Gender Equality Means Food Security for Asia and the Pacific

Gender equality plays a pivotal role in enhancing food security and reducing hunger in Asia and the Pacific. Photo: ADB
Gender equality plays a pivotal role in enhancing food security and reducing hunger in Asia and the Pacific. Photo: ADB

By Imrana Jalal

Gender equality is key to reducing hunger in Asia and the Pacific, according to a comprehensive analysis that reveals the economic and social benefits.

Does gender equality REALLY have the potential to cut hunger and increase food security in Asia and the Pacific? 

This was one of the powerful questions asked in a study commissioned by ADB ―in conjunction with United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)― which was released recently. The study, Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger, was authored by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. 

The answers are clear and unequivocal. Not only is gender equality “the single most important determinant of food security” but it can also save the region billions of dollars as well. 

The data on global hunger speaks of a yawning gender gap. Worldwide, around 60% of undernourished people are women or girls. 

The study argues that if women are given access to land ownership and fully empowered as food producers, it will have a “huge” impact on food security and hunger reduction across the region”. 

Even the most conservative estimate by the FAO is that closing the gender gap in access to resources such as land, credit, technology, and fertilizers could eliminate yield gaps of 20% to 30% and increase domestic agricultural output by 2.5% to 4%. 

This would mean up to 100 million fewer people living in hunger. More optimistic estimates argue that it could reduce world hunger by between 12-17%.

Not only is gender equality 'the single most important determinant of food security' but it can also save the region billions of dollars as well.

What are the most striking findings?

Focusing the lens on women and girls is the most inexpensive and effective tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition and will have a huge multiplier effect on food security and hunger reduction.

Women’s access to land ownership is extremely limited — without land there is no collateral and therefore, no access to credit. In the Philippines, for example, only 10% of all landowners are women. The Philippines is second only to Malaysia where women landowners comprise about 12-13% of the total number of landowners. In Indonesia and Vietnam, women comprise less than 10% of all landowners. 

So what’s needed to secure food security? 

It’s simple really - invest in women and girls!  Overall it’s about promoting gender equality through policies, laws and programs, while gaining the support of men and boys in doing so. Countries, multilateral development banks and development agencies need to get behind this goal. Many are already doing so but more investment is needed in agriculture, girls’ education, women’s employment and political participation.

The study highlights the need for policymakers to tackle laws and regulations which discriminate against women, particularly in land ownership.

Yet land reform is fraught with political sensitivities and remains a highly contentious issue. Women’s land rights are also mired in patriarchal interpretations of religious, customary and modern laws, both written and unwritten, which deny women ownership and access to land. Changes need political solutions which are difficult to confront. 

Access to off-farm income generating work is equally critical. Expanding decent work for women in the formal labor market is an important objective, to enable the purchase of food. Social protection programs, such as active labor market programs with targets for women’s employment (coupled with improving women’s access to childcare), should also be fine-tuned to incorporate women’s needs. 

What approach should the aid community take in tackling these issues? 

A multisectoral approach is critical. For instance supporting school feeding programs which source local raw materials cooked by poor local women in school mid-day meal schemes can go a long way in addressing hunger. At the same time there is a need to improve girls school enrollment, provide scholarships, assist girls in school-to-work transition, support access to markets by small-scale farmers, and employ local women with limited access to other sources of income.

Strategies should also identify how women’s organizations can be encouraged and strengthened, whether in the form of unions, cooperatives, or NGOs. 

Gender sensitive and inclusive decision-making, with a shift from a top–down to bottom-up approach is also urgently required. 

Ultimately the success of interventions will depend on applying a rights-based strategy to development which is enforceable, with progress closely monitored by use of indicators.