Women Farmers Can Make Asia More Food-Secure

An organic vegetable farmer in the Lao PDR.
An organic vegetable farmer in the Lao PDR.

By Yasmin Siddiqi

Including women in agriculture as equal players can have a significant impact on crop production and can contribute to food security of Asia and the Pacific. We can produce more with less by giving women equal access to resources, education, and markets.

The number of women involved in agriculture can no longer be ignored – on average 43% of Asian farmers are women. This varies from South Asia, where about  35 % of women work in farms, to East and South East Asia, where over 46% of farmers are women.

In most cases, though, women work as free or poorly paid labor, working hard to transplant rice, harvest crops and in post-harvest support jobs like drying and storage. In many Asian countries, the number of women farmers is growing, as more men leave the farm for better job opportunities in the city.

The link between equal chances for men and women and food security is not often made. Women farmers do not have the same access as men to resources like land, water and fertilizers. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that this inequality affects the region’s potential for food and nutrition security. If women farmers were better supported to reach their full potential, the FAO estimates they could produce 20-30% more food. This could be a significant contribution to efforts needed to increase food production by an overall 60 % to meet global demand by 2050.

Worldwide, women and girls face unequal opportunities, and Asia is no exception – especially in countries where deep cultural traditions influence the role and mobility of women in society. Improving agriculture production requires access to land, access to knowledge, and access to markets. This is not so easy for women in some Asian countries where men are traditionally or even legally entitled to inherit land or receive a larger share of it as inheritance than women. These customs increase the dependency of women on men, and limit them from owning land which to generate income for themselves and their families.

Knowledge is power, but rural women have little access to education. In times of (economic) crises, girls are the first to be kept at home. This hampers opportunities for women and girls to develop outside of their households, and for instance to support innovation on their farms. It also prevents them from learning how to access agriculture advice, such as improving cultivation techniques, land and water management, and pest and disease control. This has a direct effect on how women grow crops, and limits the production levels that could be achieved.

Women also balance the burdens of household chores with agricultural activities. Limited mobility outside the home, poor education and little or no ownership of resources means finding markets to sell agriculture produce at competitive prices is even more difficult.

Climate change and increasing demand for water will affect irrigated agriculture in Asia and the Pacific. And as this will be exacerbated by Asian men moving from rural areas to cities to look for better jobs, it will be women farmers who will grow tomorrow’s food in the region.