Agricultural communities face a range of shocks from animal disease and crop pest outbreaks to natural disasters, political conflicts, and health crises such as COVID-19. Women are often particularly vulnerable to such shocks given constraints they face that prevent them from engaging in agrifood systems on terms that are equitable and fair. However, women are also important agents of change and play key roles in helping their households and communities respond to shocks.
In many countries, women have less schooling than men, control fewer resources, have less decision-making power over household income, and face time constraints because of their triple burden of productive, domestic, and community responsibilities.1 These gender differences shape men’s and women’s experiences of shocks and their abilities to respond. In Kenya, for example, gender disparities in access to information and awareness of climate-smart agricultural practices contribute to women’s lower adoption rates of these practices.2 Research also indicates that men and women perceive risks differently and therefore may prefer different coping mechanisms: women’s concerns with health-related risks may make savings instruments more appealing while men’s priorities related to agricultural production could be better addressed with index-based or other insurance mechanisms.3 Gender also intersects with other spheres of vulnerability and identity—including ethnicity, age, and poverty—to further impact how women engage in agrifood systems and their resilience to shocks and stressors. For instance, evidence from Nigeria suggests that youth face specific constraints in agriculture such as lack of capital, experience, and social networks to cope with climate shocks and other challenges, and young women in particular have less access to information and irrigation and are less likely to benefit from cooperative memberships.4
Enabling agricultural producers to recover from shocks and mitigate the risks of future threats requires technologies, practices, and policies that not only enable women to participate and benefit equally but also empower women, or expand their ability to make strategic life choices where they were previously denied that ability.5 The reach-benefit-empower framework6—developed to distinguish between agricultural development project approaches that reach women as participants, those that benefit women, and those that contribute to empowering women—can be a useful lens to explore how agrifood systems can be transformed to be more inclusive and gender-equitable. Reaching women as participants does not ensure that they will benefit from a project, and if they do accrue benefits such as increased income or better nutrition, that does not ensure that they will be empowered to control that income or choose foods for their households.7 Measuring the effect of a program’s ability to reach, benefit, or empower women will require indicators specific to each approach, such as tracking the number of women who participated in an agricultural project to measure reach, assessing women’s nutritional outcomes to measure benefit, and examining dimensions of decision-making power or control over resources to measure empowerment.8
Ensuring that women’s contributions to agrifood systems are recognized—by their families, communities, policymakers, and society more broadly—and that women can make strategic choices about their involvement in those systems has benefits for all of society, including helping communities better withstand crises and bounce back stronger. Women’s empowerment can improve agricultural productivity, household food security and dietary quality, and maternal and child nutrition.9,10,11,12 Given the vital role that women play in agrifood systems for themselves and their families, it is imperative that they can engage equitably and that constraints on their empowerment be addressed through changes to policy, programming, and norms.