What do we know about the future of gender equality in relation to food system transformation?

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By Elizabeth Bryan, Marilia Magalhaes, Ranjitha Puskur, Nicoline de Haan, Els Lecoutere, and Hazel Malapit

Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by the CGIAR Foresight Initiative to summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions. This note was prepared in collaboration with the CGIAR Initiative on Gender Equality (HER+) and the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform.

Key messages

  • Foresight research has yet to explore gender equality as an outcome and a driver of food system transformation fully.
  • Foresight analysis can assess which food system investments and interventions are most effective at reducing gender inequalities and increasing women’s empowerment.
  • Addressing structural inequalities, promoting inclusivity in decision-making, and challenging patriarchal norms can enhance gender equality, social inclusion, and women’s empowerment in food system transformation. Neglecting gender barriers when designing and disseminating food system innovations may exacerbate gender inequalities and limit women’s empowerment.
  • Gender equality, women’s empowerment, and social inclusion also drive food system transformation, leading to improved welfare outcomes for all. Foresight research should examine how closing gender gaps in livelihood opportunities, agricultural productivity, and resilience capacities can impact other food system outcomes, such as poverty reduction, food security, and nutrition.
  • While data on gender inequalities in food systems and women’s empowerment have increased over the last 10 years, more sex-disaggregated data and impact evaluation studies are needed for rigorous foresight research on gender equality in agrifood systems.

Recent trends and challenges

Only marginal progress has been made at addressing underlying gender inequalities in food systems over the last several decades. Significant challenges remain in closing gender gaps in agricultural productivity, livelihood opportunities, access to resources and services, and well-being outcomes. Because of these inequalities, women remain marginalized in agri-food systems and lack opportunities to participate in, benefit from, and exercise agency over food system transformation.

Some progress has been made in expanding access to information and communication technology, with potential for closing gender gaps in access to information and financial services (Demirgüç-Kunt et al. 2022 (FINDEX); GSMA 2023). Progress has also been made in collecting gender-disaggregated data and monitoring progress toward increasing women’s empowerment over time and the link with other development outcomes including food security and nutrition. Gender equality has also received greater emphasis in key policy processes and design in recent years at the global and national levels. However, goals are often not met due to challenges during policy implementation.

The confluence of shocks and stressors over the past few years, including COVID-19, the global food crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and escalating climate change, have disproportionately affected women and girls, further amplifying gender disparities. Women and girls are already more vulnerable to shocks and stressors like climate change, especially in areas where climate impacts are severe and where gender inequalities are greatest (Bryan et al. 2023; Koo et al. 2022; Schipper et al. 2022). The gender gap in food insecurity, workloads, and specific challenges such as gender-based violence are intensified during times of stress (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO 2023, Kugler et al. 2023; Nico and Azzarri 2022). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the gender gap in food insecurity notably widened to 3.8 percent in 2021. However, the gap narrowed in 2022 as the pandemic’s impact on women’s food insecurity eased, both on the global scale and in specific regions like Asia and Latin America. The disproportionate impacts of shocks and stressors on women and girls carry significant implications, impacting their short-term coping abilities and long-term resilience.

Figure 1. Source: FAOStat 2023.


What is the latest foresight research on this topic?

Lentz (2021) reviews foresight studies on the links between agrifood systems and outcomes related to gender, poverty, and nutrition and concludes that gender is the outcome least covered across foresight research. The review finds that many technology-focused studies ignore gender-related barriers to adoption based on differential access to resources and services, as well as gender differences in preferences for technologies. Foresight studies that do consider gender often point to gender as a key factor shaping successful transformation of agrifood systems with respect to the other outcomes (ibid).

The World Economic Forum (WEF), in its annual report, tracks and measures gender gaps across four key dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The latest report shows some small gains in closing gender gaps across these dimensions in 2023, following several years in which progress was disrupted by COVID-19 and other global shocks. WEF now estimates that it will take 131 years to reach gender parity across all four dimensions, largely driven by wider gender gaps in the economic and political dimensions (WEF 2023).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also collects data on gender gaps in food insecurity and reports on these in its annual report on the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) and more recently with other UN Agencies in the report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. FAO also recently produced a report on the Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, offering updated insights compared to the 2011 SOFA report, which focused on women in agriculture. The 2011 SOFA report made the case for closing gender gaps in access to agricultural assets, inputs, and services not only to address gender inequality but also for the benefit of the agriculture sector and the broader economy (FAO 2011). The report estimated that if women had the same resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent—production gains that would increase total agricultural output in low-income countries by 2.5–4 percent, thereby reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent.

