Statistics on the most recent global food crisis are well known. In the three years leading up to June 2008, food prices rose 83%. Although declining since, they are still 60% higher than in 2006. There is little prospect of returning to the cheap food regimes that characterized the world prior to 2005 anytime in the foreseeable future. So far, the food crisis has pushed an estimated 75 million people into chronic hunger since 2005.

Women and children, particularly girls, have been hardest hit by the food crisis. In part, this disproportionate impact is because women in poor rural communities have less access to resources, transportation, and communication networks. Any effective resolution to the food crisis – and to reinforce food security more generally – must incorporate an understanding of this differential impact on gender roles.

Rural Poverty

Most chronic hunger in the world is a failure of entitlement rather than supply. People within nations, and often nations as a whole, are unable to secure the income needed to produce or purchase enough food to meet their basic needs. Today, almost a billion people live on less than $1 a day and suffer from food insecurity. Although half of the global population lives in towns and cities, three-quarters of those subsisting on less than $1 a day live in rural areas of the global South, depending on either small-holder farming, selling labor, or a combination of both to survive. They are also net food buyers, spending up to 80% of their income on food. Not coincidentally, three-quarters of everyone suffering from chronic malnutrition also live in these same rural areas.

While rising food prices affect urban and rural poor alike, the impact on the rural poor is particularly devastating because of their geographic, economic, and political isolation. The productivity of small-holder farms is low in most of the world. This is due to the spread of trickle-down “market fundamentalism,” the political marginalization of whole regions within nations, and the widespread failure to understand the importance of small-holder farming systems to poverty reduction. Because of these factors, governments and international financial institutions have failed over the long term to invest in rural infrastructure or sustainable technologies appropriate to small-holder farming systems, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries are now dependent on food imports to survive.

As a result, opportunities for work in many rural areas are few, and frequently involve either the seasonal or long-term migration of at least one able-bodied adult, amplifying the burden on adults left at home. Transportation is limited, imposing high transaction costs even to reach local markets. Local and even regional markets often reflect this isolation in the form of excessive price swings between harvest, when most small-holder households are net sellers, and the rest of the year, when they are net buyers. The poorer the household, the more expensive these negative rural biases become, making it impossible for many households to reverse the tide and dig out of poverty. Because rural livelihoods are so fragile, the global rise in prices for basic cash grains, fuel, and fertilizer can trigger vicious cycles of deepening pauperization, especially when combined with long-term stresses caused by climate change or ongoing civil conflicts.

Vulnerability of Women and Children

Women and children (especially girls) are more vulnerable to food, fuel, and fertilizer price increases, and to rural poverty generally, than men. This is, of course, not intended as gender one-upmanship; men also experience hardship caused by the marginalization of rural societies. But because rural agrarian societies are gendered in terms of property rights, the division of labor, direct knowledge of the natural resource base, and access to and control over productive resources, an understanding of gender in rural households and communities is a prerequisite to informed critiques of development policies and strategies.

Compared to men, women’s independent property rights, legal protections, and social networks are fragile and contested in much of the world. Women have less access to or control over resources, transportation, or communication networks than men. As a consequence, female-headed households are sometimes disproportionately among the poorest of the poor in rural areas. And because rural poverty, civil conflict, and HIV are exacting their toll in the form of migration, suicide, debilitating illness, and mortality among prime-age adults, households legally or de facto managed by women now comprise 30-60% of all rural households in parts of eastern and southern Africa. Furthermore, these households tend to face the additional challenge of caring for sick adults and feeding and educating young children. In places that have been affected by repeated shocks over the long term, especially in eastern and southern Africa, women have become the primary farmers and managers in their communities. The main face of rural society has become female.

When women are engaged in serious cash- or staple-crop farming, systematic biases against acquisition and enforcement of secure property rights can mitigate against their capacity or willingness to make long-term investments in their farms. When women’s husbands are absent due to long-term migration, they must obtain his approval – which can be time-consuming or impossible – before they can make changes in farm management. Additional biases against women’s access to training, inputs, capital, and transportation also make it more difficult for them to produce or market as much as male-headed households with similar assets.

To the extent that day-to-day survival of female-headed households depends on selling labor to purchase food, fuel, and fertilizer, price spikes in these commodities can mean total destitution and starvation.

In married-couple households, women typically provide labor on husband’s farms – usually for market-oriented crops – while also providing childcare and running the household. In most places, the latter includes provision of water, fuel, and meals for the family, so women are ultimately responsible for family food security. In most traditional systems, men are normatively responsible for giving wives staple carbohydrates and income as their contribution to household food security and consumption. But long-term erosion of assets, productivity, and income among small-holders has led to crises in traditional norms and male gender identities, as increasing numbers of men are either unable or unwilling to provide enough food or income to tide their families over from one harvest to the next. When crops do come in, men frequently have to sell them to pay off debts and secure loans needed to plant the next season’s crops – leaving little in the way of either food or cash for family consumption.

