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Investing in women means investing in sustainable development

IRRI Gender and Livelihoods Unit Lead, Dr. Jummai Yila elaborates on the critical role of IRRI in accelerating progress to achieve social equity and sustainable development by investing in women and girls in science and agriculture.

08 MARCH 2024 – According to UN Women, it will take another 286 years before the legal frameworks can be reformed to enable total gender equality. If this continues, more than 340 million women and girls will live in poverty by 2030, and 1 in 4 women will experience moderate or severe food insecurity. So for this year, “Invest in women: Accelerate progress” is the 2024 International Women’s Day rallying theme which aims to escalate efforts toward a healthier and more equal world for all by prioritizing gender-responsive financing at all levels.

In a 2023 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 36% of women and 38% of men from all over the world work in agrifood systems, yet gender productivity, labor, and wage gaps remain. This highlights the issue that women are yet to be given priority in research and development initiatives.  This lack of strategic focus has slowed and undermined the progress and impact of the institution in the lives of women in the rice value chain.

Historically, women have played a significant role in rice production, processing, and marketing and are responsible for major activities in each segment of the rice value chain. Akter et al. (2017) stated that men and women in Southeast Asian countries have similar levels of access to land and production inputs yet gender productivity gaps remain. This means that women are more likely to be burdened with a lack of access to education, food, just compensation, and employment opportunities despite providing equal, if not higher levels of work output than their counterparts.

IRRI believes that women are an essential driving force in rice production which is why social equity is one of the major priorities of the institution. Investing in and empowering women in science is a strategic imperative for sustainable development. By promoting diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunities, research institutions can not only advance scientific knowledge but also contribute to sustainable development and social equity. By mainstreaming gender considerations into research, policymaking, and funding initiatives, we can create a more inclusive and equitable scientific community that benefits everyone.

Investing in women and girls in science is a smart investment for future global prosperity. Women are often at the forefront of sustainable farming practices, incorporating traditional knowledge and innovative approaches to improve crop yields and resilience to environmental stressors. By empowering women in agriculture, we can build more resilient food systems that benefit communities, economies, and the environment. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by women in rice farming and implementing targeted interventions to address these challenges, IRRI can support scientific innovations and technologies that improve livelihoods, increase their incomes, and achieve greater economic independence among women and other vulnerable groups.

IRRI’s  Rice Breeding Innovations (RBI) Department has been developing healthier and climate-smart rice varieties over the past few decades. Research strategies are putting prime effort into integrating gender-inclusive practices – from needs analysis, varietal selection, up to product dissemination. For example in India, after conducting an inclusive varietal selection process with the locals, several women groups have been mobilized to work as bearers of rice management knowledge which they can use to encourage the rest of their respective communities to adopt newer and climate-smart seed varieties.

The Sustainable Impact through Rice-based Systems Department has also been expanding spaces for women through digital tools. Applications like Rice Crop Manager (RCM), among several IRRI-developed tools have put women at the forefront of the development and maintenance of the local information networks. This technology has not only helped smallholder farmers increase their yield and income, but it has also enabled women to be part of decision-making in the farming process.

When we invest in women, we invest in improving them and their community’s education, food security, and nutrition. Oxfam International (2019) cited that “...if women had equal access to education, seeds, agriculture training, mechanization, and water, they could produce 20–30% more food.” FAO further reports that about 58 million people can receive an increase in income and over 235 million can experience heightened resilience if gender-responsive financing is made available to small-scale producers.

Global efforts have achieved a lot in promoting women’s empowerment but there is still work to be done in providing an enabling environment and opportunity structure for women to access credit, quality land, customized training, and markets, and promoting women's leadership and decision-making roles in the rice farming system, and communities, as well as challenging gender stereotypes through education and advocacy, research institutions can empower women to contribute more effectively to rice production and innovation.

Inclusive scientific environments will enable collaborative efforts that address complex and multifaceted challenges, ranging from climate change to healthcare disparities. Women bring to the table solutions as leaders, and innovators, and are powerful agents of change, driving food system transformation. To accelerate progress, promoting women’s empowerment must be scaled, transformative, inclusive, and with its level of urgency– must be intentional in its approach.