October 2008

The role of women in agricultural development: how agricultural deficiencies create social problems and the necessity of grass-roots market-based initiatives that lead to agricultural sustainability



  women work in rice field
  In nearly all rice-growing areas of Asia, sowing, transplanting, weeding and crop processing are usually women's work.

As agriculture becomes increasingly globalized, concerns about women and agriculture revolve around issues of food security, social justice and sustainability. Women across the globe have always played major roles in agricultural production, contributing substantially to food production and food security. Women produce almost half the world's food, but they often work in difficult conditions with low pay and inadequate access to land and capital. For example, China's population is 48.5 per cent female and 51.5 per cent male and women account for 41.2 per cent of the rural labour force in agriculture and rural enterprises. India’s population is 48.1 per cent women and 51.9 per cent men and, in rural areas, agriculture and allied industrial sectors employ as much as 89.5 per cent of the total female labour force. In nearly all rice-growing areas of Asia, men traditionally perform activities such as land preparation, ploughing, irrigation and levelling of the fields; sowing, transplanting, weeding and crop processing, however, are usually women's work. Women in Latin America are also heavily engaged in crop production.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that women contribute 30-80 per cent of the agricultural labour force for crop production, depending on area and economic class. Surveys in Colombia and Peru show that female participation in agricultural field tasks ranges from 25 to 45 per cent. Recently war, HIV/AIDS, and the migration of men have contributed to a feminization of agricultural labour in many regions of the world.

Hence, promoting sustainable agricultural development and ensuring an equitable role for women in this process should receive a greater priority. Currently, the Commission for Agricultural Meteorology (CAgM) WMO addresses the issues of agrometeorology and sustainable agriculture through it’s Implementation/Coordination Team on Agrometeorological Services and it’s Expert Teams on (a) Content and Use of Agrometeorological Products by Farmers and Extension Services; (b) Agrometeorological Aspects of Sustainable Agricultural Development; (c) Climate Risks in Vulnerable Areas: Agrometeorological Monitoring and Coping Strategies; and (d) Drought and Extreme Temperatures: Preparedness and Management for Sustainable Agriculture, Rangelands, Forestry, and Fisheries. In the past, the CAgM Rapporteurs on the Effects of Climate Change and Variability on Agriculture and Forestry; Joint Rapporteurs on the Effects of Climate Variability and Climate Change on Agriculture and Forests—Agrometeorological Aspects of Management Strategies and Improvement of Sustainability; Joint Rapporteurs on Validation of Information Requirements on Forest Management and Exploitation and Rapporteurs on Weather and Climate Related to Forestry and (Non-Forest) Tree Production dealt with a number of issues relating to sustainable agricultural development.

Women in Mali learn how weather information, broadcast in their language by radio, can be applied to enhance their pastoral and livestock work.  

The information summarized below is drawn primarily from the publication entitled “FAO Plan of Action for Women in Development” published by the Sustainable Development Department of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


Role of women in agricultural development

Women are responsible for natural resource management through their day-to-day tasks of providing fuel, water and food for household consumption and for sale. Women play an important role in land and water management. They are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household, as well as farmers of irrigated and rain-fed crops. Because of these roles, women have considerable knowledge of water resources, including quality and reliability, restrictions and acceptable storage methods.

Genetic resources, particularly plant genetic resources, are increasingly under threat. Plant genetic resources for food are selected by women according to such variables as nutrition and medicinal properties, taste, texture, processing requirements, storage qualities, resistance to pests and diseases, soil and agro-climatic adaptability. Women farmers play a leading role in maintaining crop diversity and populations of valued wild plant species. They often have considerable knowledge about the characteristics, distribution and site requirements of indigenous trees, shrubs and herbs. Women’s knowledge of plants for food, fuel, health and crafts plays a decisive role in the conservation of different species and varieties according to their usefulness to the community. Home gardens are often used as experimental plots where women adapt or diversify wild and indigenous species. Research in home gardens in one single village in Thailand revealed 230 different plant species, many of which had been rescued from a neighbouring forest before it was cleared.

  woman carrying water
  Women are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household. They have considerable knowledge of water resources, including quality and reliability, restrictions and acceptable storage methods.