This dynamic is an important driver of adult labor migration. But whether or not men literally leave home, the burden of filling in the breach to “make ends meet” frequently falls on women in their traditional roles as day-to-day caretakers of the family hearth. Depending on their situations and resources, women resort to a variety of strategies to keep their families alive from one harvest to the next. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa women are typically responsible for providing the “sauces” that go with staple carbohydrates at meals. Thus, women are the primary farmers (or gatherers) of legumes, groundnuts, vegetables, oil-nuts, and other sauce ingredients for family consumption. When households are stressed, women sell their sauce crops to buy cheaper carbohydrates for family consumption, which reduces family dietary diversity and, depending on relative prices, overall energy intake. The same dynamic applies to households fortunate enough to own poultry or livestock: increases in prices of basic staples translates into less consumption of their own eggs, milk, or meat.

When price or other shocks (such as HIV/AIDS, climate change, or conflict) intensify pressures on rural livelihoods over longer and longer periods of time, it eventually leads to asset stripping. Households sell livestock and other essential assets such as seed or tools just in order to survive. Because of underlying gender biases, female-headed households – or married women’s assets – may be more vulnerable to stripping than male-headed households or men’s assets.

In a common survival strategy of economically stressed rural households, women try to intensify production of “food-security crops” such as cassava, and/or to seek part-time trades or seasonal employment. Because poor women have greater difficulty accessing training and capital than men they tend to get unskilled, low-paying jobs. In the formal sector, because they are considered more pliable and easily controlled than men, women are preferred as laborers in agro-export industries – such as cut flowers or high-end vegetables – where they are paid very little and have no job security or benefits.

Since even relatively better-off rural women are already overloaded work-wise, additional pressures on their time and energy caused by intensifications of household poverty mean a reduced ability to care for children. This reduction in childcare translates into greater malnutrition among children under the age of five. And since early childhood malnutrition affects children’s lifelong cognitive capacity and ability to learn, it also affects their long-term chances of climbing out of poverty. Likewise, as mothers increase the work they do outside the home, they are more likely to pull their daughters out of school to fill in at home. Since female education is highly correlated with virtually all measures of children’s welfare, it’s likely this cycle of extreme poverty will continue from one generation to the next.

Factoring Gender In

Even before the current spike in food prices triggered food riots in cities in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt, and other developing countries, the World Bank and private foundations began to acknowledge the urgency of investing in agriculture, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The 2008 World Development Report “Agriculture of Development,” and the recent IAASTD Synthesis Report on Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development both place investment in agriculture at the center of poverty reduction, and recognize that small-holder farming systems need to be at the heart of the new generation of agricultural development policies. Still, investments need to reach regions and groups that are politically marginalized – and so must be held to high standards of transparency and accountability regarding project development, investment decisions, contract awards, and fund distribution if benefits are to actually reach small-holder farmers.

If this is true generally it’s doubly true for women, who are marginalized by gender in addition to poverty. Unless women’s roles in small-holder farming systems and rural food security are factored into the design of agricultural development projects, we will once again fail to address the root causes of chronic food insecurity and hunger. Organizations developing agricultural policies, funding research, sector initiatives and projects must explicitly build in gender guidelines, standards, and indicators to ensure women have equal access to all training, resources, and opportunities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently established a gender policy for agricultural projects they are funding to ensure women access activities and benefits, and to track project impacts on the welfare of women, children, and communities. Likewise, the World Bank has just published the Gender and Agricultural Livelihoods Sourcebook – which contains an extensive compendium of best practices for gender-sensitive approaches to agricultural development.

Although these actions are a first step, the reality of pro-poor, gender-sensitive agricultural development lags behind the rhetoric – both in resources needed to mainstream gender into foundation-funded projects and in mainstreaming gender in the development portfolios of large international financial institutions (IFI). Scarcity of technically trained professionals in agriculture, forestry, and irrigation, who are also skilled in gender analysis and gender sensitization, is affecting gender mainstreaming in foundation grants. On the IFI side, there is no system for ensuring World Bank project or loan-development processes incorporate gender-sensitive approaches into Bank portfolios.

While gender policies are important, the models of agricultural development themselves must support the integration of rural women’s roles as nurturers of families and communities, managers of natural resources and biodiversity, and producers of wealth. Although market-oriented production should be directed toward robust and diversified local and regional food systems, farming systems producing for local and regional markets must adapt to the reality of women’s lives. Women need to be able to manage water, rebuild soil fertility, and produce fuel, livestock, and diverse crops close to their homesteads, so they can care for their families while also growing and processing crops for food security and income.

When women (and men) are empowered with modern training and technology needed to transform homesteads into sustainable, poly-culture farms, they improve their food security and resilience in the face of climate change and price fluctuations. Biologically based techniques for building soil fertility, minimizing pests, and harvesting rainwater help small-holders extend the growing season, improve yields, and increase profit margins by reducing dependence on purchased fertilizers and pesticides. Poly-culture farms provide multiple species of micro-nutrient rich plant and animal foods close to home, so households are not as dependent on volatile and hard-to-reach markets. When small-holders producing on intensive poly-culture farms form marketing groups to aggregate and sell their products, they are also able to make significant contributions to local, regional, and national markets – thereby improving resilience to climate change and price fluctuations in global food supplies of their countries as a whole.

Katharine Coon is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor who received her Ph.D. in nutritional sociology from Tufts University. She works as a consultant, most recently in West and East Africa and Sri Lanka on gender, small-holder agriculture and HIV.