Blogs, Systems Thinking

International Women's Day - Why agroecology needs women

Women are the backbone of food systems. In countries worldwide, they often perform the brunt of farm and food labour while having limited to no decision-making power or land ownership rights. In a similar vein, the role of women in sustainable ecosystem or landscape management often goes unacknowledged and unstudied. 

We now recognize how engaging women and their social networks can help to accelerate food systems transformation around the world—and how agroecology is an approach that promotes and strengthens gender equality.

One place where this is evident is in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In 2018, the Government of Andhra Pradesh launched a program to transition an estimated six million farmers from conventional, chemical-based agriculture to community-managed natural farming, a method that aligns with the principles of agroecology. 

The Global Alliance has been working with the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) research program since it started. After just a few years, the results are remarkable: community-managed natural farming yields are higher than on chemically-intensive lands, farmers experience fewer sick days, and household incomes have increased. 

Engaging local women has been crucial to the success of APCNF. Women’s groups in Andhra Pradesh have long been a social platform where women come together to pressure change, improve local livelihoods, and enforce community accountability. In the case of natural farming, this social capital creates dynamics of trust and strong relationships that have helped to spread the knowledge and practice of natural farming methods. 

By delivering sensitization activities within women’s groups, APCNF has found women can gradually convince their husbands and male landowners to transition from chemical to natural farming, year-by-year, hectare-by-hectare. “Men find it difficult to grasp the concept that the soil is dying. Women have that maternal instinct with respect to looking at life, even in the soil or biodiversity,” explains Swati Renduchintala, a project manager with APCNF. 

The program has even seen how engaging women can influence the type of crop being grown: “Because of the centrality of women, natural farming is replacing what is traditionally seen as Green Revolution ‘male’ commercial crops like cotton and maize into crops like leafy vegetables, which are considered in India as ‘female’ crops,” notes Renduchintala.

The transition to community-managed natural farming in Andhra Pradesh has led to increased agency for women, as shown through the holistic TEEBAgriFood impact evaluation framework. The framework accounts for impacts across environmental, human, social, and produced capitals. Using this evaluation framework, APCNF found that higher levels of trust within a community correspond with greater agency among women farmers, as well as increased crop yields and improved environmental outcomes such as enhanced soil fertility and greater biodiversity. 

Georgina Catacora-Vargas has witnessed similar positive outcomes in her work with women from the Guaraní Indigenous Nation in Bolivia. “In a context of multiple crises and tacit forms of violence and dispossession against women and girls (particularly in rural areas), agroecology provides them with dignified opportunities to strive, resist, and recreate the culture of wisdom and care,” shares Catacora-Vargas, president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA). 

Catacora-Vargas also notes that the relationship between agroecology and women is not unidirectional—women have made significant contributions to agroecology, and agroecology, in turn, contributes to strengthening women’s livelihoods and agency.

The evidence and experiences shared by Renduchintala and Catacora-Vargas are two perspectives on the relationship between agroecology and gender equality. This International Women’s Day, the Global Alliance commits to elevating the role of women in agroecology as well as biodiversity conservation and sustainable use to accelerate the transition to more fair and equitable food systems everywhere.

The experience of the Andhra Pradesh Community-Managed Natural Farming program is featured in an upcoming TEEBAgriFood report commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. That release will quantify the connections between agroecology and several social, environmental, and political factors, including gender equality.