Africa: Feeding the Planet by Leveling the Plowing Field for Women

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In 1900, there were a mere 1.6 billion people on our planet. Today [March 2012], there are seven billion and by 2050 we will be nine billion. One would expect that with such rapid population growth, occurring in the midst of soaring food prices and food-related crises, we would be doing everything we could to increase food security for our most vulnerable people.

And yet, incredibly, in areas where the need is the greatest, the opposite often is true. Today, in many developing countries, home to the majority of the world's 925 million undernourished people, there is a tangled web of policies and practices that specifically and sometimes intentionally inhibit a large group of farmers from producing more food in their fields and pastures. Despite the fact that in many places they often comprise half or more of the agriculture workforce, these farmers face restrictions on their ability to buy, sell, or inherit land and livestock. They often are forbidden from opening savings accounts, borrowing money, or even selling crops at market.

And what is the basis for these self-defeating practices? It is the simple fact that these farmers happen to be women.

For example, the United Nations Children's Agency (Unicef) estimates that women in Cameroon are doing 75 percent of the agricultural work, yet own less than 10 percent of the farmland. And the situation is much the same in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, women are responsible for 90 percent of the rice production. But in India, Nepal and Thailand, they own less than 10 percent of the land. A study in Burkina Faso links gender-based restrictions on access to labor and fertilizer with a 30-percent reduction in yields on plots farmed by women versus those maintained by men. In Namibia, it is still common for a woman to lose all of her livestock if her husband dies.

This type of agriculture inequity affects more than just women. It is handicapping entire regions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that leveling the plowing field for women could increase total agriculture output in developing countries by 2.5 to four percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent-that's 100 to 150 million people. Put another way, gender bias in agriculture is condemning millions of boys and girls to growing up hungry, a condition that routinely leads to a life of poor health and poverty.

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