Bold actions for gender equality and women’s empowerment in food systems

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Bold actions for gender equality and women’s empowerment in food systems

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
©IFAD/G.M.B. Akash

Somewhere in a rural South Asia, a very enterprising woman toils for about 18 hours a day to feed and care for her family. However, despite working to the point of endangering her own health, she only gets a fraction of her labour. The bulk of her returns go to the landowner.

I met Kapilaben during the South Asia Dialogue on Women, Work and Food Systems in April this year. In a very passionate plea, she talked about the lives of women smallholder producers in India, their struggle to farm on land that they do not have rights to, the lack of access to financial services that work for them, and the exploitation in markets.

But she also spoke of the power of women organising and amplifying their voices.  The power of women owning their businesses. She has hope that those that work in food systems can hear them and support them. That this will be the moment for women and girls.

Kapilaben’s experience is not unique to her. This is the story of millions of women.

Over the past 10 months, we have held dialogues with women in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.

The resounding message by each and every one of these women is that today’s food systems do not work for them. These food systems perpetuate gender inequalities which are reinforced by harmful social and gender norms.

They called for clear commitments and urgent action to make food systems gender just, transformative and equitable. The women are already doing their part, they are counting on our support to make their actions transformatively visible.

These women were very clear that it’s no longer a man’s world. They were also clear that it’s not a woman’s world either. It is OUR world!

Like Kapilaben in India, these women, from Antigua to Zambia, Belize to Nepal, Finland to Kuwait, in cities and villages, are looking to us all to deliver bold actions.

But what does a gender just and equitable food system practically look like?

A just and equitable food system is one in which women’s roles change from being invisible to being visible.

One in which women’s voices are heard, and their leadership is amplified

It is one where food systems roles, responsibilities, opportunities, and choices available to women and girls are not predetermined by restrictive gender roles. And it is one where social and cultural norms and power imbalances are not entry barriers for many women and girls. A just and equitable food system is one where women thrive, and not just survive.

Women are calling on us to take intentional action to implement solutions that will make our food systems gender just, transformative and equitable.

From talking to women across the world, and from expert consultations, the Gender Lever of the UN Food Systems Summit has identified game-changing ideas. I will mention five priority ones.

The first is to close the gender resource gap and increase women’s access and rights to resources and services. These include extension services, security of tenure of land, access to technologies including digital technologies.

The second solution is the establishment of a global mechanism to monitor progress and hold food systems organizations accountable for gender equality in their leadership, their internal workplace policies, and their outcomes.  We are calling it the Global Food 5050 and we will be launching this later this evening

Third, is the creation of an alliance of global and national financial institutions to design and implement gender- transformative finance mechanisms that meet the needs and priorities of women, and that support their empowerment

Fourth, is the establishment, by Member States of governance commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment in food systems by adopting feminist food systems policies that are hinged on gender budgeting, women’s leadership, and monitoring of gender outcomes

Fifth and last is guaranteeing decent jobs and a living wage for women working across the food system.

The women we spoke with are clear about these being the solutions they want. They are clear that women are not the problem to be fixed. It’s our food systems that need fixing.

So, what is our ask to make this transformation happen? 

We are looking for commitments by governments, civil society, private sector and donors, both those present here today and beyond, to support these solutions through a coalition to make food systems work for women and girls.

The urgency to act on gender inequality on food systems has never been higher. Inaction is not an option.


Dr Jemimah Njuki is Director for Africa at IFPRI and Custodian for the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Lever of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021.