Op-Ed: Ending global hunger requires tackling gender inequality

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By Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director, African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

The yawning global gender gap is at the heart of our inability to end hunger. Whether last in the family to eat, blocked from owning land, or entirely ignored by extension workers and policymakers, gender inequality – and specifically discrimination against women – is a key driver of global hunger.

The cost of ending global hunger has been estimated at anything from $7 billion to $265 billion per year, largely because experts cannot agree on the primary causes or solutions. 

As academics, activists and policymakers continue to explore the role that climate change, disease outbreaks, and unstable markets have in exacerbating global hunger, still too few are connecting the dots between gender inequality and hunger.

Hunger itself knows no gender, affecting 820 million men, women and children alike worldwide. But circumstances leading to hunger and malnutrition often arise because gender inequality tends to disadvantage women as producers and carers and, importantly, as professionals in fields such as science, technology and innovation.

We cannot continue neglecting the vital contribution of women in agriculture if we are to have any hope of improving global food security. This means addressing the under-appreciated and vital role of women – not just in producing and preparing food for their families, but also in conducting and leading scientific research needed to enhance the production and equitable distribution of food to all.

Women account for more than 40 per cent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, often working longer hours and taking on more labour-intensive tasks, such as weeding and tending to livestock. For example, weeding a single hectare of sorghum by hand can take around 324 hours of labour.

Yet while women bear the burden of drudgery on farms, they do so without access to many of the same resources as men, facing a yield gap of up to 30 per cent as a result.

By providing women with the inputs and services that meet their needs, total agricultural output in developing countries could rise by up to four per cent.

To effectively tackle global hunger, all scientists must have the skills and commitment to address the needs and priorities of women farmers across agricultural value chains.

Named after its inventor, Ethiopia’s Fetina variety of barley is an example of what happens when scientists collaborate with, and respond to the needs of women farmers.

Developed by Prof. Fetien Abera in consultation with farmers across the Ethiopian highlands, Fetina barley is easier to de-husk which reduces demands on women’s labour, allowing them to increase their output and freeing up their time and energy.

Prof. Abera’s own life story is itself an example of why we must also address the systemic and systematic inequalities that stop women in agricultural research from bringing their best innovations to the fore. Since becoming the first woman plant breeder and lecturer at Mekelle University, she has overcome tremendous challenges in her rise to the rank of Deputy Vice Chancellor.

Gender biases in scientific research mean that not only are the needs of women producers ignored, women scientists are less likely than men to publish their work in journals, and when they do publish papers, they are less likely to be the lead investigator.

The result is that women’s achievements in science, research and development often slip through the equality gap. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) reports that only 30.5 per cent of patent applications have one woman inventor.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, just one in four agricultural researchers are women, meaning that women are underrepresented in the leadership roles where priorities are set, decisions made and resources allocated for research on the continent.

A recent study found it may take up to 320 years before an equal number of men and women are working in senior science roles worldwide. We cannot afford to wait this long.

Since 2008, African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) has invested in accelerating the careers of the continent’s female scientists such as Prof. Abera. 

In addition to leadership training, we also unlock the wisdom of an older generation of scientists through an intensive mentoring program, and support African women scientists rise to the top of their scientific careers by helping them build the skills needed to raise resources for their cutting edge research.

Our latest work, the One Planet Fellowship, is an innovative partnership between private philanthropy, the public and private sectors, supporting the next generation of African and European scientists to embed gender issues into their research on climate adaptation solutions for African smallholder farmers.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Realising Women’s Rights”, but the reality is that women’s rights are human rights.

We are investing in building a more gender-responsive agricultural research system for Africa because we cannot tackle hunger without first addressing gender inequality.

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