The gender imperative in food security

When it comes to putting food on tables across Africa – from sowing seeds to harvesting crops to processing and preparing food – women do the majority of the work. But all too often women are left on the sidelines of projects and programs that are meant to improve food security and bring Africa’s land back to good health. 

This is an enduring paradox, and one that was explored in depth at a side event on gender and food security that was held on the opening day of the Beating Famine, Southern Africa Conference. Gina Castillo of Oxfam America and Karl Deering of CARE organized the session, which was opened by Dr. Margaret Kroma, the Assistant Director General for Partnerships & Impact at the World Agroforestry Centre. 

“Women hardly own the land they work on; in fact, recent statistics indicate that in Africa, less than 20 percent of landholders are women,” Dr. Kroma said in a video presentation. “Studies have consistently shown a direct correlation between ownership of land and decision-making around adoption of practices that restore and sustain the fertility of the soil. Because women often lack secure access to land, they tend to be reluctant to invest in restoration and conservation innovations.”

“Productivity increases to feed Africa’s growing population and ensure food security must go hand in hand with conserving and restoring its soils,” she concluded. “For this to be assured, women’s right to land must be made a human right, enshrined in law.”

The session, which was chaired by Cindy Kibombwe of CISANET, also featured presentations by Juma Masumba of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Salome Mhango of CARE, and Soumaila Sogoba of Oxfam America. 

Masumba described how CRS’s Malawi office has used self-forming and self-managed savings groups to offer women training in leadership and group management. He reported that the women who participated in the project gained confidence and self-esteem, and won increased respect from their husbands and other community members because of the income they were able to contribute to their households.

Mhango shared how CARE is using Farmer Field and Business Schools to work with small groups of women and men to across Malawi, engaging them in discussions about nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and marketing – in addition to gender. The gender discussions include, for example, dialogues about budgeting in the home and how this is balanced between women and men. Mhango reported that the women they are working with are showing improved knowledge and skills and they are getting improved access to productive resources, assets and markets.

In the final presentation of the side event, Soumalia described how Oxfam America is working with 20,000 groups across Mali to promote savings and sustainable farming practices. The project has enabled women to earn more money by selling seeds and seedlings, but it has brought about important social changes as well: women have gained access to land and technical support in agriculture, and many men taken part in activities led by women, something that might not have happened before. 

Dr. Kroma's presentation to the meeting can be viewed below.