Women are Key to Ending World Hunger

Image of women and children holding fruit above their heads.

Image by Zeyn Afuang.

It is one of the world’s greatest tragedies, and it is still neglected. In 2021, the world reached a new, although unwelcome landmark: the number of people affected by hunger rose to 828 million, an increase of about 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This, according to a United Nations report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI). The numbers are evidence that the world is moving away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by the end of this decade, according to the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Food insecurity (defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food) is growing. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2022 nearly 258 million people across 58 countries faced higher levels of food insecurity. And women continue to be an underutilized resource to improve this situation.

Although the proportion of people affected by hunger remained relatively unchanged between 2015 and 2019, it increased in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021 to 9.8 percent of the world population, compared with 8 percent in 2019. At the same time, there has been a marked gender gap in food insecurity in 2021. Thirty two percent of women in the world were moderately or severely food insecure, compared to 27.6 percent of men.

World conflicts, economic shocks, climate change and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have driven the increase in global hunger. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, often eating last, and eating less. As a result of the war in Ukraine, the global food supply chain has been disrupted, since that country is major supplier of cereal grains and sunflower oil.

What is the best approach to solving this problem? According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), improving women farmers’ access to adequate resources, technologies, markets, and property rights can help them increase agricultural productivity and improve household nutrition. This is relevant because women’s work has an impact on their nutritional status and that of their families. The Global Food and Farming Futures states that the existing food system is failing half of the people in the world today.

Women make up 43 percent, on average, of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and they tend to have low-paying jobs. They have, for the most part, seasonal or part-time work. Plots managed by women tend to be smaller than those managed by men, and they have less access to tools and technology compared to male farmers. Women farmers with better resources could increase their incomes and agricultural yields, better manage natural resources and help secure livelihoods for their families. It has been estimated that by providing women the same resources as men, they could increase agricultural output by 4 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.

Women have the traditional role of being the sole care-givers for children, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and all those who cannot care for themselves. In Africa, women work approximately 50 percent more hours each day than men. I remember visiting the countryside in Equatorial Guinea where I saw what is called casa de la palabra (house of the word.) There, men gather in the afternoon after work and spend several hours chatting or discussing problems in the village or community, while their wives continue working at home or in the fields. This is true in other African countries as well.

There is still little recognition of the critical role that women could play in increasing agricultural and business productivity. Although commercial banks are lending more to women entrepreneurs to develop new agricultural services and products, some interventions such as land tenure rights and access to markets continue to keep women from accessing those resources.

In Cameroon, for example, women hold less than 10 percent of land certificates, even though they perform a significant part of the agricultural work. In Africa, 70 percent of the food is grown by women; in Asia, the figure is 50-60 percent and in Latin America it is 30 percent. But women’s work is not limited to the production of food crops; they are also involved in the production of cash crops.

Women’s work is essential for the survival of their families. In Kenya, it has been shown that women with the same levels of education, information, experience and farm resources as men have 22 percent greater farming yields. To help eliminate hunger, women should have easier access to seeds, fertilizers, and time-saving technologies, as well as better credit, more arable land, and better job opportunities. Women are probably the world’s most underutilized resource. Creating more opportunities for women to support their families through new agricultural initiatives will significantly boost their productivity and help end the scourge of world hunger.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”