Women play key roles in raising animals and in harvesting and processing livestock products both for home consumption and for sale. Although men are often the owners (and sellers) of large livestock, it is the women who perform most of the household labour devoted to animals. As males seek off-farm employment, rural women are assuming greater and more varied roles in managing the family farm, including animal husbandry operations. At the same time, and in response to the expanding urban demand for livestock products, peri- and intra-urban stock-raising has increased as income-earning enterprises. It is the women and children who are mainly involved in these activities. In most cities in the developing world, women are also vendors of prepared foods, many of which utilize livestock products.

Rural women are major caretakers and users of forests. They are the main gatherers of fodder and fuelwood, and they seek out fruits and nuts to provide food for their families. In addition, they use bark, roots and herbs for medicines. Women’s gathering activities are important for household income and nutrition. Women's knowledge of forest products represents a vast database of species which scientists are unable to catalogue. Tribal women in India, for example, know medicinal uses for some 300 forest species.

The products women collect are important supplements to the family diet. Much of what they gather is processed or marketed, bringing in supplementary cash income. During periods of famine and shortage, women gather buffer foods which would not be consumed under circumstances of less duress but can be crucial to family survival during a crisis. Beyond the immediate benefits of food and medicinal plants that are consumed by the family or sold on the market, easy access to forest products, particularly fuelwood, gives women time for other activities.

Forests often represent an important source of employment for women. From nurseries to plantations and from logging to wood processing, women make up a significant proportion of the labour force in forest industries throughout the developing world.

Women’s contribution to fisheries is substantial. In some regions, women are engaged directly in fish production, fishing from the shore, small boats or canoes, or serving as boat crews. In many communities, women also play a major role in making and/or mending fishing gear. Where aquaculture is practiced, women’s contribution to feeding and harvesting fish is immense. In most fishing communities, women predominate in the handling, preservation and processing of fish products. During post-harvest activities they assist in unloading boats and nets. During the processing activities they work at sun-drying, salting, smoking and preparing fish paste and cakes.

In many regions, women have the primary and often exclusive responsibility for marketing fish products. Since the income from the sale of fresh or processed fish often represents an important contribution to a family’s overall income, effective marketing is critical in determining the family's standard of nutrition and living. This is especially true where women control this income— they are more likely than men to spend money on alternative sources of food and other basic household necessities.


Causes of poverty and food insecurity among rural women

The root causes of persistent poverty and food insecurity among rural women and the families they support are interrelated. They include:

  • Lack of access and control of productive resources and services
  • Over- and underemployment
  • Inequalities in employment opportunities and remuneration
  • Exclusion from decision- and policy-making
  • An unfavourable legal environment

It was the overall structural factors in society—the rules and practices of the household, community, market and the state—which sustained women’s subordinate position. These needed to be understood and effectively changed.

Market-based initiatives for agricultural sustainability


Women are both producers and traders of food. They thus play important roles in their communities, as well as in national economies.


As food producers, traders and family caretakers, rural women play important roles in their communities, as well as in national economies. Limited access to credit and other financial services, such as savings and deposits, is limiting their efforts to initiate or expand income-generating activities. Provision of access to these services would help ensure financial stability and discourage dependence on external sources. However, women receive only a minor share of the total agricultural credit—even in countries where they play a predominant role in food production. Given the current trend of male migration and the increasingly important role for women in overall farm management, the problem of lack of credit assumes much greater importance. Experience in Bangladesh with rural microfinance shows that women may be better credit risks than men (generally higher rates of repayment). Still, banks and other formal lending institutions are reluctant to extend credit to them since the loans are usually small and women tend to be inexperienced borrowers, often unable to meet collateral requirements such as land title or cattle.

Since women are not usually involved in development projects and since extension programmes are oriented mainly to men, women are often ignorant about procedures governing institutional credit. Their limited participation in farmers’ associations and cooperatives also restricts their access to credit since membership in such organizations provides both loans and credit information. As a result, women are often forced to rely on informal sources of credit from family, friends and traditional moneylenders, which are are not always dependable due to the high cost of borrowing and limited availability of capital. Continued reliance on such weak sources of credit moves women away from mainstream financial system and perpetuates the marginalization of their economic activities. As a result, women’s businesses tend to be smaller and grow more slowly than men’s. They are more likely to be home-based and in sectors that are technologically unsophisticated and overcrowded to the point of market saturation.

