Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

At least half of women farmers perceive gender discrimination in agriculture. Technology training, finance, education and raising public awareness can help end it, according to a new survey.

About 90% of women farmers around the world say they are proud to do what they do. But how many of those women claim to be happy and feel heard, acknowledged, or presented with the same opportunities as their male counterparts?

Half, at most.

Gender discrimination is still perceived strongly across the agriculture sector, in poor and rich countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa. It was felt by as much as 78% of women surveyed in India, down to a still-significant 52% in the US.

And while about two-thirds of women farmers said discrimination had diminished over the past decade, just over a third said it remained unchanged, or had worsened. Many believe full equality will come — but not for another 10 years at least, and not without more education, training and access to financing for women. About 10% are more pessimistic, saying it will never happen. 

These were the overarching findings of a survey commissioned by Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDuPont, between August and September. The aim was to better understand the lives and concerns of women farmers today and create a baseline from which to measure future growth.

The surveyors interviewed 4,000 women working in agriculture in 17 high-, medium- and low-income countries, including the US, India, Brazil, China, Germany, France, Australia, Nigeria and Kenya. Two-thirds of them worked in crop farming, ranging from small subsistence farms to large enterprises, in roles ranging from owners and managers to junior workers. The average respondent was 34 years old. Half had children living with them, and 38% held university degrees.

The rights and opportunities available to female farmers do matter to the global economy. Why? Because, according to the World Bank, women now make up almost half of the world’s farmers, after gradually broadening their involvement in agriculture over recent decades. As more men move to cities to find work, the number of female-headed households is rising.

“As the primary caregivers to families and communities, women provide food and nutrition,” the World Bank said in March 2017.

“They are the human link between the farm and the table.”

But while women are stepping up their roles in maintaining households and supporting economies, they face significant barriers in agricultural work. Any setbacks they encounter will ricochet onto the families, communities and societies that depend on them.

At least half of the women surveyed in the 17 countries said they perceived some kind of gender discrimination. The discrimination can include a denial of equal opportunities, a limited right to make financial decisions, lower opportunities for education and the challenges of balancing agricultural work with family caretaking.

Nearly 40% of the women said they earned lower salaries than men, and 36% said they had less access to financing. More than half said that more training would help eliminate gender inequality, especially for women in Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico and SA.

Of course, their responses varied by regions and countries. In general, the higher the women’s income, the less discrimination they perceived.

In the US there was less discrimination reported, but strong financial concerns. Women in Brazil were especially proud to work in agriculture, but said their equality had declined and was less likely to improve in the coming decades. In India, there was a strong contrast between the women’s positive attitude toward agricultural work and the highest level of inequality and financial obstacles.

In Europe, 68% of women farmers think that gender discrimination is an issue in agriculture industry, though the tendency is positive, and there is less discrimination nowadays than 10 years ago. Sixty-seven percent of European women in agriculture participating in the survey think that the key area that would help remove the obstacles to equality is to raise the public’s awareness of gender discrimination in farming and agriculture.

The results of the survey pointed to a strong need to better train female farmers to use new technologies. Although the respondents overwhelmingly said they had sufficient access to technology, they felt they didn’t have enough training to use it to the full extent. That gap between access and training was most pronounced in the Americas.

The survey also showed that women need more access to financing. Responses on financing were similar around the world — 36% of the women interviewed said they have less access than men. The women who said they had more access to financing, tended to have been more educated, older and more experienced. To dismantle the financial obstacle, financial institutions, microlenders and others should make sure their credit and financing are offered equally to men and women, and provide education on credit markets.  

Improving academic education (as opposed to narrowly focused training) is another way to boost gender equality in farming, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia. This means rural schools and universities that offer agricultural education programmes need more support, be it in the form of money, volunteers or something else.

Finally, we all need to raise awareness about the importance of women working in agriculture — and celebrate their success.

The World Bank said women could be “key agents of change” in the global effort to meet the UN’s sustainable development goal for ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

“With better access to information, training, and technology, women can alter food production and consumption so that land and resources are used sustainably,” it said in 2017.

Women around the world are overwhelmingly proud of their work in agriculture. But they still face tough barriers to parity with male farmer. Now it’s time to take aim at those obstacles, with further research, direct action and partnerships with governments, nongovernmental organisations and other stakeholders. This way, we can ensure that women receive the right access to finance, technology, education and all the other tools they need to fulfil their potential. 

• Harden is chief sustainability officer at Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDuPont. 

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