The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Food Security Depends on Girls

Food Security Depends on Girls

In the News

November 27, 2011

Girls are the key to unlocking the full productive potential of agriculture in poor countries, says a recent report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Their report, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, highlights the importance of girls, who are the backbones of rural economies, in becoming agents of social and economic growth in their homes, communities and nations.

More than 80% of rural households in the developing world rely on farming to some degree, and the majority of these farmers are small farmers, working on plots of land that are less than five hectares. Population growth, environmental degradation, and land divisions have led to scarcities in land and water resources, as well as increased concerns about food security and food price volatility. Supporting these small farmers – especially women – is vital to environmental protection efforts and increasing overall agricultural capacity. 

On average, girls and women living in rural, poor areas handle 43% of all farming and almost 100% of all household work. According to the report, if women farmers were given the same productive resources as men, the results could be significant. An integrated, well-supported rural economic development strategy that includes a focus on women could increase women’s agricultural yields by 20 to 30% – in turn increasing national output by 2.5 to 4%. Undernourished people could be reduced by 12 to 17%.

The return on agricultural investment in rural areas is considerable and well- documented. First, gross domestic product growth due to agriculture has been shown to reduce poverty twice as effectively as growth in other sectors. Additionally, as improved agricultural technology increases productivity on the farm, a larger percentage of the rural labor force is freed to seek non-farm employment and respond to increased demand for non-farm goods. Investment in agriculture can result in effective poverty alleviation and the facilitation of non-farm economic success.

Because the role of girls in developing countries in the field and at home – they work alongside their mothers in the fields, they gather water and firewood, they care for livestock, and so on – they have a unique knowledge of local crop species and environmental conditions. Therefore, their potential to act as leaders in agricultural research and as entrepreneurs in these regions is vast. 

To accomplish this, education is key, and incentives to keep women in school, like scholarships, are desperately needed. In fact, the returns to female secondary education are greater than that of men, as women are more likely to reinvest profits in their families, businesses, and communities, and estimated to be in the 15 to 25% range. Additionally, as women become more educated, their influence within the home and community grows. They marry later, have fewer, healthier children, and help to prevent the passage of poverty from one generation to the next. Educating adolescent girls, therefore, not only improves their economic well-being, but also that of the next generation of farmers and rural entrepreneurs, says Catherine Bertini, Chair, Girls in Rural Economies, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Preparing girls to be major stakeholders in agriculture also means including girls in country agriculture investment plans and increasing their access to financing and agricultural inputs, as well as working to ensure equal inheritance and land rights for girls and women. Because girls in rural areas face a triple challenge – their rural location (more than 60% of rural people in the developing world live in poverty), their age (as attention to educating children under five has increased, adolescents have been overlooked), and their gender (social and cultural norms undervalue women, and work burdens for adolescent girls are especially heavy) – empowering them to become fully contributing members of society can lead to economic and social change.

“In the developing world, a renewed focus on human development and gender issues has helped to lower infant mortality rates and improve gender parity in primary school enrollment. However, while these advances have been positive, rural progress still lags behind that in urban areas, and developmental support typically tapers as girls leave childhood behind and approach adolescence. Sustained efforts are necessary to continue the progress being made in the first decade of girls’ lives. Targeted action by governments, donors, international organizations, the private sector, NGOs and girls themselves are critical to making this progress,” says Bertini.

Supporting small farmers also helps with environmental protection efforts. Rural adolescent girls are uniquely positioned to affect change in areas of environmental protection and natural resource management. Because their responsibilities involve regular interaction with the environment, adolescent girls are both disproportionately affected by environmental problems and uniquely positioned to seek a sustainable response. Including girls in conservation and sustainability conversations, says Bertini, will lead to achievable solutions that are realistic and tailored for each community’s needs.

Recent estimates suggest that global food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet growing demands and keep food supplies affordable. Much of this increase will need to come from the developing world. Roughly 283 million rural adolescent girls can be tapped to help reverse the poverty of rural people and put nations on the path to greater food security and economic sustainability.

“Due to accelerating economic growth, the developing world is well-positioned to partner with businesses as both a supplier and a consumer, posing an opportunity for the developed world’s private sector. Nine out of the ten economies projected to grow the fastest in the next five years are in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and productive potential in the form of arable land, available labor, and emerging markets in these areas is largely untapped. As companies take advantage of these opportunities for growth, including women and girls in investment strategies can maximize returns. Offering girls training in adolescence can interest and prepare them for careers in rural industries and will multiply the long-term benefits to investments,” Bertini adds.