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Women's Empowerment through Food Security: Feminisation of Agriculture?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Women play a crucial role as producers of food, as income earners, and as caretakers of households, which is often undervalued in our economy. According to Mckinsey (2015), empowering women to participate equally in the global economy could add $28 trillion in global annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by the year 2025. Hence, it is of paramount importance to explore the impact of women's contribution to food security, especially in developing economies. Looking at economic development through a ‘gender lens’ highlights the critical relationship between gender-based discrimination and different channels through which women could access food. While formulating public policies on food security and allocating budgetary resources, taking gender analysis into consideration would, in turn, pave the way to a transformed and equitable gender system globally.

Needless to say, women face a plethora of additional difficulties such as, for instance, limited access to land, unpaid care work, poor access to crops, doing community work and household chores which has exacerbated the gender inequities. Due to structural discrimination and societal norms, women in the informal sector earn lower wages relative to men. According to the World Bank Business and the Law Report (2018), it is postulated how legal restrictions on women traveling outside their home, in 16 of the 187 countries analysed, may have resulted from cultural preferences for female seclusion. Moreover, women have restricted access to credit, savings, insurance programs, resources, legal protection, fertilisers and technology, thus, leading to lower land productivity.

Feminisation of Agriculture- Opportunity or Burden?

Some veil the current scenario, of men’s declining role in agriculture, as female empowerment but we know that female workforce participation is increasing in the most precarious forms of labour. A recent survey by the Social Attitudes Research Institute (SARI)[1] states that around 40% respondents feel that women don’t need to work if the husband is earning enough. So, where is the female workforce engaged really? As a process largely driven by the outmigration of men from rural areas, feminisation of agriculture might not necessarily have a relationship with wider indicators of women’s social or economic empowerment.

Instead, women’s growing participation in agriculture might appear to be strongly related to several indicators of poverty. The crippling workload shouldered by women when men are absent has been raised in numerous studies. It’s also been noted that feminisation can produce substantial challenges when women combat new roles, since they don't have access to an equivalent range of assets as their male counterparts. Thus, the feminisation of ‘agriculture’ might better be described as the feminisation of ‘agrarian distress’ since women’s growing contribution of labour in agriculture adds to the already heavy work burden of most women and undermines their well-being.

Food Insecurity: Litany of Woes?

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, women comprise about 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and are key for food security and nutrition. They share responsibility with men for the care of animals and many more activities that are more associated with women than men (FAO, 2011). The impact of women is strong in the utilisation of eggs, milk and poultry meat for home consumption and they often control the marketing aspects. Perhaps, for this reason, small-scale dairy businesses have been popular investment projects for developing countries aiming to improve the plight of rural women. Therefore, a major proportion of women working in the informal non-agricultural sectors, such as trading and small-scale processing, generates income for them to purchase food.

Moreover, women food crop entrepreneurs can play important economic roles that have positive effects beyond the micro-level (for instance, supplying food products) but are often hindered by persistent discriminatory practices. Time shortage compels many women to start industries, such as handicrafts, which are characterised by low returns. Women who are prone to domestic violence, due to lockdown measures in place, have also gathered the courage of staying independent and feeding their children single-handedly.

The Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) has also installed greenhouses and are developing ‘community gardens’ while also spreading awareness on the usage of High-Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds. A plethora of projects have been conducted by the government in which rural women have learned how to prepare food in a clean place, which improves their standard of living drastically. Drought and famine is still a very cumbersome issue to handle as we have crop loss, rise in prices of essential commodities which leads to loss of income of poor households. Most women are also afraid of entering agribusiness. Some believe it is the duty of men to look after them as they are confined to agricultural peripheries. The underlying issue, thus, is that of ‘gender norms’ and ‘social beliefs’, wherein men are supposed to be the breadwinners and women's job is to clean, cook, fetch water and care for children and the elderly. This shows how society not only wants to control women's wombs but also disregards their fundamental rights.

Despite there being a strong correlation between food insecurity and gender inequality, the development discourse is blatantly gender blind in India (Rao & Pradhan et. al, 2017). Hence, economists and policy makers need to ensure equal entitlements to resources, services and returns to labor for women workers in the agriculture sector.

Sexist Oppression and Power Inequities: Double-edged Sword?

Women have a perceptive power that differs substantially from that of men. Woolf (1929) argued that education should bring out those differences instead of enforcing similarity, and then acknowledge and enhance the richness and diversity of human culture. From feminist economics we learn how ‘socially constructed’ gender relations are often characterised by ‘power inequities’, wherein one gender dominates the other in different spheres of social, economic and political life. According to Bergmann (1986) and Folbre (2001), women run the risk of becoming vulnerable to power inequities if they specialise in non-market work. Underlying these power inequities are often societal judgements about gender identities and roles.

