There’s a scene in Mad Max: Fury Road where a gray-haired woman opens a worn leather satchel to reveal the most valuable possession imaginable in that apocalyptically bleak, water-starved world: seeds. And while real life is not a summer blockbuster, the status of global food security—and the question of who controls it—is strikingly similar.
“Women hold the keys to food security,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said at the opening of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 39th conference on Saturday. Empowering rural women, she said, combats hunger. But what does gender equity have to do with hunger? If poverty is sexist, is hunger sexist too?
“Absolutely,” said Lyric Thompson, senior policy manager at the International Center for Research on Women. “Across the board, women and girls tend to eat last in the household. This is a huge problem in terms of food security, particularly for pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls who may be beginning menstruation,” all of whom have higher nutritional needs. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry are women and girls.
But when it comes to hunger, the gender gap is more systemic than a dinner table tradition—the chasm reaches back to the fields, where women are doing most of the work. In Africa, eight out of 10 farmers are women; globally, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force on average in developing countries, and grow more than half of the world’s food. Women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, spend four hours each day walking to fetch water. The time adds up: The United Nations estimates the region spends 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s labor by the entire workforce of France. Once they get to the fields, women spend the majority of their time hand-weeding.
“If you’ve traveled in the developing world, you’ve seen a lot of women with babies on their backs, digging in the earth with some kind of hand trowel or shovel,” Thompson said. “They’re a major part of the agricultural workforce and central to food production, especially staple crops.”
However, she continued, “They do more of the work with less of the support.”
For example, women receive only 5 percent of agriculture extension services, which could equip them with higher-quality, drought-resistant seeds; tools like solar-powered foot pumps and irrigation systems; and information about the latest effective agricultural methods.
But the research shows that if you even the playing field, close the gender gap, and grant women the equivalent rights of men, the global food picture changes radically. When people say women hold the keys to global food security, they’re referring to all of that work being done. To solve the problem, to extend the metaphor, they just need to be allowed to turn the keys in the locks.
Women’s agricultural yields are about 20–30 percent less than men’s, not because they are less efficient farmers but because they lack resources and services. Close the gender gap and increase yield, and women could reduce the number of the world’s hungry by 100 million to 150 million people.