THE BLOG

Taking HeforShe to the Farm

03/20/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Gender equality cannot be reached without engaging men as well as women in the fight. When launching the UN's recent "HeforShe" campaign, actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson asked: "how can we change the world if only half of it is participating in the conversation?"

This approach is manifesting itself in many ways. In Turkey, men publicly protested against the brutal murder of the 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan who was killed by a bus driver after she tried to defend herself from rape. In Afghanistan, men donned burkas this International Women's Day to protest against female oppression.

Every stance that men take in the fight for gender equality is critical. But there is one particular group of women who remain the most marginalised: rural women, especially women farmers. We need to take "HeforShe" to the farm.

Rural women lag behind almost every other group in terms of progress made on the Millennium Development Goals, the predecessors to the Sustainable Development Goals being discussed now. They have less access to productive resources such as land, seeds, fertilizer, credit and training. As a result, rural women produce 20-30 percent less food per acre than male farmers -- impacting not only them but their children as well -- many of whom are stunted or malnourished as a result. This also impacts their communities, as the lost food production could feed as many as 150 million extra people, or the equivalent of 17 percent of the world's hungry.

But why, then, should men be interested in closing the gender gap?

Men still hold a lot of the power when it comes to agriculture. Eighty-five percent of extension agents -- who train male and female farmers on best practices -- are men. Eighty-six percent of African agricultural researchers in leadership positions are men. Men own more land than women; for example up to 4.4 times more in Nigeria and 1.2 to 1.7 times more in other parts of Africa, according to the available data.

This is a shame, as women have a wealth of knowledge and coping strategies for growing food in the face of climate change. Humankind is missing out on the positive changes they could contribute for climate change adaptation.

It's also a matter of human rights. Our research has found that climate change will affect rural women and men differently, in terms of their ability to cope with sudden shocks, feed themselves and their families, their ability to earn income from farming and their ability to contribute to economic growth. Ultimately, the gender gap affects us all.

As men are currently occupying the majority of the power in agriculture, they hold the keys to making a difference in the lives of rural women and their families. We need a fairer proportion of women in powerful positions in both developed and developing countries, from universities to governments. Some international bodies have started to recognise the need for change. For example the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) made a decision to promote gender balance and improve participation of women in climate change negotiations and policy discussions. Men have a role to play in fostering equality and better representation of both genders in these critical discussions. Even so, women's participation in the political process is not enough. It also requires closing the other gender gaps; so that women at all levels have the opportunity to create positive change for themselves and their families.

So how can the gender gap in agriculture be addressed? The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security hosted a seminar this week to spark discussions on how to protect the food security and incomes of rural communities in the face of climate change. Here are just some of the ways we can make this happen.

Better data
Policies for coping with climate change must not be gender-blind: Statistics concerning women in the developing world are increasingly coming under fire for being too simplistic, out-dated and even misleading. If climate change affects rural men and women in different ways, then it is vital that adaption programs are sensitive to this. To develop meaningful programs that make a difference, we need to make a concerted effort to gather better data shows the differences between men and women, rather than simplistic indicators of 'male-headed' or 'female-headed' households. Such an approach ignores, for instance, all of the women living in male-headed households. Collecting and analysing data from men and women, regardless of the type of household they live in, will allow us to better understand the gender roles, responsibilities and differences in control over resources. If we carry on with gender-blind climate change projects we risk reproducing gender inequalities, and creating harm rather than good.

Better knowledge on land rights
While women may have more access to land than previously thought, formal rights to land or laws that prohibit women from owning property in their own name do remain an issue.

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A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that early attempts to certify land in Ethiopia proved successful - on paper. The greatest disparity was not between the proportion of land registered by men and women, but between the knowledge that men and women had about what they were entitled to. This shows that formal policies are not enough; they must be accompanied by efforts to better inform women about their rights and what they can achieve with them.

Better program planning that is gender-sensitive
The research institute Bioversity International has carried out an excellent example of a "gender-sensitive" climate adaptation program. The region of the Chicamocha canyon in Colombia is suffering from water scarcity, which researchers have found to impact men and women in different ways. For women, this impacts the production of food for the family, whilst for men this limits income through low yield of cash crops. The resulting climate adaptation strategy should therefore be different for each sex. Women's needs could be met by encouraging adoption of home gardens that require minimal watering. Men's needs could be met by testing different drought resistant species or crop varieties that are of commercial interest. But even further work is needed to alter the underlying gender inequalities.

It is therefore essential that policy-making turns away from stereotypes of male and female roles and addresses the main causes of inequality. It should also stop displaying women as either victims or saviours in the climate change debate. This black and white view is not only false in many cases, but can be extremely disempowering.

Men have a role to play in enacting all of these recommendations. We must stop fighting the battle for food security with only half the army -- if men and women stand together we can achieve a world free from hunger.