Moving beyond the gender myths in rural development

08 March, 2017

As International Women’s Day comes around, we are bombarded with claims about women’s disadvantages – in wages, ownership of land and property, access to resources – and about their contributions and potential contributions to agriculture, households, and the global economy. Many of these claims involve appeals to official-sounding statistics, such as: 'Women own 1% of the world’s property', or 'Women produce 60-80% of the world’s food'.

Many of these claims are myths. Like many myths, they embody important truths; but nevertheless they are not literally or statistically correct. And when we consider what data would be needed to verify them, it isn’t clear what we would measure. 

The limited evidence available from national-level surveys on Africa, Asia, and Latin America all indicate that while women own considerably less land than men, they own substantially more than 1% of the agricultural land that is owned by households.  Much land is not owned by households, of course; it is owned by governments, corporations, or other entities, and so it is owned neither by 'men' nor by 'women'. Claims about women’s property ownership – as opposed to land alone – are difficult to assess, not least because of the challenges of defining 'property' and figuring out how to measure and value it.   

And while it is certainly true that women are deeply involved in agriculture in the developing world, it is hard to imagine how they could produce 60-80% of the food. How could we reconcile this with the claim above? Could they be producing most of the world’s food while owning almost none of the land?  We also know that women farmers typically have less access to other resources needed for agriculture, including cash or credit and extension services, and use fewer higher-productivity technologies. More to the point, how do we identify what food is produced by women? In much of the world, men and women work together on family farms. When men plough the fields, women weed and harvest, and children protect the ripening crops from birds, how do we identify how much of the food was produced by women? 

At one level, the point is simply that spurious statistical claims have a way of persisting and spreading. But even more important, the myths often lead us astray. Rather than focusing on how much food is produced by women, we need to find ways to support women who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Myths tell us powerful truths, but they are not useful for policy, and myths may even be counterproductive in three ways. 

First, using easily-debunked myths for advocacy purposes can reduce the credibility of the overall claim. If we find that women own 20% of the world’s property, is that good or bad? It is much higher than 1%, but not close to equality. 

Second, good data is needed to benchmark changes. If we want to put in place policies that will benefit women and to demonstrate the success, we need credible indicators of things that can be measured.  These could include women’s labor contributions to agriculture and their control over the income from agriculture. We can measure whether policies that promote land titling include women’s names on the titles. More nuanced metrics may not have the same headline appeal as more extreme claims, but they are more helpful for policy.

Finally, we need analyses that go beyond the numbers. We need good research that goes beyond indicators to understand how women’s roles in agriculture are changing as the sector transforms. What kinds of programs can ensure that women, as well as men, benefit from these changes? We need to understand how women’s access to and control over land is related to formal ownership and what kinds of programs and policies can strengthen land tenure for women and men. 

The myths call our attention to important truths about women’s disadvantages.But we need to move beyond the myths to a better understanding of the complex issues facing women and men.

Cheryl Doss has been working on issues of gender myths in agriculture for several years, much of it in collaboration with Agnes Quisumbing and Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the International Food Policy Research Institute.  It is part of Cheryl’s larger research agenda to find ways to provide better information about women and their relationships with their households, communities, and markets, in order to improve policy.

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About the author(s)
Cheryl Doss
Senior Departmental Lecturer in Development Economics and Associate Professor

Indrajit Roy