“Empowerment is the key” – Women, agriculture and freedom

Even the Italian lexicon, so heterogeneous and rich, sometimes needs to borrow from foreign languages some lemmas that would lose part of their iconicity if translated. One among them is undoubtedly empowerment (literally the “to empower”), which appeared in the 1950s in some U.S. political studies. The term denotes that set of actions and interventions aimed at strengthening the power of choice of individuals, increasing their possibilities and responsibilities, and improving their knowledge and skills. It is therefore not at all surprising that it is often associated, almost by analogy, with women: one of the groups that, historically, has been most deprived of social and civil rights. Foremost among them is work, an indisputable conduit of freedom.

Despite the mildly encouraging results recorded in the latest UN Women report, the data regarding women’s employment are still outside the bounds of normality, even in major employment sectors. In fact, according to a recent FAO report, The Status of Women in Agrifood Systems, which analyzes the status of women throughout the system’s supply chain from production to consumption-the agrifood sector is one of the main sources of employment for women worldwide (36 percent), with a percentage number very close to that of men (38 percent). Nevertheless, the stigma of gender inequality extends to this field as well: women generally have marginal roles, lower wages with worse working conditions, and irregular, part-time, low-skilled, and labor-intensive jobs. There is less security over control and ownership of land and access to training and credit. For every dollar paid to a man in stable wage employment in the sector, 82 cents is the earnings of a woman.

Omitting the strict ethical assessment of the issue (which should be for everyone immediately), this inequality creates a 24 percent gender gap in productivity on farms of equal size.

A bleak picture, then, indeed. Even more so considering the many countries where agribusiness systems are a much more important source of livelihood for the female gender than for the male. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 66 percent of the female population is employed in the sector. Inadequate education, limited access to infrastructure, and high unpaid workloads severely limit women’s opportunities for off-farm work. It is not surprising, then, that about half of the sector’s workforce is female in several Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam.

And in Italy?

Data from the 7th General Census of Agriculture published by Istat show a decline, compared to previous years, in the number of women employed in agriculture: 30 percent of the total. However, the participation of women in managerial roles has strengthened: 31.5 percent of farm managers are women; and the highest percentage is recorded in the South, with a notable presence of women farmers in Molise (40 percent). However, although the census confirms that, compared to other economic sectors, agriculture in Italy is characterized by less gender inequality, the gap to be bridged is still very wide.

Even with just this brief overview, it is clear that globally in the agribusiness sector, women have a significant weight; and that they are therefore critical resources, increasingly aware of their value. For although the data show us a situation still marred by gender gap-especially when viewed from a global perspective-there are an increasing number of examples of women who, by blending science, knowledge, creativity, and innovation, are carrying out actions of great impact in the agri-food sector, contributing to the formation of an increasingly competitive market. The presence of women in agriculture-as in any kind of profession must be considered aprioristically over any ethical evaluation: the right-which is always freedom-is and must be taken for granted. Support for the sector, then, must not only be seen as a positive contribution to the cause of gender equality, but rather as a means of enriching, including in terms of values, a gradually growing market.

Read the full article on Nova – il Sole 24h