While there is no silver bullet to solve global hunger, discussion at the Global Conference of Women in Agriculture (GCWA), held in New Delhi from March 13th to 15th, 2012, pointed to a piece of the solution. In a breakout discussion, participants came to the conclusion that empowering women is the key to improving household access to nutrition.
The question participants left with is how to ensure that women have the power they need to positively influence household nutrition. The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights recently released an issue brief that holds part of the answer: secure rights to land.
Despite the fact that women perform over 40% of the world’s agricultural labor,[i] they are often the main losers of the global food crisis. Because of their relative lack of power, women in food-insecure regions experience higher rates of malnutrition than men. In many of these regions, women experience discrimination starting from birth or even earlier until death. Women often lack the ability to make decisions about food consumption, income expenditure, and even which crops to grow. Even in food secure countries, there is often no relationship between women’s calorie-intake and nutrition[ii] and, in some countries, over 50% of pregnant women are anemic.[iii]
At the GCWA, participants discussed how decisions of intrahousehold dietary allocation and intake are extremely important to reducing malnutrition. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food.”[iv] Often food security is perceived as just having access to sufficient calories, but what families need is access to a fully nutritious menu of food options. Research shows that while male farmers tend to focus on cash crops, women focus on growing crops that provide dietary diversity for the family.[v] When women have more power within the household to decide what to grow, the result is not just increased nutrition for women themselves but increased nutrition for the family in general.
Similarly, when women decide what to consume, household nutrition improves. Women with greater influence over household decisions are more likely than men to make decisions that improve the household’s nutrition,[vi] as women who have control over household expenditures are more likely to spend that income on purchases that benefit the family.[vii] A World Bank report points out that “the income and resources that women control wield disproportionately strong effects on health and nutrition outcomes generally.”[viii] In fact, low-income female-headed households often exhibit better nutrition than higher-income male-headed households.[ix]
Data from South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean “leave no doubt that women’s status, both within the household and in the community, plays a positive role in determining child nutritional status.”[x] Women with higher status have better nutrition and enjoy better prenatal and birthing care than those with low status, especially in South Asia.[xi] Their children, in turn, are more likely to be born at higher birth weights and receive better care critical to their nutritional well-being.[xii]
One of the best ways to give women more power in making agriculture and household decisions is by giving them access to and control over land. While women are significantly less likely to own land than men, where women do own land, they are more likely to control income from that land and have higher status. A study in Central America, for example, found that women with formalized land rights are more likely to have control over household income and access to credit.[xiii] In Nepal, researchers found that women who own land are significantly “more likely to have the final say” in household decisions.[xiv]
In fact, even though in general the land women own is usually smaller and of poorer quality than land men own, [xv] the direct link between women’s land rights and family nutrition status has been confirmed repeatedly. Some salient examples:
- A study in Nicaragua and Honduras found that families spend more on food when the woman of the house owns land.[xvi]
- A study in Ghana showed that when women own a larger share of the household’s farmland, families allocate a larger proportion of their household budget to food.[xvii]
- In Nepal, research demonstrated that the likelihood that a child is severely underweight is reduced by half if the child’s mother owns land.[xviii]
As researchers, governments, and international development organizations continue to come together at conferences like the GCWA to discuss the vital role women play in the future of world food and nutrition security, they must consider one of the most promising ways to empower those women: secure access to and control over land. Addressing women’s empowerment will lead to better nutrition outcomes, not just for women themselves but for the family, and eventually the world, at large.