BY PAVANE GORREPATI
In a world where many live with plenty, millions still go to bed hungry every night. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by hunger, bearing approximately 60% of the undernourishment burden globally. 1 The issue of food insecurity has historically been attributed to climate and weather, war and displacement, and unstable markets. However, one of the most important determinants of food security is gender equality. The lack of gender equality limits a woman’s potential to actively contribute to rural development and agriculture, thus weakening her chance of attaining food security. 2
A cross-country study of developing nations found 43% of hunger reduction from 1970 to 1995 was directly attributed to gains in gender equality, almost equaling the reduction of hunger attributed to the combined efforts of increased food availability (26%) and improvements to the environment (19%). An additional 12% of hunger reduction was accredited to increased life expectancy of women. 3 Global comparisons show a strong correlation between hunger and gender inequalities as countries ranking highest on the global hunger index have the most severe gender inequalities. 4
Rural men and women also perform different roles when it comes to attaining food security for their communities and households. In many communities, women are responsible for preparing and growing most of the food. 5 Additionally, as women tend to spend more of their income on children’s needs and food, gender equality is associated with increased allocation of food to children. 6 When the mother controls the household’s budget, a child’s chances of survival increases by 20%. 7 Women play a crucial role in determining the household’s diet and the well- being of children, emphasizing the role of gender equity in food security.
A key part of gender equity in low-income counties is a woman’s ability to own land and property. 8 Development economist Bina Agarwal, who works on women’s property rights has stated, “…the single most important factor affecting women’s situation is the gender gap in command over property.” 9 In the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, a positive association was found between a woman’s assets, including land at the time of marriage, and the “share of household expenditures devoted to food.” 10 In many low-income countries, gender bias and discrimination manifest themselves in limiting women’s access to land. 11 Empirical research in the Journal of Agrarian Change suggests that women are left in a more helpless position when they rely on indirect access to resources. 12 A 1999 study showed that when designing and implementing agricultural programs, planners in low income countries lacked gender sensitivity. Additionally, women are often marginalized during negotiations of contracts and leases. 13 In many countries, women are the primary users of land, but their rights to land are rarely recognized. Women farmers are responsible for 60-80% of food production in low income countries, but, globally, own less than 20% of agricultural land. 14 When women have secure rights to land, they are better able to engage in household decision making, access credit, participate in off-farm entrepreneurial opportunities, and rent land. 15
Land is a source of livelihood and a valued form of property. Owning land buffers against economic shocks and notably provides “almost complete insurance against malnutrition.” 16 Women’s ownership of and control over assets affect what a household produces in addition to how the profits from production are distributed within the family. 17 A study in Ghana showed that when women own a share of the household farmland, a larger portion of their household income is allocated to food. 18 A 2006 study found that when women own land, their children are less likely to be severely underweight. 19 In many sub-Saharan African nations, women’s access to land is determined primarily by family. Local customs typically exclude women from ownership, and land is typically passed patrilineally and held in a man’s name. 20 Even a widow’s right to her husband’s land is not secure. A recent study in Tanzania found the Bahaya, Chagga, and Sambaa peoples tend to keep land within the family, which has led to discrimination against women’s rights to control land. 21 Typically daughters are allowed to cultivate the land, but cannot exercise rights over it. In order for land to be used more effectively and have a greater effect in reducing food insecurity, women need more access to land, security of tenure, and control of resources. 22 If women have secure rights to land, they will be better able to contribute to household decisions, including those regarding food and nutrition needs. 23
Overall, women’s ownership and power over assets affect what households produce and how the profits from these productions are distributed within families. If the gender gap is decreased in terms of access to resources such as land, credit, or machinery, the global hunger burden will be significantly reduced. Thus interventions targeting gender equality has the potential to leave 100 million fewer people living in hunger.
Pavane Gorrepati is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Pavane is a History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health major from Iowa. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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