Five Things You Should Know about Empowering Women in Agriculture

A Readout from Planet Forward’s Salon on Women, Climate Change & Agriculture

Planet Forward’s “Women, Climate Change & Agriculture” Salon on November 5, 2014 explored the unique challenges that women in agriculture face, and how climate change amplifies those challenges.  We brought together some of the nation’s leading experts on climate change, agriculture and women’s studies, as well as students and journalists, for an interdisciplinary and intergenerational dialog on empowering women worldwide.

“If women were given the same access to education, resources, and leadership positions as men, world food production would increase by 30%, which is the equivalent of feeding 150 million people.” –Kathleen Merrigan, The George Washington University; former Deputy Secretary, USDA

Here are five observations and five recommendations from the group:


Women and Agriculture in the Face of Climate Change by Planetforward on Mixcloud


1.) This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions

Women play an essential role in agriculture in developing countries; they are involved in all aspects of rural life, from caring for family members and laboring in the fields to collecting wood for fires, which becomes all the more difficult as forests recede. Women produce 60-80% of food in developing countries, yet there are hundreds of millions of women around the world who don’t have access to technologies like fertilizers, enhanced seeds, and useful data about where and when to grow. If we don’t make these resources more accessible, climate change and weather volatility could lead to a decline in crop yield. The gap between production and need is already growing.

Molly Brown, research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, presented work NASA is doing to understand this complex issue. NASA uses satellite remote sensing to monitor changes in climate and ecological disasters like droughts and extreme weather. By making this information available to developing governments, we can help point farmers to the most fertile locations.

“Without increased investment, the food gap will continue to grow with negative consequences for women and girls.” - Molly Brown, NASA

2.) It's not just about empowering women, but changing social norms

Agricultural technology has helped to pull millions of people out of poverty, but a gender-sensitive approach is required to address some of the inequalities women face:

  • Time and labor constraints, including childcare
  • Domestic violence and rape
  • Lack of physical security during common tasks that require unsafe travel, like firewood and water gathering
  • Land ownership laws and the tendency to let men control financial decisions

Raymond Gilpin, Dean of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, points out that unraveling these social norms is essential, but will take time.  Gilpin suggests that we must focus on society as a whole, not just exclusively on women.

USAID Assistant Administrator Tjada McKenna suggests that women are more likely than men to improve the health and nutrition of their families, and communities with women serving as strong leaders may fare better in events of climate disaster. Providing equal access to land, markets and technologies can ensure safety and increase production.

“Women are the solution. If you really start to address some of these inequities, you’ll start to see changes in the landscape.” - Tjada McKenna, USAID

“We need to be focusing from a broader perspective if we’re going to influence how society enables women to realize the increases in yields.” - Raymond Gilpin, Africa Center for Strategic Studies

3.) Lowering barriers requires cross-sector collaborations.

Collaborations between private and public sector workers, journalists and scientists, and educators and young people, are just some of the many ways we can bring different areas of expertise together to address agriculture in a changing climate. Here are some cross-sector approaches that can help empower women:

  • The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI)  is a public/private collaboration that identifies women who are disempowered and tracks progress towards gender equality, a Millennium Development Goal.
  • Governments in Africa that commit portions of their national budget to agriculture collaborate with ventures like ONE Campaign, which shares stories about how government investment can transform individuals.
  • Environmental Journalist Elizabeth Shogren suggests that integrative reporting is necessary to encourage deeper collaborations between agriculture journalists and science reporters.

4.) Not all innovations are technology related

Sometimes an innovation is as simple as farming in rows, or watering crops using drip irrigation. They don’t require outside fertilizers or seeds, but they can be just as effective in increasing yields. Organizations like USAID visit households all over the world to get a sense of what’s missing—meeting women in their communities instead of imposing outside approaches. While genetically-engineered seeds may be technology needed in one area, in other places a simple bike-operated rice thresher can serve as a big innovation for women with physical limitations. 

In some places, the innovation can be around shifting laws or household power dynamics.  Any idea that improves the way people work is an innovation.

“There are laws that keep women from being able to own land. As important as technological innovation is, it’s not the full solution. We must eliminate discriminatory laws and domestic violence. It’s about changing gender norms within communities.” - Mary Ellsberg, GW Global Women’s Institute

5.) Compelling storytelling must be connected to data

Storytelling is crucial to closing the gender gap, but the challenge is to turn the facts into stories that  resonate with people. We have to find ways to make the challenges real to people who are not directly affected, and back those stories with data.

“Stories are great. Stories backed by data are even more powerful.” – Jim Buizer, University of Arizona

Some of the organizations mentioned in this list—like NASA and Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index—are collecting sophisticated data that sheds light on how climate affects women. Much of this data is freely available to a generation of tech-savvy journalists.

Five Recommendations

Our salon produced a spirited conversation that focused on the challenges and the opportunities ahead, but also a series of recommendations with respect to climate, women and agriculture:

1. Address gender inequalities with women AND men.
Solutions need to focus on addressing gender and social norms. 

2. Find cross-sectoral solutions.
Collaboration will be necessary from a variety of stakeholders to achieve change. 

3. Make the problem real by making the story personal.
Understanding the adverse impacts of climate on individuals and communities will take personal narratives.

4. Embrace transparency.
Collaborators need to share information and solutions with each other and the public. 

5. Connect storytelling to data.
Connecting data to stories can help journalists tell compelling stories that appeal to both the heart and the head.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.