Analyzing the Connection Between Gender Roles in Agricultural Practices and Food Insecurity in Developing Countries

Food Insecurity

Access to sufficient, nutritious food is a human right and yet 800 million people suffer from undernourishment globally (United Nations, 2019). Crop yields are decreasing, food waste is increasing, natural environments are degrading, and harvesting practices are weakening, all of which put pressure on the global food supply (Hodson, 2017).

Consumption patterns coupled with disruptions to agricultural systems pose a major threat to food security (Hodson, 2017). Without adequate access to safe and nutritious food, people’s health, livelihoods, and opportunities for a better future are threatened (UN, 2018).

As climate change brings warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns and increased frequency and intensity of severe weather, there will only be an increasing list of threats to food availability and, consequently, food security (Wheeler & von Braun, 2013).

The United Nations reports that over 40 percent of the world relies on agriculture for their livelihoods; agriculture is the main income source for poor, rural households and most food being consumed in developing countries is grown on small farms (UN, 2019).

As disruptions to agricultural systems increase, food supply for a significant portion of the global population is threatened and food security for the most vulnerable populations is at risk (UN, 2019). Agricultural production in developing countries shapes their food system and is essential for feeding their populations (UN, 2019).

A substantial percentage of small farmers in developing countries are women, and women produce 60 to 80 percent of food consumed in developing countries, which places a disproportionate burden on women as food insecurity plagues various regions (CHF, 2013). This research paper will analyze the connection between gender roles in agricultural practices and food insecurity in developing countries.

Gender Analysis

Gender roles in agricultural practices influence access to land and agricultural resources as well as responsibility for growing different crops (Spring, 2000). Women in developing countries typically have limited access to land particularly those that live in patrilineal societies (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009).

Women are less likely to have access to capital, tools, techniques, and technologies that would increase agricultural production (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009). Women are more likely to farm subsistence crops meaning they are less likely to participate in commercial, income-generating farming (Spring, 2000). Subsistence farming is also vulnerable to natural disasters which increases the overall vulnerability of women farmers in developing countries (CHF, 2013).

As agriculture remains the main source of employment for women in the developing world, there is a connection between gender roles in agricultural practices and vulnerability to food insecurity (CHF, 2013).

Access to land

Patrilineal communities in developing countries determine the allocation and distribution of land and traditional systems typically limit women’s ownership of land (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009). It is not only more difficult for women to own land, but even those that have access to land, through their husband for instance, will commonly have little control over it (Spring, 2000).  

Legal barriers exist in some regions that limit women’s ability to own land such as in Malaysia, where “under Islamic law, daughters are required to inherit half as much as sons” (Spring, 2000, p.11). In many instances where legal barriers do not exist, permitting women to own land, many cultural barriers persist that influence a community’s decision to provide land to a woman.

For example, in many cultures, women are considered “transitory” and there is no perceived benefit to providing them with land, and furthermore, women are often seen as threats to community land (Fletcher & Kubik, 2016). When women do have access or control over land, they are frequently assigned land that is of lower quality or smaller in size which inhibits the productivity and capability of agricultural activity (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009).

If women do not have access to or control over land or they are assigned less productive land, this can significantly impact their agricultural productivity and determine their ability to sufficiently feed themselves and their family (Spring, 2000). If women do not have access to land, it may limit or prevent women participating in agriculture (Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016).

Since the primary income generation activity within many developing nations is agriculture, without it there are few options left for how women in those regions can feed their family or generate income, which increases the likelihood that they will experience food insecurity (UN, 2019; Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016).  Gender roles influence access to land, and increased access to land can encourage participation in agriculture which can aid in the alleviation of food insecurity (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009; UN, 2019; Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016).

Access to resources

Access to essential resources for agriculture can significantly impact agricultural productivity (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009). Women in developing countries are less likely to have access to resources for working capital, inputs, and technology that would be used in agricultural practices (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009).

Important resources range from agrochemicals and seeds, farming equipment, and machinery, to credit and capital that would serve as funding for inputs, machinery, and land (Spring, 2000). Intangible resources, such as formal education and knowledge, are valuable as well since they can inform processes and procedures that would increase efficiency of production, improve adaptation and bolster crop diversification (Spring, 2000).

Access to such resources is critical for successful agricultural practices and in the absence of it, individuals can be placed at a significant disadvantage (Spring, 2000). Gender roles in developing countries have frequently left women excluded from basic agricultural education and their participation rate in formal education has historically been lower than men (Spring, 2000).

Farming equipment and machinery has traditionally been associated primarily with men and the lack of capital among women has left them unable to purchase expensive inputs such as agrochemicals and machinery (Spring, 2000). Due to gender perceptions in many communities, women are considered “risky” borrowers from the perspective of formal lending institutions which makes it difficult for them to gain access to credit, especially in the absence of a husband’s approval (Spring, 2000).

Additionally, accessibility to formal and informal credit is connected to levels of education as well as farm size which puts impoverished women at an even bigger disadvantage (Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016).

