05/23/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

G(irls)20 Summit: Closing the Gender Gap in Agriculture

"God first, then man, then camel and lastly girl" -- the proverb comes from the Gabra community of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, but iterations of this pecking order can be found in communities around the world.

Despite the crucial role that women and girls play in their households and communities, they are all too often seen as a burden not a boon. To change such perceptions (and proverbs), we need to give girls and women access to the resources and opportunities they need to realize their full economic potential.

We also need to create opportunities for women and girls to participate in decision-making. The G(irls)20 Summit does this by providing a group of extraordinary young women a platform to voice their views on how girls and women can play a leading role in global economic development. This year's summit will focus on the opportunity gained in terms of strategically engaging women in agriculture and the opportunity lost as a result of violence against women.
Women make up, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, but only comprise between 3 and 20 percent of agricultural landholders, with huge variations from country to country.

Female farmers produce less than male farmers, not because they are worse farmers, but because they don't have the same access as men to agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and seed or do not have the same rights as men to buy, sell or inherit land, to open a savings account or borrow money, to sign a contract or sell their produce.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) most recent State of Food and Agriculture report, just giving women the same access as men to seeds, fertilizer and tools could increase production on women's farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent. That's enough to lift up to 150 million of the world's hungry people -- more than the entire population of France and the United Kingdom combined -- out of hunger.

FAO estimates that feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 60 percent increase in global food production, three-fourths of which will need to come from developing countries. An additional alternative that we all need to be exploring is how to drastically reduce food waste, as currently one-third of all food produced is wasted rather than consumed.

As President Obama noted last week on the eve of the G8 summit at Camp David, fighting hunger and poverty requires "all hands on deck." If we fail to empower women and girls and continue to waste half our human potential, we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

Disparities in progress between men and women and between urban and rural areas persist beyond the agriculture sector. Globally, rural women and girls lag far behind urban women and girls and men and boys in every Millennium Development Goal indicator, with precious few exceptions.

Work in the fields combined with household tasks, such as preparing food, caring for children and walking miles to fetch water and fuel wood, creates a double burden for women and girls. This burden often prevents them from engaging in income-generating work or attending school, and sometimes places them at increased risk of violence when they are forced to travel great distances from their homes on a daily basis.

Rural women are far likelier to be illiterate, under- or unemployed, to suffer domestic violence and to have less access to services, including prenatal services, than urban women. The children of poor rural women are twice as likely to be underweight, and malnourished girls become malnourished mothers, whose children are 40 percent more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children born in a city.

If we don't break this cycle now, it will continue to undermine children's mental and physical development, productivity and health, hobbling our countries' economic development.

In developing countries economic growth originating in the agricultural sector is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth originating elsewhere. To solve the problems of poverty and hunger, the agriculture sector in these countries -- particularly smallholder agriculture in which women are the driving force -- needs to be more efficient.

That's why FAO has placed gender equity in access to resources, goods, services and decision-making among its key strategic objectives, recently launching a policy on gender equality that commits the organization to, among other goals, targeting 30 percent of its operational work and budget at the regional and country levels to women-specific interventions by 2017.

The future of agriculture in developing countries depends on today's young women and men. FAO's Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools help create opportunities in farming that match young people's aspirations for a better future by providing them with agricultural as well as life skills. They learn how to solve problems related to soil, water and nutrient management, but also about gender equality, HIV/AIDS prevention and other social and health issues critical to their survival and futures.

Social and economic inequalities between men and women undermine food security and constrain economic growth and advances in agriculture. My hope is that the G(irls) 20 Summit will help inspire young women to identify ways to level the playing field by prioritizing girls and women as the first step in building a world in which girls won't be eating last and least but will instead become women leading, on an equal footing with men, the economic growth and development of their communities.