In ‘The Second Sex’, Beauvoir (2015) disagreed with the Marxist idea that because women performed household and child bearing tasks and men were adept in hunting and fishing, men represented the class of ‘bourgeois’ and women represented the ‘proletariat’. According to her, a move from capitalism to socialism would not necessarily change the relationship for the better. As a result, women are just as likely to remain on the bottom side of the society due to an original aspiration of the male sex to dominate over the female sex. Unless and until women themselves cast off the weights impeding their progress, their progress towards authentic selfhood would remain halted.

Our social system, inherently patriarchal, has taken on a form of its own and works to keep some people up but others down. In ‘Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression’, Bell Hooks focused on racist and classist oppression as being an integral part of the feminist struggle. Thus, there is a pressing need to define feminism and recognise underlying structures that cause many sorts of oppression. Hooks (1984) argued that feminism should be a political commitment, a revolutionary movement to end sexist oppression. No oppression is privileged- sex and race oppression are inter-related. However, sexist oppression is what most of us experience on a daily basis.

Prima facie, both mobility and technical knowledge have been the domain of men. Control over women’s bodies and movements has always been crucial to patriarchy’s survival and restricting women from technical knowledge is a corollary to this ideology of control. To be mobile, thus, becomes an important mode of patriarchy and is emancipatory in itself. The idea of empowerment deployed in this article, as elsewhere in development policy-making, implicitly devalues and erases subaltern women’s contributions to the productive labour force. Furthermore, Gajjala (2017) points out that this erasure of their contribution allows us to look at the ‘inclusion of women’ into a contemporary, global workforce as being empowering in and of itself. Needless to say, this devaluation depends on a problematic division between the domestic and public space as well as home and outdoors work.

Indubitably, when the income share of women is high , there is lesser discrimination against girls and women are able to meet their own needs, as well as those of their children, more efficiently. When household income is marginal, virtually 100% of women’s income goes towards household nutritional intake. It is aptly highlighted how a mother is the ‘first teacher’ of any child and evidently, a mother’s education has a great impact on her children’s education and health outcomes. Thus, children with educated mothers are likely to get better primary education and health. Therefore, valuing women and girls is a decisive factor in making societies more prosperous.

Women's rights and food security go hand in hand. The sooner we connect the two, the faster would be the growth of our world economy. Giving women access to livelihood assets is absolutely critical and important. Investors in farming have a significant role to play in raising gender equality and women’s economic empowerment since this essentially determines women’s labour force participation. Thus, we need policies that are more gender- responsive and recognises the crucial role and capacity of women in agriculture. Women’s education also leads to lower fertility and child mortality, fewer dropout rates from school, as well as better health, nutrition for children. When some extra income is given to women they completely spend it on children’s education for better growth. For the world, the future is women.

The Rise of Capitalism and Dignity of Labour:

We are witnessing an ‘immiserisation’ of the labouring poor, especially women (the meaning is self-explanatory: miserari= to pity and immiserise= to become poorer, pitiful in Latin). Schumacher (1973) rightly warned us that a society that views nature purely through the lens of exploitation ruins any chance of long-term survival. Why is it that the upper and middle-class population of our country, aware of their rights, is completely indifferent towards the rights of workers in their own homes and surroundings?

Challenging the market perspective of labour being a mere factor of production not only promotes the dignity of the workers but also becomes a bedrock for the institutions seeking to defend and promote the interests of workers. To broaden our concept of dignity, we might wish to address Amartya Sen’s notion of basic participation in one’s social world, “the absolute capacity to require part within the lifetime of the community”[2]. Dignity, in this view, is supremely social, not simply in the way of being conferred by others like some kind of prize, but in its cultural essence, within the collective process of creating a social world and consensus by which individuals achieve their own participation (Sen, 1993).

Work is changing fast and so is the economy. David Harvey, for instance, highlighted how capitalist transformation of space wasn’t just embedded in class relations, but also in the social relations that interact with the spatial strategies of capital. According to Harvey (2003) under the spatial-political economy literature, during this restructuring of space, the interaction of capital with social relations is often more complex and based on gender, religion, language, location, race, caste and ethnicity. Thus, capitalism transforms space, by creating new spaces and bringing in newer geographies under the control of the circuits of capital. This expansion also includes the destruction of space, leaving a trail of devastation and dislocation.

As Doren Massey argued, the economic space must be conceptualised as “the product of the differentiated and intersecting social relations of the economy” (Massey 1995). The present trend represented by insecure, poorly paid and unorganised informal labour must be reversed. Thus, decent work must shape the economy. The question that arises is; If work should shape the economy, what should it shape into? The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG-8) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) talks about promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and ‘decent work’ for all. The failure to provide meaningful employment for women would be but a catastrophic developmental failure for an economy like India.

