BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — The Caribbean appears to fare well in global gender statistics, with a high Gender Parity Index (GPI) and good rankings reported in the most recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2017. However, the picture changes considerably when taking a closer look at the rural economy, where agriculture continues to be the main contributor to people’s livelihoods.
National statistics in several Caribbean countries highlight a significant gender gap across the agricultural sector. In Grenada for example, only 22 percent of registered farmers are women. In Jamaica, the share is 30 percent, which is the highest in the region. The gender gap is even wider in agricultural jobs, ranging from a female share of only 6 percent in Belize, to a high of 24.5 percent in Trinidad and Tobago.
Why is female participation in the Caribbean rural economy so low?
“Gender-based inequalities in accessing land, labour, financial capital, technology and market information, are partly to blame. Compared to men, women are generally less equipped to face the challenge of transitioning from subsistence farming to commercial agricultural production,” says Ms. Ida Christensen, Adviser to the Strategic Program to Eradicate Hunger, Food Insecurity and Malnutrition, at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
According to Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), the 30 percent officially registered female farmers in the country only own 11 percent of the land under cultivation. This means that a large majority of rural women work – and depend economically – on land that does not legally belong to them.
Legal titles to land or other property are required by most banks as collateral to approve agricultural credit, which is essential to boosting productivity levels in the region’s increasingly modernized farming systems. Records, in fact, show that Caribbean women receive fewer loans compared to men, and at a lower cash value. Ironically, this is despite their stronger track record of loan repayment. In Guyana, for example, 90 percent of female heads of farm households have no title to their land and are therefore unable to access credit to expand or improve their farming activities.
Insecure land tenure also limits women’s participation in training, improved technology, market information and agricultural inputs (such as fertilizer and improved irrigation) since such services target officially registered farmers, who are predominantly male. This results in bigger obstacles for women to meet the rapidly evolving food quality and safety standards imposed by local, regional and international food markets. It also renders them less able to manage and mitigate climate change risks and to recover from natural disasters, which are ever increasing in frequency and severity, especially in the region’s small island and low-lying states.
Agriculture extension officers in most Caribbean countries are not sufficiently aware of the importance of gender-equitable service provision, leading them – often unintentionally – to exclude women from benefits and decision-making.
Adding to these constraints, are women’s domestic and caring responsibilities that allow little time to pursue opportunities in training and waged work, and limit their ability to migrate – factors that make them more prone to falling into poverty. A 2016 report by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) titled, The Changing Nature of Poverty and Inequality in the Caribbean: New Issues, New Solutions, estimates that rural poverty is more prevalent among female-headed households, which make up nearly 40 percent of all households in some countries. Moreover, gender-based violence is widely reported – including by UN Women — as a pervasive threat to the human capital and social fabric of the region, affecting all economic sectors including agriculture.
Why does gender equality in Caribbean agriculture matter? Why should national policy-makers pay attention to it?
In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all Caribbean countries have made firm commitments — coupled by national plans – to combat poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition by the year 2030. Disparities between men and women in the region have proven to exacerbate poverty. Conversely, poverty causes the gender gap to widen, especially in rural areas. Policy-makers know that ignoring women’s low participation in agriculture means wasting their countries’ full potential to achieve truly inclusive and sustainable rural development and poverty reduction.
If the commitments are there, why aren’t they turned into actions?
“A number of institutional obstacles are in the way. For a start, most of the region’s countries fail to capture information on women’s work in the informal sector and in subsistence family farming, since national statistics only consider “principle farmers” who are mostly men. In other words, women’s real contribution to animal and crop production, fisheries, household diets, incomes and national wealth are not fully understood, or recognized,” explains Ms. Ida Christensen, Adviser to the Strategic Program to Eradicate Hunger, Food Insecurity and Malnutrition, at FAO.
This inevitably leads to poor gender equitable policy-making and weak national planning for the agricultural sector. A poor evidence base also leads to inefficient targeting of project interventions with ensuing difficulties in achieving project objectives and lasting impact.
For example, in poor hazard-prone farming communities in Dominica and Grenada, failing to include women’s particular needs in disaster risk resilience practices (including early warning and climate information systems), led to poor policy decisions and adaptation measures that undermined food security in the wake of natural disasters. In 2017, a gender equality report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) found that low public sector expertise in gender mainstreaming and poor coordination between ministries place added obstacles to governments’ abilities to address gender inequalities in agriculture.
How can governments overcome these obstacles?
Here are eight tips, based on research conducted by Ms. Christensen and other colleagues, that Caribbean policymakers can use to start answering this question:
1. Strengthen the evidence-base for informed policy-making, through enhancing national statistical capacities to collect, analyze and share sex-disaggregated data, filling the important data gaps that currently exist. To this effect, FAO has published relevant statistical guidelines while the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has developed, tested and now widely uses new methodologies to assess women’s empowerment in agriculture.
2. Enhance cross-sectoral synergies and coordination, through linking: (i) national policies on agriculture, environment, livestock, fisheries, infrastructure development, education, and public health, on the one hand; and (ii) gender policies and plans (where available) on the other. This would sharpen the strategic focus to mainstream gender equality across the various agriculture sub-sectors and enhance national capacities to provide more coherent and effective support, including through appropriate public and private service provision. FAO has developed policy guidance materials for this purpose.
3. Strengthen existing (and/or promote new) legal and regulatory instruments that govern rights to productive resources for women, including the right and access to land titles and capital. FAO’s online Gender and Land Rights Database and its legal assessment tool are useful references in this respect.
4. Design targeted financing mechanisms, products and delivery modalities that can reduce the specific entry barriers of women into agri-businesses. Banks’ conditionalities and collateral requirements for loan approval may need to be revised and complemented by appropriate crop insurance products to protect against risks, especially unpredictable weather events.
5. Develop and strengthen producer organizations (POs) on two fronts: (1) improve POs’ governance structures for equitable decision-making, by introducing realistic quotas for women’s participation and leadership; and by protecting specific women’s products or by-products (branding); and (2) provide targeted support to women’s organizations, as a means to facilitate women’s access to group credit opportunities, input provision, veterinary services, post-harvest infrastructure and transport services.
6. Make extension, training and education programs more gender-responsive, by tailoring the content and delivery modalities to the needs of women. Introduce realistic quotas for women’s participation in training on cropping/fishing/livestock rearing practices, climate change adaptation and appropriate technologies; and promote the gender-sensitivity of rural advisory services, as a means of eliminating explicit and implicit discrimination in participant selection. A guide to developing gender-sensitive value chains, developed by FAO, can support governments in this endeavour.
7. Develop appropriate infrastructure and innovative technologies to help save time and labour, addressing women’s needs, both as producers and as household managers. For example, on-farm infrastructure could include irrigation, alongside biogas units to replace firewood, improved stoves or solar ovens, or rainwater harvesting reservoirs to save time fetching water (especially for Haiti). Information communication technologies (ICTs) also have a strong potential to save labour and time, while making farming more attractive to youth. A guide on how to mainstream gender in the use of ICTs in agriculture has been developed by FAO.
8. Engage men as active partners of change, through stimulating positive behaviour-change that can transform rural lives and livelihoods for the benefit of everyone. Benefits to women can only be sustainable if supported by men. Win-win solutions can be negotiated and agreed upon between women and men working together as allies, from the household to the community, including in tackling gender-based violence. Household methodologies for gender equality have been implemented with great success in other regions, by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). FAO has also just published a policy brief on how food security interventions can contribute to reducing gender-based violence.