Transforming Food Systems for Women’s Empowerment and Equity


by Laura Zseleczky, Hazel Malapit, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, and Agnes Quisumbing | May 1, 2020

Shutdowns to control the COVID-19 pandemic are already endangering food security around the world, and greater seismic shifts are likely to come. As food systems contend with these and other emerging challenges, how can we transform them to be more inclusive and empowering—particularly for women?

As we observe in Chapter 4 of IFPRI’s 2020 Global Food Policy Report, women are already actively involved in food systems in many roles, but their contributions often go unrecognized and they face many inequities. Women typically have less schooling than men, control fewer resources, have less decision-making power, and face greater time constraints. Gender also intersects with other spheres of vulnerability and identity such as ethnicity, age, and poverty, all affecting how women engage in food systems. As diets evolve and food systems transform toward more efficient and sustainable production processes, there will be new opportunities for women’s participation—but there will also likely be new barriers and challenges.

Transforming food systems to be more inclusive requires enabling women to participate and benefit equally, and empowering them to make strategic life choices. Using the reach-benefit-empower framework—originally created for analyzing agricultural development projects—can help us understand this process.

Participation in a project does not ensure that women will benefit;, and even if their incomes increase, for example, they may not necessarily be empowered to control that income or choose foods for their households. A review of high-value agriculture projects in Africa and Asia found that involving women in the projects helped increase production, income, and household assets, but those benefits were constrained by existing gender norms—in most cases men’s incomes increased more than women’s and the projects did not reduce the gender asset gap.

Entrepreneurship is often suggested as a key to empowering poor rural women. But evidence from Bangladesh and the Philippines indicates that this may not be the case if limited to small, household-based enterprises, which typically are not very lucrative and can add to women’s workloads. The benefits of entrepreneurship may only materialize as businesses grow and owners can start hiring other workers and retain more of the profits.

Given the vital role that women play in food systems for themselves and their families, they must be able to engage equitably. How can a food system both include and empower women?

  • Increase women’s decision-making power and control over resources. Women’s limited access to land, financial services, training, transportation, and technology reduces their choices and ability to engage in more lucrative, larger scale activities. Enhancing women’s negotiating power with market actors through fair contracting or payment schemes is one effective approach.
  • Raise women’s voices in key processes. Women’s voices must be heard in processes related to food systems. Recognizing women’s needs and priorities in the early stages of research, and facilitating their engagement in political processes, as well as in other contexts in which food systems are embedded, are important steps toward ensuring that women benefit from the results.
  • Design institutions to be gender equitable and programs to consider women’s needs and preferences. Formal laws and informal systems affect women’s abilities to invest in their land and businesses and diversify their livelihoods. These include laws and regulations governing land rights, financial institutions, and education. Women’s needs and preferences must be considered in the design of these institutions and programs, for example by strengthening women’s land rights or developing financial products designed for women’s priorities (e.g., saving for school fees or healthcare). There may be gender-specific barriers to use of such specially-designed products, so improving women’s access to mobile phones and digital literacy training may also be needed.

Approaches to empower women in food systems must also consider appropriate roles and benefits for men. This is important not only to prevent backlash against women’s gains (such as gender-based violence or other retaliation), but also because focusing only on women misses opportunities to equitably transform gender norms for all members of a household or community.

As the world faces demographic shifts and global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, we must open opportunities for women in food systems without putting additional burdens on them. Key steps moving forward include:

  • Collect data relevant to women’s empowerment within food systems, including on capacities, motivations, and roles in value chains and agribusiness.
  • Encourage private sector initiatives, including among small and medium-scale enterprises, to foster women’s empowerment—such as adopting standards for gender equity—and use regulations as needed to ensure investments benefit and empower women rather than exacerbating existing gender gaps.
  • Ensure that food system transformations do not disempower women by increasing workloads or reducing decision-making power, and work with men to prevent backlash against women’s gains and to make sure that newly transformed gender norms are sustained.

Ensuring that women’s contributions to food systems are recognized—by their families, communities, policymakers, and society—and that women can make strategic choices about that involvement has benefits for all of society. Focusing strategically on empowerment and equity is an essential step to build inclusive food systems for a healthier, more prosperous world.

Laura Zseleczky is a Program Manager with IFPRI's Director General's Office; Hazel Malapit is a Senior Research Coordinator with IFPRI's Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division (PHND) and A4NH's Gender Research Coordinator; Ruth Meinzen-Dick is a Senior Research Fellow with IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology Division; Agnes Quisumbing is PHND Senior Research Fellow and leads the Gender Cross-cutting Research Theme.

This blog originally appeared on IFPRI's website on April 17, 2020.

Photo at top: P. Lowe/CIMMYT 


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