Women Farmers in the Developing World

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The degradation visited upon women in the developing world has become commonplace enough to reel off the offenses with a degree of familiarity that runs the risk of us becoming desensitized to the horror of it all. Rape, sexual slavery, clitoral circumcision, domestic violence, exposure to HIV/AIDS by unfaithful husbands and boyfriends, and denial of:

  • Property Ownership (almost everywhere)
  • Education (everywhere)
  • Access to Government Agencies (almost everywhere)
  • Access to capital (everywhere)
  • Access to Training, Research, and Information (everywhere)
  • Fair Market Prices (everywhere)
  • Health Care (everywhere)
  • Voting Rights (still too many places)

It's really quite a remarkable list, and yet it has only been in the past 15 years or so that the level of concern among governments and institutions has risen to the level which could be described as giving a damn. And, they're just scratching the surface. Equality is still far in the future.

Decade of Women

The first evidence of change can be traced back to the 1970s when the United Nations declared 1975 to 1986 the Decade for Women. Thereafter a series of high profile conferences were devoted entirely to womens' issues. The first was in Mexico in 1975, the most widely publicized was in Beijing in 1995.

The Beijing conference introduced the concept of "gender mainstreaming" which basically declared that women should be given the same consideration as men. Pretty radical stuff, huh?

It's a Woman's World in Farming
All of this is the backdrop for examining the lives of women farmers in the developing world on whose backs are balanced the responsibility for maintaining their households and also growing the crops. In Sub-Saharan Africa fully 80% of agricultural workers are women (60% in South Asia). They raise 90% of the food consumed by the poorest, according to the World Bank, but they receive only 10% of credit extended for agricultural loans and only 5% of services that support agribusiness.

That 10% comes largely from micro finance lenders who do business with women mostly for two reasons: 1) micro lending is often a socially conscious enterprise designed to lift people out of poverty, and 2) women fulfill the primary objective of any lending institution: They pay back their loans.

But, darkening the picture is the reality that micro finance can expose women to violence from their husbands if their sense of empowerment leads them to question his decisions or if he perceives them to be ignoring the household. Micro lenders tend to take their loans packages to the women in the fields, but larger facilities like development banks and commercial banks remain domiciled in populated areas, surrounded by bricks and mortar, waiting for women to come to them.

This lack of credit beyond the level of backyard gardens prevents women from becoming entrepreneurs. It means they have to do more with a lot less which traps them in poverty, starting with not being able to afford the best seeds. They are not taught the best techniques to maximize crop yield. They have to settle for inferior tools which wear out sooner. Their small plots of land exhaust the nutrients in the soil. They are not able to negotiate the best prices for their harvests (often because they can't leave the homestead because they have to feed their children). Inevitably they spiral deeper into poverty no matter how hard they work.

The tenuousness of their position means they spend virtually all their time trying to grow enough food to feed their families. If they were not fortunate enough to attend school as a child they have no time to become educated as an adult, so there is little chance of improving their lot in life, so to speak. Being unable to read means being unable to read the instructions on packets of seed and fertilizer. Their small plots of land produce food of marginal nutritional value which means their children experience stunted growth and diminished ability to learn. It is truly a tough row to hoe.

The British Department of International Development estimates that women could produce 20% more food if they could just get a fair shake. You'd think there ought to be a lot of effort made to make women equal.

Sometimes It Only Takes One Voice
Enter The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2008, impoverished women got a boost under the guidance of former Senior Fellow Catherine Bertini, who cautioned that women's needs must be factored into any grant proposal. So, they created a checklist against which to evaluate every agricultural development grant. Women are now front and center at The Gates Foundation.

This is not rocket science. Bertini pointed out that it is as simple as scheduling radio programming that disseminates information on planting techniques. She suggested doing a survey before scheduling the program to determine what time of day most women can listen. Aid organizations that donate farm implements should make sure they accommodate the size, strength and conformation of women, instead of just sending tools that were made for men.

If this all seems hopeless, actually it's not. Gender mainstreaming is gaining traction. Measurable improvements, even among the absurdity of such historic oversights, are discernable. Futility is giving way, ever so slightly, to the promise of better tomorrow.

When asked if the futility of searching for meaning in life required suicide, Albert Camus, the French absurdist philosopher, said, "No, it requires revolt."

Let's revolt.

Seriously, let's revolt. If you want to lend your voice to an initiative that I will lead, email me and tell me you're ready to pound your fist on the table of justice loudly enough for those who run the organizations that hold women at the base of the pyramid hostage to hear the thumping. Contact me at lift_bop_women@yahoo.com. We'll collaborate on the strategy I have in mind and then make some noise.