equality in Accelerlating Progress on SDG2

Dr. Hazel Malapit gives an interview at the IFPRI-FAO conference. Photo: J.Hodur/A4NH

Can gender equality accelerate the achievement of SDG2? I think the answer is yes.

There is a growing body of evidence that documents the linkages between SDG5 on gender equality and women's empowerment and SDG2 and SDG3 — eliminating poverty, achieving zero hunger and malnutrition, and good health and wellbeing for women and children.

For example, a recent IFPRI study by Agnes Quisumbing and colleagues found that greater equality between women and men within households was associated with better nutrition outcomes, especially in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Cambodia¹. This suggests that nutrition-sensitive agricultural programs that also aim to reduce intrahousehold inequality could have greater impacts than those that do not.

Promoting gender equality and women's empowerment has the potential to unlock a virtuous cycle. Enhancing women's ability to advocate for their own needs and for the needs of their children can help direct resources towards nutritious food and other health inputs.

So how can we address gender to take advantage of potential synergies between gender equality and nutrition outcomes?

Understanding pathways of impact

First, we need to know how our interventions are supposed to work. How will change happen? What chain of events must occur to lead to better nutrition for our target populations?

Agriculture is linked to nutrition in several ways. Agriculture is a source of food and income. Food prices influence decisions around what households spend on, including nutritious food and health inputs. All of these decisions subsequently influence food and nutrient intakes and overall diet quality of mothers and young children.

In the illustration above, adapted from TANDI, three out of six pathways to improved nutritional outcomes focus specifically on women, which highlights how women’s empowerment is critical to children’s nutrition.

  • Women’s empowerment influences who in the household participates in agricultural programs, what types of technologies are adopted, what crops are grown, which animals to raise. This has consequences for what is consumed at home, what is sold in the market, and who eats what.
  • Depending on how physically taxing women’s roles are in agriculture, particularly during pregnancy and lactation, there could be positive or negative implications on women’s own health and nutrition which can be passed on to their children.
  • Women’s participation in agriculture could also influence time use, which, because of their gendered role as primary care providers, has consequences for food preparation and caring practices for young children.

However, we must remember that gender is not just about women. Gender is a social relationship between women AND men, their socially-determined roles, responsibilities, resources, and constraints. Gender norms are the rules governing what women and men can and cannot do, what decisions and areas of life are in their domain. While the three pathways have a special focus on women, all the pathways are shaped by gender.

Understanding the pathways and how they are linked is important for figuring out whose behavior we want to change and how we want to change it. It can also help us anticipate ways our interventions might result in unintended consequences. For example, interventions that intensify women’s participation in agriculture might improve household income but ignoring how women’s workloads might shift could have negative impacts on nutrition.

Reach, Benefit, Empower

Next, we need to figure out how we want to address gender. Are we trying to Reach, Benefit, or Empower women?

  • Reaching women means including women in program activities.
  • Benefiting women means increasing their well-being in specific ways – like improving their income, diets, health outcomes.
  • Empowering women means strengthening their ability to make and act on important decisions.

Simply including women in project activities does not necessarily benefit them, and even when women benefit, they are not necessarily empowered². Distinguishing between Reaching, Benefiting, and Empowering women is important because each goal requires a different set of strategies and activities, and therefore a different set of indicators for tracking progress.

To accelerate progress, we need to be very clear about what we are trying to achieve, design a package of activities and interventions that make sense, and measure the right things to assess impact.

Using Reach, Benefit, Empower in an agricultural extension project

To illustrate, consider a project promoting a nutritious crop disseminated through agricultural extension services to farmer groups.

If the goal is to Reach women, this would mean delivering the extension services to women farmers, perhaps by providing transportation or ensuring the meeting is held at a time convenient to them. To track progress, one could collect information on the proportion of women participating.

If the goal was to Benefit women, this would mean increasing women’s well-being, by taking women’s preferences and constraints into account. This goes beyond getting women to attend to the training, the training itself must designed with women’s needs in mind. To track whether women benefit equally from this project compared with men, one would have to compare collect sex-disaggregated indicators like land use, income, or time use.

If the goal is to Empower women, this requires going beyond just reach or benefits. You need to find ways to increase women’s agency over production and nutrition decisions and enhance their decision-making power in households and communities. Empowerment doesn’t happen by accident. You need to design the project to make it happen.

To track progress on empowerment, one would measure decision-making power around different aspects of empowerment, such as production, income, and food production. Information on gender-based violence and time burdens can help track unintended consequences.

The good news is that we now have better ways of measuring empowerment, like the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), co-developed by IFPRI and now used by more than 75 organizations in 50 countries. The new, project-level version for use in impact evaluations, called pro-WEAI, measures three types of agency across 12 indicators:

  • Power within, or a person’s internal sense of agency,
  • Power to, or the power to set goals and act on them, and
  • Power with, or the power you get by working with others.

Clarity + Alignment = Impact

Our best chance for impact is making sure we have Clarity on what we are trying to achieve, and Alignment between project goals, strategies, and indicators.

Clarity means: Know your pathways of influence, both intended and unintended. Know whether you are trying to reach, benefit, or empower women.

Alignment means: Ensure your objectives, strategies, activities, and indicators are consistent. If your goal is to reach women, measure reach. If your goal is benefit women, measure benefits. And if your goal is to empower women, measure empowerment using tools like WEAI.

Finally, assess impact in a credible way by using rigorous methodologies and tools. Learn from what doesn’t work: the bottlenecks, the constraints.

To accelerate progress, look for opportunities for scaling up. Let’s invest in what works, and make sure those investment decisions are based on credible evidence.


This post is based on a keynote delivered by Dr. Malapit on November 29, 2018, at the IFPRI-FAO conference "Accelerating the End of Hunger and Malnutrition." A video of her presentation, as well as the slides, are available.

¹Quisumbing, Agnes, Sproule, Kathryn, Martinez, Elena, and Malapit, Hazel (2018). “What dimensions of women’s empowerment matter for nutritional outcomes? Evidence from six countries in Africa and Asia.

²Johnson et al (2017)