Our world is today reeling from four interrelated crises – food, energy, financial and climate change. And the hardest hit by these crises are farmers, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples, as they comprise the majority of the world’s most poor and vulnerable.

These global problems have brought opportunities to re-examine agriculture. After three decades of neglect, agriculture is back on the international agenda, with stakeholders reviewing its role in poverty reduction and sustainable development. Leading think tanks, governments and international organizations have realized that the key to sustainable rural development is the small-scale farmer, particularly women.

Why should there be a special focus on women in agriculture?

First, women comprise around 50% of the farming population in developing countries; small-scale family farms produce as much as 70% of the foods consumed locally.

Second, women in many developing countries are farmers too; as much as 50-90% of the work on farms is done by women.

Third, women ensure there is food to eat on the table. Before they sleep, they think of what the family will eat the following day, where they will get money to buy food or what plant they will harvest. It is their burden and their task to perform “some magic” whenever their crops fails, whenever the money is not enough. It is also their burden to fetch water, sometimes from far distances, for cleaning and drinking purposes.

Fourth, women are primarily caregivers. When a family member gets sick, it is the mother who drops everything to aid the sick; she takes care of the health and nutrition of her family and community.

Fifth, women are teachers. In most families, including farming families, it is the mother who mainly helps the children with their schoolwork, attends school meetings and imparts family values and traditions.

And finally, women farmers are not “housewives waiting for their husbands to give them money”. Many women market the family’s crops and fish catches. Many have engaged in various income-generating activities to augment the incomes of her family.

If we are to reduce hunger and poverty in this world, we have to recognize that women farmers have the potential and are the solution to bring their families out of poverty, and thus should be at the forefront of agriculture. Women spend their earnings on family basics: food, health and education. Extensive research reflects the gains to be achieved in terms of productivity and income, by focusing development efforts in empowering women and their organizations.

Empowering women is a long and challenging journey. It starts with helping women reflect on their situation, inspiring them to realize their human dignity and their rights, and sharing experiences with other women in similar conditions. Organizing, capacity building, leadership formation, training and helping women become more economically empowered will be key programmes as well.

Farming can greatly help women gain support from their husbands and male community leaders to desensitize traditional dynamics of gender. Farming can help women fully reach their potential.

Author: Estrella Penunia is Secretary-General of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) in the Philippines.

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Image: A Vietnamese farmer walks in a rice field outside Hanoi. REUTERS/Nguyen Huy Kham