Photo: WOCAN

Women’s empowerment equals more productivity and less hunger—NGO

Farmers do not have an easy life anywhere, much less in Asia with its booming but unequal economies and growing population – and climate change is not going to make it easier for them. But who has an even harder life than farmers? Women farmers. The challenges for women in agriculture, forests and water use will be discussed at the Regional Dialogue on Women’s Inclusion in Landscape Management in Asia, on 7-9 October in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Dialogue is organized by the international network Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN), in collaboration with The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) and The Forests Dialogue, with the support of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The outcomes of the Regional Dialogue will be presented by WOCAN at the Global Landscapes Forum 2014. Ahead of the event, spoke to Nisha Onta, Knowledge Management Coordinator of WOCAN.


Q: Why do women farmers need extra help? Aren’t the problems facing them just the same as they are for men?

Yes and No. Of course some of the problems concern all farmers, but women women’s influence in the public domain is still weak. Customary norms on the role of women in households and public life limit their ability to make decisions and seize opportunities. In the case of forestry, there is also a widespread perception that it is more suitable for men. As a result, women are still often excluded from local management systems and institutional structures. Most agriculture and forest policy decisions still utilize a gender-neutral framework, ignoring the specific needs and contributions of women.

You have to see that half the people working in agriculture in Asia are women. But on average only 10.7 percent of women own land and in South Asia even less: here only seven percent of the women are farm owners.

This imbalance sets them apart from male farmers. Women have fewer rights over land due to traditional land tenure structures, laws and norms that favor access rights to men. But that is not all. In our experience, women also lack access to quality seeds, technology – to money, simply speaking. But exactly these services are crucial to be productive.

Q: So what happens when women get equal access and rights?

If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. According to FAO, this could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent and feed at least 12 percent more of the people who still go hungry in the world. Therefore, it is not only fair to give women the same chances as men, it makes sense from an economic point of view.

Q: But what if women farmers increased their productivity according to those predictions? Wouldn’t that cause more environmental damage, put more strain on the landscape?

Women depend very much on agriculture and non-timber forest products, which is why the sustainable use of natural resources is vital for them. Including women when it comes to land use and natural resource management can be beneficial for the environment as well. Leaving them out, will have the opposite effect.

We know that women’s empowerment has positive impacts on poverty reduction too. Many studies have shown that when women can increase their income, their families and their communities benefit as well. So does as the rural economy. For example, a cross-cutting study of developing countries found that 55% of the gains in overcoming hunger in these countries in the period 1970–1995 were due to the improvement of women’s situation within society.

Equitable access to land and control over it are a prerequisite for women to fully contribute to the rural economy. The problem is that the important role women play in the use and conservation of natural resources, of biodiversity and in food production is still largely invisible. WOCAN wants to change this.

Q: What does WOCAN do exactly to improve the situation for women in Asian countries?

A lot of what we do is about making people talk to each other, for example through events like the Regional Dialogue in Thailand that is coming up. It is crucial for key stakeholders to engage in a dialogue on sustainable forestry and farming practices, but also on land-use approaches. By fostering this conversation, we can raise awareness for the challenges facing women.

But we also need an exchange between local communities and small producers on one hand and agri-business and big forest products companies on the other. Their interests may differ, but they all face the same risks – how do they use natural resources sustainably? How do they organize efficient supply chains? And they all need to respond to these risks. We try to make them see what is in their common interest.

Another concrete outcome of our work is the so-called W+ Standard. This is a unique certification label that endorses projects that benefit women. The W+ can quantify the social capital created by women. It recognizes and rewards their contributions to sustainable environments and communities.

Q: How can stakeholders be convinced to grant women equal access, to share their share of the land and its resources with women when the outlook for the land sector is rather grim?

It is true, if we do not act, the future looks grim. And this is why things need to change, as we state in our name.

Over the next 30-40 years, food, fiber, and agrofuel production will compete even more intensively for limited land and water resources – and this does not even factor in urbanization. And Asia is one of the most ecologically and climatically vulnerable regions. We are talking about water scarcity, more frequent severe weather events, and that is not even all.

Women’s empowerment is gaining ground as a priority issue not only for governments and development agencies but also for some companies. Root Capital, Coca Cola and Stora Enso have made high profile commitments around women’s inclusion and economic empowerment, recognizing the critical roles of women in their supply chains.

Supporting rural women’s empowerment is part of their corporate social responsibility. But it also has to do with sustainability strategies. It is in the interest of private companies to enhance smallholders’ productivity, no matter whether they are men or women. Some companies are willing to provide the necessary technical and financial assistance.

Supporting women is also an opportunity to improve the efficiency of supply chains.  I’d say that using a gender lens offers a chance to rethink landscape management. To make responsible investments. And to promote more inclusive governance processes and value chains.

Q: Is there anything we forgot to ask?

While Asia as a whole has been able to reverse deforestation, issues related to land governance and equitable benefit sharing remain critical. Which is why we see a solution in landscape management approaches.

Let me talk about conflicts. Economic and demographic forces are causing more and more land disputes. These conflicts around property rights take place within communities, but also between communities on one hand, and public and private stakeholders on the other.

In response to this situation, dispute resolution mechanisms have emerged. We now have tools to promote sustainable approaches and to preserve customary land rights. There are formal laws and voluntary guidelines. Multi-stakeholder mediation is another tool. Then there are dialogues and platforms (e.g. Free Prior and Informed Consent principles; Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests; The Forest Dialogue; The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).

These mechanisms and tools have helped both communities and companies to understand each other better, they have certainly stimulated more inclusive processes. However, in practice, results have not reached expectations, especially for women.

We need to work on that. For the benefit of the landscapes that we are a part of.





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