ASEAN countries could boost productivity of their agricultural businesses simply by improving opportunities for women to participate in the sector on an equal footing with men, a senior United Nations official said.
“Women account for half of the world’s population and about a quarter of its agricultural labour force, yet many rural women remain marginalised and their productive potential in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region is woefully under-utilised,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director-general and regional representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Kadiresan made the remarks during a “Voices of Women” side event at the 27th Asean leaders’ summit in Kuala Lumpur.
“Women are the backbone of rural economies, especially in developing countries, yet they often have unequal access to credit or decision-making processes, when compared to men in similar agricultural occupations,” she said.
“There are also wide disparities in their agricultural participation rates, from a low of 16 per cent in Afghanistan to 79 per cent in Nepal. Yet even where participation rates are higher, women’s comparative lack of access to credit and resources often results in lower productivity.”
Another issue holding agribusinesses back from achieving their full potential is the “feminisation of agriculture”, a situation often occurring when men who traditionally work in agriculture migrate, and the work they leave behind shifts to women who do not possess the same skills, access to credit, technologies or resources.
Agro-industry, as a whole, is an important generator of employment and income, especially for women, in most Asean countries and the wider Asia-Pacific region. But steps must be taken to ensure that women in agriculture have the tools and support they need to become more productive, participate in the decision-making processes and enjoy an equal share of the rewards, Kadiresan said.
“We can improve education and opportunities for girls in rural areas. We can leverage information and communication technologies to reduce the educational disadvantages faced by older rural women and we can encourage greater participation of rural women in cooperatives, farmers’ groups and collective action,” she said. “These are things that, together, we can do.”
The FAO, in collaboration with member countries and other partners, says it is empowering women through its work in Asean countries. In Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, employment for women has been generated in processing and packing facilities of organic agricultural products. Empowerment and leadership skills have been fostered through participation in cooperatives.
Kadiresan said Asean’s inherent policy leadership and coordinating role made it well placed to create a sustainable environment in which women in rural areas could become more productive in agriculture.
Through carefully implemented gender-responsive and pro-poor policy development, a win-win-win situation could emerge for women and their families, through enhancing livelihoods and nutritional well-being, improvements and increases in food production, and ultimately economic gains for Asean’s member countries. Kadiresan concluded by saying there was a role for all to play.
“We can all contribute to making this possible by raising awareness and increasing knowledge, advocating, reaching out across and beyond sectors and strengthening collaborations.”