Women’s limited access to marketing facilities and services inhibits their efforts to expand the volume of their income-generating activities. Women all over the world are highly active as traders, hawkers, street vendors and marketers. In West Africa, women traders handle 60-90 per cent of domestic produce from farm to consumer. They have a similar role in many Caribbean countries and in the Andean region of South America.

Although women play a predominant role in marketing in many countries, little has been done to assist their activities through improved transportation or better market facilities. Even in countries where they have traditionally important roles in the wholesale trading of certain goods, illiteracy or restrictions on their independent legal capacity prevent them from meeting the procedural requirements of formal service institutions. Only in a few instances have women had access to training in marketing, accounting and management. Women, as well as men, need increased access to appropriate financial services such as savings, deposits and credit. They also need a greater capacity to negotiate with formal rural finance structures. Effective policy-making and planning requires more data and information on the roles and constraints of women in marketing.

Women are often the major suppliers of household subsistence. When their access to productive resources declines, more people suffer from poverty and its related effects, including hunger, malnutrition and illness. Improving women's access to resources and services increases farm productivity, provides a more efficient use of resources and, ultimately, yields higher profitability.

It is imperative that we enhance the access of women to appropriate technologies and information regarding crop and livestock husbandry and processing of farm and animal products. This requires technologies that are labour-saving and efficient, environmentally friendly and profitable, and that take into consideration consumer needs for products that are safe, nutritious and affordable.

Women in fisheries often lack access to physical and capital resources, to decision-making and leadership positions and to training and formal education. Access to these would improve the efficiency, profitability and sustainability of their activities. Although large-scale fisheries development projects, mechanization and improved technology may increase productive capacities, they can also increase the post-harvest work of women. This increased workload is often performed without improved remuneration or deprives them of traditional forms of employment and income. If a fisheries activity is enlarged or mechanized, it often becomes the domain of men.

Insecure land tenure reduces people’s incentives to maintain soil quality because they have no permanent rights to the land. Access to land affects both men and women. In areas where it is restricted, however, women face the added difficulty of having their requests for land mediated through men. Even the use of small plots must be granted by a husband, inherited from a father or requested from male village elders. If women have their own plots, they are usually small, dispersed, remote and less fertile. In areas with a high divorce or abandonment rate and where land remains with men in the case of separation, women are reluctant to invest time and resources in long-term land improvements such as building irrigation or drainage systems, terracing, planting trees or other activities that maintain soil fertility.

When women do not own land, they often have no access to agricultural support services such as credit with which to purchase inputs, to training in land and water development or to water resources for irrigation.

Research and agricultural technology development are also required for post-harvest activities, many of which are carried out by women. Where post-harvest losses are high, farmers often must cultivate the land more intensively to obtain the same yield. This places additional stress on the environment. Providing rural women with the information and technologies needed to reduce post-harvest losses is an important means of increasing available food supplies, reducing women's time and labour constraints and easing environmental stress.

People-oriented sustainable development can only realize its potential if rural people are involved and motivated and if information and knowledge are shared. Participatory communication methods and media serve to establish a dialogue with rural people and increase their participation in decision-making. Communication strategies have also proved effective in conflict resolution and in defining common goals. In many societies, women are increasingly using communication technologies to help their visions of sustainable livelihoods become reality.

At present, however, communication methods and techniques have not been sufficiently applied to issues of specific concern to rural women. Communication can play an important role in empowering rural women and increasing their participation in decision-making. At the same time, properly designed communication strategies can promote the sharing of information, knowledge and skills with women, as well as learning from them.

In conclusion, there are a wide range of market-based initiatives that can ensure a greater and more efficient participation of women in sustainable agricultural development. Policy-makers at the national level, specially in developing countries, need to pay greater attention to these initiatives so that the time and effort spent by women in agriculture is made more worthwhile, thereby ensuring greater benefit to the society at large.

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