The life of a smallholder farmer is by no means easy. Smallholder farmers are seen as a catalyst to overcoming hunger and malnutrition for the billions of individuals worldwide facing food-related vulnerabilities. Yet their exposure to extreme market volatility, climate shocks that could upend their yields, and lack of access to credit, insurance, technology and technical farming assistance makes them among the most vulnerable populations in the world.
And that’s just the smallholder farmers who are men. Women smallholder farmers face unique barriers that mute their recognition and devalue their critical role in feeding the world’s most at-risk.
The most persistent challenges for women farmers are both legal and cultural barriers to land ownership. In developing countries, it’s estimated that just 10 to 20 percent of landowners are women. A report from the World Bank found that 75 of the 187 economies studied had limits on women’s rights to manage assets, including land.
Without title to the land they farm, women lack the collateral needed to secure loans from banks. And without loans from banks, they don't have the financial resources to improve their livelihoods by investing in short-term boosters like fertilizers and drought-resistant seeds, as well as long-term help like farming equipment and agricultural training.
Even in countries where women are legally recognized as able to own land, the law can be loosely implemented and cheapened by social norms and cultural constraints. A coalition of organizations dedicated to improving land rights for women created an advocacy campaign called Stand For Her Land which seeks to close the gap between the law and practice of women’s land rights. Policy and law changes are monumental in leveling the playing field, but they are only as good if they are implemented.
These factors boil down to a cruel reality for women smallholder farmers: Their farms are less bountiful than those of their male neighbors. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, farms run by women produce 20 to 30 percent less than their male-owned counterparts, creating a sizable “crop gap."
The same report suggests that if women were given the same training and access to resources as men, they could boost their production by 30 percent and feed an additional 150 million people. The business case for investing in women-run farms and land tenure for women is undeniable. Beyond chipping away at the profound levels of worldwide hunger by putting food on the plates of 150 million at-risk people, which alone should be more than enough for policymakers, added production on their farms would equate to more money in the pockets of female farmers. The extra income could then be invested in any number of ways including health care, education, emergency funds or insurance and even back on the very farm they manage.
Along with lower wages and sometimes insurmountable barriers to land ownership, women farmers aren’t relieved of their duties as primary caretakers. Instead, they balance 12-hour days with cooking, cleaning and raising the children in their household.
A 2020 report from Oxfam analyzing the value of women’s unpaid labor worldwide pegged the dollar figure to be at least a whopping $10.8 trillion (with a T!) annually. To put that into perspective, the GDP of every country in the world in 2017 was just a hair under $81 trillion. Unpaid labor gives male farmers yet another leg up on female farmers, who sacrifice hours and hours on a daily basis for domestic work that otherwise wouldn’t get done.
Despite this imbalance, there is reason to be hopeful for the future of women farmers. For one, global development firms, economists, and governments of all sizes have taken notice and are investing in advocacy campaigns to change policies and create a wave of land ownership for women farmers. As the World Bank cleverly puts it, the way to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals by the target 2030 deadline is for female farmers to “break the grass ceiling.”
Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.