Women play an essential role in the development of sustainable, fair, and inclusive agriculture and food systems. They are responsible not only for the healthy food habits of their families, the management of kitchen gardens, seed-saving, and carrying on traditional practices but also much work on the farm as well. Their contribution, however, often remains unacknowledged as in many countries men remain the official landowners. The approach of sex-disaggregated data and statistics can help to better understand the distinct roles of men and women in agriculture, adjusting policies and programs to the specific needs of each category. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and women-led organizations in the region of Europe and Central Asia (ECA) have been collaborating to support rural women, and in particular to address the issue of gender-sensitive data which is crucial for the full realization of women’s potential in their communities.
Women’s role in agriculture and food systems
Women play an essential role in the development of agriculture and food systems, ensuring local communities have fresh diversified food and improving rural livelihoods while boosting development and the local economy. At the family level, women’s empowerment contributes to the development of healthy food habits among children and this continues to expand when women join in community initiatives, sharing and exchanging their experience.
Information about women and their contribution to the development of healthy food and healthy farming often remains invisible to the public. Making this visible and therefore acknowledged would, however, be of great importance to rural women as they become empowered through their knowledge and work, and confident to do more.
“Within the region women play a unique role as innovators, as adaptors of new approaches and also the ones who are carrying on traditional knowledge. We see that in the region, the contributions of rural women to agricultural production, as household members and farmers, remain largely invisible which translates into women’s limited access to resources which are critical in agricultural production. Also, rural women often have limited economic opportunities for empowerment making them more vulnerable”, stresses Anna Jenderedjian, Gender and Social Protection Specialist, FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia.
Making invisible visible
Over the last year, several activities have helped to bring to the surface initiatives and organizations that work with women in the region of Europe and Central Asia (ECA). For instance, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), together with the Schola Campesina Aps and other organizations, has co-organized a series of webinars which contribute to developing a gender-sensitive community of practice in the ECA region. The workshops involved organizations supporting women in a range of countries including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. The final and concluding webinar took place in November addressing the topics of local seed production, agroecology, and innovative ways of market access, showing examples in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey.
“In this region, the land is mostly owned and inherited by men, but women are the ones who often work there. Rural kitchen gardens especially are the places run by women showing the diversity, the beauty and strength of women reflected in them,” Mariam Jorjadze, Director of Biological Farming Association Elkana in Georgia.
The webinars focused on women’s economic empowerment and gender-sensitive agri-food value chains and addressed the knowledge gaps in gender-sensitive markets and value chain analysis, outlining approaches for policy and programming support that would enable inclusive and equitable income diversification and improved livelihoods for rural women.
Evidence on gender-based inequalities for sustainable and inclusive agri-food systems
All the webinars included presentations from Anna Jenderedjian, Gender and Social Protection Specialist and Giorgi Kvinikadze, Statistician, from the FAO Regional Office for ECA who emphasized the importance of gender-sensitive data that puts women’s role in agri-food systems on the map, helping to better understand both the difficulties and the opportunities faced by rural women.
According to Anna Jenderedjian, sex-disaggregated data refers to data about men and women collected and analyzed separately and “is very important for inclusive and sustainable policies in agriculture but also for formulating evidence-based policy”. It helps to identify the gaps and the specific needs of women within the sector, at the same time informing the decision-makers at the local community level. Last but not the least, it helps to monitor gender equality. For this purpose, FAO issues gender-based statistics and has published material such as the Agri-Gender Statistics Toolkit and Data Snapshot Using Sex- disaggregated data.
“Sex-disaggregated data provides a richer understanding of men’s and women’s engagement in agriculture and food systems. In the region, farmers are usually assumed to be the ones who are registered as farmers, and very often these are men. This, however, reinforces the stereotypes but also the engagement of farmers in the decision-making, namely in terms of who is asked for needs and priorities, whose voices are heard, and how the extension services are done. Within the group of small-scale farmers, the decision is made not only by one person. It is more complex. Multiple household members manage various tasks and are responsible for different activities, with distinct implications for agri-food policies, programmes, and local solutions.”
To fill those data gaps, the FAO conducts Country Gender Assessments as a minimum requirement for countries’ programs and also a more general analysis such as “Improving social protection for rural populations in Europe and Central Asia” or “Food policy, rural development and gender equality in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia” which enable common gender-specific issues to rise to the surface.
While all these are important for policies and programs at the national level, the webinars helped to show precisely what has been done at the local community level. The women’s grass-root initiatives show that, for instance, community seed production is mainly led by women. Seed-saving and on-farm conservation are being highly encouraged and supported by experts to help to restore traditional varieties both in developing and developed countries.
For instance, in Armenia, there are local women’s groups who already have 20 years of experience in seed production. They produce different certified organic beans for which they have group certification. According to Lusine Nalbandyan from Organic Armenia, “being in the group helped them to overcome the challenges together and achieving bigger results in terms of support but also network opportunities”.
Another example is the Azerbaijan Rural Women’s Association (ARWA) which uses a special model to establish women’s enterprise groups, some of which deal with seed production. One of these is “BEREKET”, a women-led vegetable seed cooperative which meets 70% of the need for seeds in the country and places a strong emphasis on traditional knowledge as the “cultivation tips of the local seed are passed from generation to generation”.
Several other cases prove that women-led initiatives play a crucial role in preserving and passing on to the next generations not only seeds but also knowledge about heritage crop varieties:
“Women are keen to produce legume and vegetable seeds, but increasingly also start to lead heritage wheat restoration as the guardians of forgotten crops and taste and stewards of local food security,” said Marika Kapanadze, Biological Farming Association Elkana.
Another highly relevant gender-specific challenge is market access, and women-led organizations are being able to find local solutions to support rural women. For instance, transforming organic waste into products such as organic fertilizer is creating a market opportunity for local women in Armenia while helping to promote more sustainable food production. Helping to build capacity for food producer groups on quality and branding is another way of supporting women groups and connecting them to local HoReCa. Organizing farmers’ markets, online shops selling local naturally produced food and offering opportunities for women to sell their products are other examples of the economic empowerment of local women.
To conclude, women-led initiatives are of great importance for better production, better food, and a better environment. However, these groups often remain invisible within the statistics from the ECA region. Gender-sensitive data combined with evidence from the grass-root initiatives can make the role of rural women more widely known to society and also help many other women who are still facing certain gender-specific challenges such as access to knowledge and resources.