Moving beyond agriculture, the new Status of Women in Agrifood Systems report emphasizes the importance of tackling structural gender inequalities and investing in women’s empowerment for the transition toward sustainable and resilient agrifood systems (FAO 2023). It estimates that closing the gender gaps in farm productivity and wages in agrifood systems would increase global GDP by at least 1 percent (or nearly USD 1 trillion). As a result, global food insecurity would be reduced by at least 2 percentage points, which corresponds to 45 million people coming out of food insecurity (FAO 2023). The report also estimates that “if half of small-scale producers benefited from development interventions which focused on empowering women, it would significantly raise the incomes of an additional 58 million people and increase the resilience of an additional 235 million people.” Multiple country-level studies by UN Women further support the link between closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity and welfare benefits including a substantial reduction in poverty – by around 80,000 people in Tanzania, 238,000 people in Malawi, and 119,000 people in Uganda per year over the last 10-year period (UN Women 2015).

Another key publication (Njuki et al. 2022) develops a framework illustrating the pathways through which gender equality and women’s empowerment can drive food system transformation. These include addressing women’s differing access to resources; promoting equal and positive gender norms; facilitating women’s empowerment; and promoting more equitable policies, institutions, and governance (ibid). Much progress has been made over the last ten years with respect to measurement and data collection on women’s empowerment, showing that women’s empowerment and gender equality not only have intrinsic value, but other social benefits as well, including better agricultural, health, diet, and nutrition outcomes (Quisumbing et al. 2023). In particular, studies show that higher levels of women’s empowerment in agriculture are associated with better maternal nutrition and women and children’s calorie availability and dietary diversity (Malapit et al. 2015, Sraboni and Quisumbing 2018, Kassie et al. 2020; Bonis-Profumo et al. 2021Projects specifically focused on women’s empowerment leading to women’s greater decision-making power provide greater benefits for both women and men, including higher incomes, food security, household dietary diversity, and ability to recover from shocks, compared to standard development projects (FAO 2023; Quisumbing et al. 2023).

Recent multi-stakeholder participatory foresight exercises conducted in two states of India (Uttarakhand and Odisha) identified several key driving forces of gender equality in agrifood systems. These include the level of co-operation within household, education of women, agricultural knowledge and skills, women’s agency, family support and guidance, women’s workloads, access to labor-saving technology, and collective action of women. Participants highlighted the gradual but slow shifts in constraining norms, but also emphasized the fact that significant efforts are needed for more transformative change (Puskur et al., 2023 forthcoming).

What are the key gaps, questions, and opportunities for further foresight research on this topic?

As noted by Lentz (2021), gender equality has not been adequately explored in foresight research both as a driver of food system transformation and as an outcome. When projecting outcomes of various scenarios, especially those examining technological interventions and management techniques, it is crucial to consider gender inequalities related to resource and services access, resilience capacities, and restrictive social norms. These factors can significantly impact women’s livelihood opportunities and their roles within food systems. There are several potential data sources that could be used to measure the level of gender inequality at the national and sub-national levels for foresight work, including nationally representative Labor Force Survey data, the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index, the Global Data Lab’s Subnational Gender Development Index, Demographic and Health Surveys, and Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index data.

At the same time, foresight analysis can explore drivers of change for greater gender equality and women’s empowerment in agrifood systems. In particular, foresight modeling can help assess which food system investments and interventions are most effective at reducing gender inequalities and increasing women’s empowerment—e.g., closing gender gaps in resources such as land ownership, reaching more women with extension services and finance, or interventions to transform gender norms and relations. Foresight research could also explore how reducing gender inequalities may contribute to other positive food system outcomes, such as greater resilience to climate change, poverty reduction, and food security and nutrition.

Lastly, while data on gender inequalities in food systems and women’s empowerment have increased over the last 10 years, more sex-disaggregated data and impact evaluation studies are still needed for rigorous foresight research on gender equality in agrifood systems.

For more information on the topic, check out these resources:

CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform Resource Hub

Data2X I Partnering for Better Gender DataData2X

Africa Gender Innovation Lab

Launch of the FAO report of “The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems”

World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report

This note was prepared by Elizabeth Bryan, Senior Scientist, and Marilia Magalhaes, Senior Research Analyst, Natural Resources and Resilience Unit, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Ranjitha Puskur (Evidence Module Leader, CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform, and Gender Research Coordinator, International Rice Research Institute), Nicoline de Haan (Director, CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform), Els Lecoutere (Science Officer, CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform and Lead, Gender Equality Initiative (HER+)), and Hazel Malapit (Methods Module Leader, CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform, and Senior Research Coordinator, IFPRI).

If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please get in touch with Elizabeth Bryan (e.bryan@cgiar.org).


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How did the COVID-19 crisis affect different types of workers in the developing world?

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UN Women. 2019. The Cost of the Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. https://africa.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2015/10/the-cost-of-the-gender-gap-in-agricultural-productivity-in-malawi-tanzania-and-uganda

WEF (World Economic Forum). 2023. Global Gender Gap Report 2023: Insight Report, June 2023: World Economic Forum. http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2023

Photo: UN Women/Narendra Shrestha

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