Limited access to resources can hinder agricultural productivity and increase difficulty for feeding families (Tsikata & Doss, 2014). As women in developing countries typically have less access to various types of resources as a result of gender roles and perceptions, they are less likely to prosper in agricultural practices and are more likely to experience food insecurity (CHF, 2013).

Types of crops

In agricultural production, there is a distinction between “cash crops” and subsistence crops (Spring, 2000). Cash crops such as coffee, cotton, tobacco, tea, cocoa and sugar are produced for profit in global markets and vary from subsistence crops, which are grown primarily for household consumption (Spring, 2000; Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009).

In many developing countries, “cash crops” are seen as “men’s crops” which has left women responsible for growing subsistence crops for household consumption (Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016). Gender roles have created a dichotomy between men and women’s crops.

Farming “cash crops” grants an income-generation opportunity for those farmers (Spring, 2000). Households reliant on subsistence farming typically rely on seasonal foods which implies the likelihood of seasons where food is limited or not available (Spring, 2000). Since women are responsible for most of the subsistence farming in developing countries, if food is unavailable due to agricultural limitations (e.g. droughts, natural disasters, etc.) they are more likely to experience food insecurity as they are less likely to be generating income to purchase food in comparison to farmers, typically men, who are producing “cash crops” (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009).

Farmers growing and selling “cash crops” can use any income generated to purchase larger quantities and more diverse foodstuffs which can increase the overall nourishment of their household (Spring, 2000).

Subsistence farmers are much more vulnerable, namely if unpredictable weather patterns or natural disasters destroy a household’s agricultural production and vulnerability increases further if there is no additional income-generating activity occurring in the household (CHF, 2013).

Farmers involved in the production and sale of cash crops generate additional income that can then be used to purchase food for household consumption but can also be used for other forms of consumption that can assist in agricultural production (Spring, 2000). Additional income can be used to diversify crops, purchase machinery and equipment for farming, and access other resources to improve agricultural productivity (Spring, 2000).  

Gender roles have thus created a dichotomy between crops grown by men and women which has influenced the vulnerability of women to food insecurity (CHF, 2013).


In conclusion, food insecurity limits the development of regions and threatens the lives of individuals globally (UN, 2019). Global agricultural systems are at risk from environmental degradation, changing weather patterns, and increased natural disasters. As the list of threats to global food systems increases, a large portion of the world’s vulnerable population and their livelihoods are also at risk.

Since almost half of the world’s population relies on agriculture for income-generation and nutritional sustenance, changes in global agricultural systems change poses threats to their food security (UN, 2018; Hodson, 2017). Gender roles in agricultural practices have increased the vulnerability of women to food insecurity in developing countries (CHF, 2013).            

Current gender roles in agricultural practices influence women’s limited ownership or control of land due to patrilineal traditions, reduced access to resources needed for agricultural productivity and have created a dichotomy between crops grown by men and women (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009; Spring, 2000).

Access to land encourages participation in agricultural activity which is necessary in many regions of the world to generate income and feed households (Tibesigwa & Visser, 2016; UN, 2019). With limited  access to land, a large portion of the world’s population is at risk of poverty and consequently, food insecurity (CHF, 2013, UN, 2019).

Limited access to resources can hinder agricultural productivity and impact capacity to grow a sufficient quantity and diversity of crops needed for adequate nourishment (Spring, 2000). Subsistence farmers are more vulnerable to food insecurity since they typically rely on seasonal foods for nourishment and are unlikely to generate additional income which can be used to purchase larger quantities of diverse foodstuffs or used for development in agricultural production (Spring, 2000).

Because of pervasive gender roles in agricultural practices in developing countries, women are more vulnerable to food insecurity.


Based on the conclusions outlined in this paper, women in developing countries are more vulnerable to food insecurity as a result of the influence gender roles have had on creating a multitude of divisions in agricultural practices considered appropriate for men and women.

My recommendations for reducing inequities in agricultural practices and vulnerability to food insecurity are to:

  • Increase the awareness regarding the influence gender roles have on responsibilities within agricultural practices in developing regions through education and advocacy in rural communities;
  • Remove legal barriers that limit women’s ownership of land;
  • Establish mechanisms that provide resources (tangible and intangible) to women in agriculture:
    • Intangible: training for women on various strategies and techniques to improve their resilience and agricultural productivity;
    • Tangible: innovative programs to increase women farmers’ access to formal and informal credit; and
  • Increase advocacy and create networks that promote inclusion of women in commercial agriculture of “cash crops”.

Additional research is needed to understand the intricate connection between gender roles and food insecurity. Men and women play important roles in agricultural production and consumption which results in gendered impacts of food insecurity (Hovorka, de Zuuew & Njenga, 2009; Spring, 2000).

Gender roles exist across all cultures and communities globally and further research should explore how different gender roles can directly and indirectly influence food insecurity at a broader level (Tsikata & Doss, 2014).

Further research should be conducted to understand the connection between gender roles and food insecurity in developed countries where agricultural is not the primary income-generating activity.


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