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Social & Gender Equity and Rice Agri-Food Systems Transformation: Catalysing the Symbiotic Relationship

Manila, Philippines (November 16, 2023) - Women have key roles on the front line in food systems including in times of crisis and their engagement is vital to overcoming global threats and achieving shared global goals including food and nutrition security and prosperity for all and leaving no one behind. This was the key message in the plenary by Dr. Ranjitha Puskur titled “Social and Gender Equity and Rice Agri-Food Systems Transformation: Catalysing the Symbiotic Relationship”, delivered on the final day of 6th International Rice Congress (IRC 2023). 
One of the biggest challenges for the agricultural community today is providing nine billion people across continents with food amidst climate change, political conflicts, and unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, climate change has resulted in land degradation directly affecting 74% of the poor. Almost 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost through drought and desertification each year where 20 million tons of grain could have been grown. 60 million people were added to the ranks of the hungry during 2014-19 and the COVID-19 pandemic added another 83 to 132 million undernourished people. 60% of the malnourished are women.

Evidence shows that women are most vulnerable and their situation becomes worse in times of calamities. During a crisis, their access to inputs and markets is disrupted along with their access to food supply chains. These lead to higher costs of inputs like seeds and fertilizers. The availability of labor and machinery, and consequently production are affected. Income for farm labor and small trade also shrinks during such times and their assets are depleted. The poorest and the most vulnerable people typically spend about two-thirds of their income on food. The gap in food insecurity between men and women was recorded at 1.7% in 2019 and 4.3% in 2021.

“When men migrate to urban areas it is the women who are left behind to take care of the household including farming and elderly and children,” said Dr. Puskur, a socio-economist specializing in agricultural innovation systems and gender at the International Rice Research Institute, “which means more women are now managing farms and making decisions”. However, evidence shows that women-managed farms are less productive than those managed by men due to the persistent gender gaps in access to productive resources.

While women are vulnerable, they have also demonstrated that they can be agents of change in times of crisis.  According to a study, a woman farmer turns every USD 1.00 investment into USD 31.00  that benefits herself, her family, and the community. Global GDP would increase by a trillion USD if we bridged the gender gap in productivity and the wage gap in agricultural employment.

“We need to work with the women and help them help us achieve our SDGs,” stressed Dr. Puskur.

To build equitable rice-based food systems it is necessary to catalyze the pathways through which gender equality drives the transformation of rice-based agri-food systems and how these rice-based agri food-systems, in turn, support gender equality.

Technology is not gender neutral and it is necessary to develop and introduce gender-responsive innovations and technologies customized to the needs of the women rather than developing innovations and expecting women to use them. Gender-responsive mechanization is needed to reduce the drudgery of agricultural work for women.

“Interventions are embedded in social contexts that define the work that men and women do, and how resources and benefits are distributed,” said Dr. Puskur.  “We cannot assume that technologies or options that we promote will benefit men and women equally.”

One way of developing gender equality in rice-based agri food-systems is through the bundling of socio-technical innovations, according to Dr. Puskur. This includes giving women farmers opportunities to diversify their core agricultural activities to livestock, fisheries, and kitchen gardens as well as reducing their dependence on agriculture which is often affected by extreme weather conditions.

These synergies should also be built with the involvement of the youth in rice-based agri food-systems. The issues of unemployed youth will only be exacerbated in the coming years particularly in South Asia, which will have the largest youth labor force in the world by 2040.

It is only a matter of time when the next crisis will happen and we need to be better prepared for it. Deliberate steps must be taken to develop inclusive and gender-responsive climate and nutrition smart rice-based food systems through equitable access to technologies, advisory services, finance, and digital innovations. We need to engage women and their collectives in nodes of the value chain where the returns are high and focus on diversified systems to reduce the risk. Multi-dimensional and multi-sectoral responses are necessary to deal with this complex challenge. Women need to be engaged in policy-making processes and have their voices heard. Gender data continues to be a huge gap and investing in filling this data and evidence gap to inform the development and implementation of robust policies, foresight, and anticipatory actions is non-negotiable.

Alliances among researchers, policymakers, and the public and private sectors are key to accelerating gender equality in food systems by investing in women, who are a core part of the solution as leaders, innovators, farmers, market players, and caretakers.