Vol. 5 Num 557 Tue. December 20, 2005  

Beneath The Surface
Women to win over the woes

Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh, once remarked that half of all that grew as great and glorifying in this world, was contributed by women and the other half by men. The role of women in the socio-economic uplift of nations has been well documented and researched all over the world. Still, the slip between the cup and the lip painfully lingers on and women tend to occupy the backseat, as far as the policies for their emancipation are concerned.

Even though women remain at the bottom of society, research findings of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) identify women as key to food and nutritional security. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, millions of women are left behind, maternal malnutrition remain high, and the children that they produce tend to emerge as a liability rather than an asset.

This is not an unforeseen outcome where half of the population is yet to be drawn into the mainstream of development. But given proper policy environment and positive attitudes, women could win over the woes that they are faced with. To this effect, allow me to draw upon some of the seminal observations from one such research report produced by IFPRI.

Technology and women
First, targeting women in agricultural technology dissemination can have greater impact on poverty than targeting men. IFPRI assessment of the impact of vegetables and fishpond technology on poverty in Bangladesh observed that untargeted technology dissemination was more likely to benefit men and wealthier households. But when women are targeted as recipient of training and credit -- as done by the NGOs and say for vegetables improvement -- the impact on poverty assumes a new height.

Economics of earnings aside, such access tends to enhance women's mobility, control over resources, and more importantly, political awareness is raised and domestic violence is reduced. Vegetable farming is a good example as it needs not much of land and can be grown at homesteads by the very poor households. In a country like Bangladesh where status issues make it difficult for women to access government extension and where job hunting outside the home by women is considered a "social sin" by many, delivery of services at doorsteps would be more empowering.

Equalizing access
Equalizing agricultural inputs between men and women results in significant gains in agricultural productivity. The general perception is that women are less efficient farmers than men. IFPRI attributes this difference to inequalities in agricultural inputs between men and women farmers. Take the case of Sub-Saharan Africa. Although women play a pivotal role n food production and yet their access to education, labour, and fertilizer is more limited than for men. Therefore, unequal access to assets could impinge a greater impact on food and nutrition security in this region than in others.

Burkina Fuso is a country where men have greater access to fertilizer and to both household and non-household labour for their farm plots. It is being argued that reallocating these resources to women could increase household agricultural output by 10 to 20 per cent. In Kenya, if women were given the same level of education, training, and farm inputs, their outputs would rise by 22 per cent. If all women could attend primary school in Kenya, the yield could rise by 25 per cent.

Gender disparities in property rights threaten natural resource management. Rights to property increase women's status and bargaining power within household and community and provide them with greater incentives to adopt sustainable farming practices and invest in natural resource management. Perhaps it needs no mention that insecurity of tenure tends to discourage women from investing time and resources in sustainable farm practices. This is specially true of agro-forestry resources where there is a lag between investment and return.

Mother and child
Raising a woman's status dramatically improves health, longevity, and productivity of her children. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, increases in women's status has been proven to have a strong influence on the nutritional status of their children. According to IFPRI research, equalizing gender status in South Asia would reduce the rate of underweight children under age three by approximately 12 percentage points, meaning that 13.4 million fewer children would face malnourishment in this age group alone. The same in Sub-Saharan Africa would reduce child malnutrition by 3 percentage points.

Deterring disease
The social and economic status of women is one of the most important factors affecting the spread of HIV and the ability of households and communities to withstand its impact. HIV/AIDS severely threatens agricultural production and food security as it adversely affects major classes of assets. The disease is also undermining natural capital, particularly in the case of women who may be forced to leave their husband's village upon his death and who often do not have control over land and other assets used jointly.

Guaranteeing women's property and inheritance rights has a two-pronged effect on HIV/AIDS: (a) it can help prevent the spread of the disease by promoting women's economic security and empowerment and thereby reducing their vulnerability, and (b) by enabling them to be a better care-taker of the victims.

The key recommendations that arise from the IFPRI research perennially point at women's empowerment. That would obviously need changes in policies that eradicate gender disparities, proactively promote catch-up for women, and engage women directly in their implementation.

The first and foremost candidate for a close look is the legal and institutional barriers that tend to distort a level playing field. Change is needed in property rights laws to allow women to hold individual or joint title on land. Second, increasing the access of women to resources would make a powerful contribution to food and nutritional security of households, especially of the vulnerable members like children. Third, women should be allowed to actively engage themselves in the development process, project design, and implementation.

One effective way of securing women's participation is through networks and group-based programs. These groups might enable them to harness the potentials of a relatively non-homogeneous female population with due disaggregation. And finally, turning words into actions. While political commitments for the emancipation of women are in abundance, the actions of translating words into deeds tend to remain short of expectations. To win over their woes, women must play a positive role in national development and necessary arrangements should be made to facilitate the process.

Abdul Bayes is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.