With the domain of agriculture being traditionally male dominated, early efforts of food security strategies have been developed on the basis of structures that marginalise women. While these strategies, however, have not proven efficient enough to counter the increasing food insecurity threats that arose over the course of the past years – especially in developing countries – women have moved to the centre of new analyses and calls for action. Recent conflicts, climate change and environmental concerns have led to food shortages, spiking food prices and poor yields, resulting in about 750 million people suffering from hunger in 2022. This severe food insecurity particularly affects women and other vulnerable groups in the Global South. 

Food security, as established at the 1996 World Food Summit, is defined as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Accordingly, the four pillars of food security are food availability, economic and physical access to available food, adequate utilization, also denominated nutritional security, as well as the stability of the last. The lack thereof, in consequence, points to the very nature of food insecurity. 

When evaluating women’s role along the lines of these four pillars of food security, the gender gap in agricultural production becomes very clear.  Women, in contrast to men, face enormous social, cultural and economic constraints, not least due to traditional gender roles, which are reflected in agricultural policy. Women usually cultivate smaller and less fertile plots of land because they are disadvantaged by unequal land rights. Similarly, gaining access to credit, new technologies, and especially education is more difficult for them than for their male counterparts, despite evidence that investing in the education of female farmers contributes significantly to food security.  

Several studies have shown that by closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity and providing female farmers with the same tools their male colleagues can make use of, agricultural production in developing countries could rise by 4%. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) continued this line of thought in its 2011 report and concluded that about 150 million more people could be fed, if women and men had the same level of physical and human capital. This, at last, has underlined the significant role women play in agriculture. With approximately 43%, and even higher percentages in developing countries, of the global agricultural workforce being women, the importance of female farmers is very well underestimated to this day.

However, it is not only higher yields that matter, but also their management, which plays a significant role when thinking about pillar number two: economic and physical access to food. Income generated through agricultural production by women is most likely to be spent on adequate food for the household, while chances of it being invested in alcohol and cigarettes are higher when earned by men, studies have shown. Enhanced female presence holds unparalleled potential in bolstering nutritional security, pillar three, which stands as a cornerstone within the framework of adequate food utilization. Women are traditionally in charge of all tasks related to ensuring the availability of adequate food for the whole household, childcare, and accessibility to clean water or domestic production. Putting women in charge would hence foster nutritional security in poorer households and help especially those that are female-headed, by giving them the financial resources needed to keep their families from plunging into poverty. 

As the multitude of benefits of empowering women in agriculture becomes increasingly apparent, the solution to food security in developing countries and worldwide appears within reach. However, there naturally exists, albeit minor, a flip side. Despite the growing acknowledgment of women’s vital role in ensuring food security, there remains a notable absence of systemic changes within the current discourse on food systems. While development policy and practice have begun to give greater attention to women’s contributions, their voices and perspectives in crafting solutions for food security are frequently overlooked or sidelined. In addition, some projects that have been implemented to promote women in agricultural production were met with failure, for instance, due to inadequate consideration of social circumstances and a lack of willingness among local women to assume new roles contrary to what they themselves are used to. 

Still, it is crucial to point out that with the increasing recognition of women’s importance in ensuring food security, several successful regional programs have emerged as well as policy recommendations voiced, paving the way for future endeavours. 

Ultimately, the claim that women are the key to food security is equally bold as well-founded. It is crucial to understand that women matter for ensuring food security. They are part of the solution to achieving food security in all parts of the world. But it is not only them; it is women, among other vulnerable groups, that are especially affected by the increasing threat of food insecurity and that therefore should be at the core of the solution.

Written by Katharina Joó, Edited by Anna-Maria Hirschhuber

Photo credit: Kabiur Rahman Riyad, Unsplash