Global Pandemic: A Ticking Time-Bomb

Coronavirus has both macro-economic and social consequences for countries across the globe, particularly in hampering the informal labour force. This global illness has made the entire world aware of the importance of food security and nutrition. We have all witnessed the major disruption to food chains in the wake of lockdowns which has affected the six pillars of food security- availability, stability, agency, access, utilisation, and sustainability which are essential for guaranteeing the right to food. Improving women’s education is probably the single most important policy to increase agricultural productivity and reduce hunger.

Returns to female labour increase with higher levels of female education, and would hence boost productivity. Enlarging women’s control over livestock contributes to women’s authorisation and their family’s welfare by increasing their incomes and access to nutritious food, as well as by increasing their social networks. Infrastructure investments and networking may also empower women by offering greater mobility for marketing, seeking health care and attending school. This is especially imperative for women who are often chained to their homes. Thus, technology planned specifically to address their needs can empower women by increasing their productivity or reducing their workload. For us, as a generation, it is a blessing to witness this revolutionary shift in our society that was primarily biased towards one gender. Gender equality now seems like a reality- not so far away!

Social norms and culture, which in turn affect preferences, behaviours and incentives to foster specific skills, are key factors in understanding gender differences in labour force participation and wages. In order to bring about a fundamental change in the gender distribution of labour and to achieve ‘equality in opportunities’, social norms and stereotypes inherent in our culture must be changed. As difficult as this strategy may seem, it is not impracticable. Thus, it is reasonable to say that it is not the ‘mightiest’ that would survive this pandemic. On the contrary, the ones who ‘adapt’ to changes would not only survive but also thrive and evolve.


In the era of late capitalism[3], there is an urgent need to rethink ways in which finance can contribute to building a ‘nurturing’ economy, in which the informal women workers are given priority and not left with a continual disadvantage, feeling inadequate and susceptible to poverty and exploitation. Thus, it is imperative to reshape our financial systems and devise public policies to serve humanity and promote decent work among women workers, rather than perpetuating financial marginalisation of the poor. Indeed, abandoning the world’s most impoverished countries now would only cause a plethora of preventable deaths and further a global economic instability that puts all of our community at ongoing risk. A truly global fight is a moral priority.

Indubitably, we all must take a deep breath and introspect on how to use this annus horribilis as an opportunity to break free from our abysmal habits. We are in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everybody is arguing over where they’re getting to sit! The Coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced, and we are going to have to work together to solve it by rethinking gender roles. The endeavour to protect our planet requires a collective effort, which, as the Agenda 2030 motto says, “cannot leave anyone behind”. Gender equality must be a prerequisite and therefore, the new world order should include women leading the way!


Bergmann, B. (1986). The economic emergence of women’, Basic books, New York.

Beauvoir, S. de. (2015). The second sex. Vintage Classics.

FAO. (2011). The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11: Women in agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development. United Nations, Retrieved from-

Folbre, N. (2001). The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, New York: New Press.

Gajjala, R. (2017). The problem of value for women’s work.

Harvey, D. (2003). The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hooks, B. (1984). Feminist theory from margin to center, South End Press.

Massey, D.B. (1995). Spatial divisions of labour: Social structures and the geography of production, Routledge, New York.

McKinsey Global Institute report. (MGI 2015). The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, Retrieved from-

Rao, N., Pradhan, M. & Roy, D. (2017). Gender justice and food security in India: A review. IFPRI Discussion Paper 1600. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Sen, A. (1993). Capability and Well-being, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

Woolf, V. (1929). A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.


1. Simran Massey

B.A. (Honours) Economics, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, 2015-2018

Masters in Public Policy (MPP), St. Xavier’s College, (Autonomous), Bombay, 2018-2020

Contact No- +91 7678692191

2. Rashi Lodha

Bsc. Economics, Calcutta University, Kolkata, 2016-2020

Msc. Economics, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata, 2020-2022

Contact No- +91 9804943554

[1] Social Attitudes Research, India (SARI) survey covered 6,370 adults in Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Additionally, 1,695 men were also interviewed in Mumbai, 48% of whom answered that married women whose husbands earn a good living should not work outside the home. [2] The Capability Approach was first articulated by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in the 1980s, and has been employed extensively in the context of human development. Here, ‘poverty’ is understood as deprivation in the capability to live a good life, and ‘development’ is understood as capability expansion. [3] A term used in Marxism since the 1930s, but brought into prominence in critical theory by the work of economic historian Ernest Mandel with the publication of Late Capitalism (1975). By late capitalism, Mandel meant simply the latest or most current stage of capitalism's development, namely the transformations that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production since the end of World War II. In modern usage, late capitalism often refers to a new mix of high-tech advances, the concentration of (speculative) financial capital, Post-Fordism, and a growing gap between rich and poor.

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