Blog Post

FAO Status of Women in Agrifood Systems report: Reflecting on a decade of measuring progress in women’s empowerment

I was recently in Rome attending the April 13 launch of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2023 report The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems. I’ve been privileged to work with FAO colleagues as an external expert on two flagship reports on gender: The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development and now this one, together with colleagues from the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform. The 2010-2011 report was pathbreaking because it presented specific estimates of the agricultural productivity gains from closing gender gaps in access to resources including labor and fertilizer. It continues to be cited frequently, even though the information is now more than a decade old. So I was delighted to be invited to contribute to a background paper for the current report and to be involved in the review process.

This new report is impressive. As part of the launch event, I was asked to comment on its conceptual and analytical innovations compared to our efforts of a decade ago. The report’s key underlying theme is transformation, a concept embodied in each of its five key innovations that go beyond the earlier report:

First, a broader scope that extends from agriculture to agrifood systems, reflecting both the wider range of women’s involvement as well as continuing structural transformation. The report points out that 36% of the world’s working women are in agrifood systems (AFS). In many low-income countries these systems are the principal source of women’s employment: In southern Asia, 71% of women in the labor force work in AFS, compared to 47% of men; in sub-Saharan Africa, AFS account for 66% of women’s employment vs. 60% of men’s. This broader systems focus has allowed the authors to examine wage employment, which is becoming more important to women’s livelihoods as economies transform. This has enabled a more realistic assessment of the economic returns to attaining gender equality. Estimates that focus on agricultural productivity alone will understate the returns to attaining gender equality. 

Second, an explicit focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality. Elevating this to a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) has done much to focus public attention on women’s empowerment as a goal in itself and helped make it imperative to measure progress towards the 2030 date for achieving it. At IFPRI, our work on the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) has contributed to better measurement of women’s empowerment.

Third, a willingness to tackle difficult topics like gender-based violence, intersectionality, conflict, and social norms. In earlier years, FAO may have hesitated to tackle these topics in an official publication. But times have changed, and I am very happy that FAO is engaging in these discussions and trying to find solutions. There are deep-seated barriers to women’s empowerment; closing gender gaps in access to productive resources alone cannot eliminate these barriers, because the underlying norms, structures, and institutions at the root of these gender gaps still persist.

Fourth, greater reliance on evidence—particularly from impact evaluations incorporating both quantitative and qualitative approaches—has illuminated what really works to close gender gaps and create opportunities for women to empower themselves. FAO economists used impact estimates from the evaluations to simulate the gains to designing agricultural development projects with intentionality—to “walk the walk” in projects that have women’s empowerment objectives. The report estimates that if half the development interventions in agrifood systems were focused on empowering women, the incomes of an additional 58 million people would be significantly improved, and an additional 235 million would have greater resilience to climate change and conflict. 

Fifth and finally, a greater emphasis on policies, both national and international, to ensure gender equality in agrifood systems. Despite this progress, however, the report notes there is still a long way to go in making women’s empowerment a consistent policy goal in agrifood systems. It finds that while 75% of agricultural policy documents from 68 countries recognize women’s roles and the challenges they face in agricultural development, only 19% had gender equality in agriculture or women’s rights as explicit policy objectives. A mere 13% encouraged rural women’s participation in the policy cycle.

Measuring women’s empowerment with the WEAI

I was also asked about ongoing efforts to measure women’s empowerment in agrifood systems. A lot of the evidence generated on the returns to women’s empowerment over the past decade came from our work developing the WEAI. In 2012, FAO and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) co-hosted the launch of the WEAI during the 56th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Since then, WEAI-based metrics have been adopted in 247 organizations in 59 countries—we celebrated its 10th birthday last year!

These efforts have generated clear evidence that positively associates women’s empowerment with agricultural production, food security, diets, and nutrition. We were able to make direct associations because data on all these outcomes were collected from the same individuals within the same households.

We recently did a review on the relationship between women’s empowerment and food systems outcomes, based on studies using the WEAI (Myers et al. 2023). The review findings are prominently featured in The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems report and support the value of women’s empowerment and gender equality for improving diets and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and investment in the next generation, in addition to their intrinsic value. Nevertheless, we found that there is still very little evidence on the relationship between women’s empowerment and environmental outcomes, and between women’s empowerment and resilience. We need to know more about these relationships; that will require collecting more WEAI data and outcomes of interest in more countries and contexts.

Of course, to scale up adoption of a women’s empowerment measure, we need more countries to start using it, and on a nationally representative scale. People have complained that the WEAI is too long. That’s why IFPRI, Emory University, Oxford University, and the World Bank Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS) Unit are working with the 50x2030 Initiative (of which FAO is a key partner) to develop a more streamlined measure, the Women’s Empowerment Metric for National Statistical Systems (WEMNS), that national statistical offices can use. With FAO’s partnership, we hope to launch WEMNS later in 2023.

Agnes Quisumbing is a Senior Research Fellow with IFPRI's Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division.