Women in agriculture and food security programming: Promoting more meaningful change

20 April 2016

Women make up approximately half of the world’s farmers, but there is massive inequity between male and female farmers—especially in the developing world.

These inequities are most pronounced in terms of women lacking equal access to and control over productive resources. To address this ‘gender gap’ in agriculture, there are numerous NGOs, multilateral agencies, and donors working to improve women’s engagement in and empowerment through agriculture and food security programming. Certain programming principles promoted by these actors have been well-documented elsewhere, such as the importance of considering women’s time and workload demands and the benefit of including both men and women in training and other project activities.

In order to promote more meaningful change, however, programs need to be more precise in their design and more ambitious in their measurement, and implementing staff must have the appropriate support and skills to facilitate lasting impact.

“Traditional agricultural development programs primarily serve men’s interests and often include increases in income and profits…as high-level objectives. Depending on the context, however, female farmers or entrepreneurs may have different preferences.”

How can we strengthen the impact of women in agriculture and food security programs in a development context?

In this post I offer four overarching considerations that are critical to improving the outcomes of women engagement and gender equality programs in agriculture and food security. These recommendations are based on work across numerous organizations and contexts the past few years with colleagues at Oxu Solutions to design, evaluate and learn from initiatives that promote women’s engagement in and empowerment through agriculture and food security programming.

1. Be clear, precise, and realistic about the ultimate desired change for the program and for women within that program

During program design it is important to consider the overall objectives of the initiative, especially as it relates to women’s engagement. The ultimate desired change needs to be tailored to the context and specific challenges women face while being realistic of what is achievable given the project time frame and resource constraints. If the overarching goal of a project, for example, is to improve women’s empowerment, the ultimate desired change will likely be different than if women’s engagement or empowerment is one component of a broader project aimed at improving overall household or community food security.

Programs that seek to engage women in agriculture and food security initiatives must clearly articulate the desired outcomes for the program overall, for women in particular, and how precisely those outcomes will be achieved. Photo by Neil Palmer, from CIAT on Flickr.

Programs that seek to engage women in agriculture and food security initiatives must clearly articulate the desired outcomes for the program overall, for women in particular, and how precisely those outcomes will be achieved. Photo by Neil Palmer, from CIAT on Flickr.

When considering overall desired change, standard assumptions need examining. Traditional agricultural development programs primarily serve men’s interests and often include increases in income and profits at the household or business level as high-level objectives. Depending on the context, however, female farmers or entrepreneurs may have different preferences. Research has found, for instance, that in certain contexts female farmers place value on livelihood diversification or household nutrition and food security over income. Women entrepreneurs in Kenya were also found not to be simply motivated by profits, but rather showed significant concern for running their businesses in ways that consider and benefit the overall society.

2. Map out the logic of change for women, understanding how it is different and similar to men and for different sub-groups of women

There are numerous ways in which women’s engagement in and empowerment through agriculture and food security programming can occur. When designing programs, it is important to plan exactly how change should theoretically happen for key target groups. Consider the following examples:

  • Initiatives to strengthen market systems could look to promote products that are traditionally dominated by women, seek entry points for women to enter male-dominated value chains, or work on both.
  • A program could aim to shift the status quo indirectly by creating win-win economic opportunities for a variety of value chain actors, including working to carve out space for women in the value chain.
  • Alternately, a program could address the gender gap more directly by confronting gender inequities head-on through activities such as household dialogues to address power differences and resource allocation or advocacy campaigns related to land rights. Programs may also do some of all of these.

Depending on how a program defines the ultimate desired change, the resulting vision of how that change will occur will need to be developed with locally relevant and contextualized solutions. This should also include understanding that women program participants are not one homogenous group and differences among them need to be considered.

3. Understand that staff at numerous levels of an organization are key agents of change

Once a program has been designed, implementing agency staff will be instrumental in facilitating change (or not). Beyond gender specialists, organizational leadership and technical advisors at country, regional, and headquarter office levels need to take up and prioritize women in agriculture and food security programming. Furthermore, field staff and their partners need to be equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge to do the sensitive, complicated and innovative work that comes with gender-transformative agriculture and food security programming.

4. Go beyond targets for women’s participation to measure change

Measuring change for women in agriculture and food security programming is too often limited simply to women’s participation in project activities. Measuring “empowerment” in terms of enabling women to have greater decision-making power and enhanced agency in their lives is inherently more complicated.

Encouragingly, there have been greater efforts in recent years to consider higher-level change through measures such as the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), an index-based tool to assess the state of empowerment and gender parity in agriculture. Moreover, gender analyses are becoming more commonplace and have the potential to sharpen understanding of the program context, thus improving program design and development of M&E systems. However, many gender analyses are still done as formalities or after major design decisions have been made, limiting the ability to modify appropriately project approaches.

In addition, incorporating meaningful indicators to monitor progress toward objectives during the implementation of the program is critical. This is to ensure that projects are not having negative, unintended consequences and allows for better understanding of how project participants are adopting promoted skills, practices, and behaviors. Measurement systems ultimately need to help us understand how and why changes are or are not happening so that progress can be measured, necessary modifications can be made, and lessons can be learned for future programming.


Originally published by Landscapes for People, Food and Nature.