Written by Karoline Tolstrup Sørensen

Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” (Kofi Annan 1998)

Research shows that “maternal income increased family nutrition by 4-7 times more than the income of fathers” and “child survival had a highly positive relation to unearned income of mothers, and that the effect is 20 times larger compared to fathers” (Duncan, 1990). However, programmes intended to further female empowerment or mitigate malnutrition in children in practice often treat these as separate problems. 

Today, 829 million people go to bed hungry and 14 million children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition (Action Against Hunger, 2022) despite their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 (United Nations: Human Rights, 1989), which entails special care for children, such as food, education or clothing. Parallel to children’s rights, gender equality is correspondingly guarded by the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognising the equality in dignity and rights of all human beings (The General Assembly of the United Nations, 1948). The written proclamation of these rights means nothing if they are not followed up by practical, political action inspired by an understanding of the underlying structures which withhold female empowerment and perpetuate hunger. The protection of children, the fight against hunger and poverty, as well as the fight to enhance gender equality have long figured in human rights debates. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Sustainable Development, 2015) might be seen as a bold step to encapsulate a very broad selection of human rights across diverse subjects such as government, environment, education, health and employment. This agenda, targeted at creating a global sustainable development while protecting and extending human rights, might benefit from looking at the concrete structural obstacles to female empowerment, gender equality and food security upheld by property and labour laws in a number of countries, thereby slowing the progress of human rights.  

The ripples of a complex problem

In sub-Saharan countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya, women on average comprise 40% of the agricultural labour force, while in Latin America they make up 20%,  and up to 50% in other developing nations (World Bank, 2017; UN News, 2011). Thus, women represent up to half of the workforce on small holds, plantations, and farms, thereby nearly sharing the workload equally with men (The World Bank, 2017; UN News, 2011). Despite this, women employed in agricultural businesses are often segregated into seasonal labour, part-time jobs and lower payments compared to men, who, on average, enjoy greater job security and higher payments (UN News, 2011). 

However, leaving the apparent gender gap present amongst employees in the agricultural sector to one side, this article will focus instead on the potential for advancing human rights through, for example,  female empowerment and eradicating famine. To do this, it will look at the means of production where reports depict large gender gaps regarding owners of farms and small holds (De Schutter, 2012; SIDA, 2015b). This includes resources such as livestock, farm labour, fertilisers, equipment, education, credit, extension services and, very importantly land, ownership. Only 10-20% of all landholders are women in developing nations, whether in Kenya, Myanmar or Uruguay (SIDA, 2015b; UN News, 2011). Farms run by a female-headed household are typically two thirds the size of farms led by male-headed households (SIDA, 2015b). Taking into consideration the size of the land, these female-headed farms tend to grant a smaller yield, compounded by the inaccessibility of e.g. fertiliser, equipment, credit and education (World Bank, 2017), as, for instance, only 5% of the female agricultural workforce has access to extension services (SIDA, 2015b). The closure of this stark gender gap could increase yields on female-headed farms by 20-30%, raising the agricultural output in developing nations by 2,5-4% (World Bank, 2017). The United Nations estimates that this translates into feeding about 150 million of the current globally estimated 829 million undernourished people (UN News, 2011; Action Against Hunger, 2022). 

Furthermore, the economic empowerment of women, through, for example, property ownership, has the potential to facilitate economic growth, as gender gaps are estimated to cost the economy around 15% of GDP (UN Women, 2018). Olivier de Schutter’s 2013 special report to the UNs Human Rights Council examines the current state of women’s rights and food rights. In his report, De Schutter references a cross-country study of developing nations from 1974-1995 and emphasises the study’s finding that 43% decline in hunger was credited to progress made in women’s education, were 12% was attributed to women’s generally increased life expectancy, which accumulates to a combined 55% of hunger reduction in that 25 year period is owed to women’s improved situation in society (De Schutter 2012, p.5). To compare, according to De Schutter only 26% of hunger reduction in the same time period was due to increased food availability and 19% resulted from a better health environment. This suggests the strong positive results to be gained from promoting women’s rights, as advancing their equal position in society set in motion ripples, which not only grant women political voices but has real life impact on families’ quality of life, communities’ ability to withstand hunger and thereby a nation’s potential to overcome the strains of famine to instead develop infrastructure and societal institutions sustainably. Additionally, securing rights to land generally improves women’ rights to other property. Ownership of assets enhances the status of women and boosts living conditions and food security for their immediate families, but also for the entire sub-Saharan region. Better nutrition, income, and status can be linked to improved health, higher savings, better credit options, and education outcomes (Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, 2017), as well as serving as a mechanism of defence against gender-based violence (SIDA 2015a), all of which could potentially translate into greater access to political power for women as they gain financial independence, stronger health and thus greater liberty to engage politically.

Legislation and gender-bias form a barrier

The structural challenges that women face in achieving land ownership start with concrete legislation against them, as only 37 of 161 countries subject to data collection by the UN in 2018 had specific laws granting a balanced right for men and women to own land (Commission on the status of women, 2018), whereas 90 countries lacked equal rights for female farmers to possess land (Villa, 2017). In Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) countries, such as Libya, Morocco, or Iraq, an estimated number of 25 million urban women are without equal constitutional and statutory property rights (Villa, 2017). As land reforms, allocation and registration programmes are aimed at the household, assigning ownership to the ‘head of the household’, by the state defined as a man, and since women are not considered as land owners, they subsequently become excluded from support and extension programmes in addition to credit and loans essential to innovatively run a farm (Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women, 2017). In the event that they lose their spouse, women risk eviction without tenure rights, as many countries do not automatically grant the widow the inheritance of their husband’s assets (Villa, 2017). An example of this can be seen in Bangladesh, where men and women enjoy equal rights to property under the law. However, these are impeded by inheritance laws guided by an Islamic legal system, Sharia law, which puts women and girls at a huge disadvantage, much like in 34 other countries, where daughters do not have equal inheritance rights to those of sons (Villa, 2017). Should the land they work or live on be appropriated by the state, or sold by a husband, father or son, women in, for example,. Ethiopia or Ghana,  have no legal say, nor right to compensation, as is the case with the loss of firewood, fibres and food from adjacent fields (Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women, 2017). Thus, land insecurity makes women more vulnerable to displacement and exploitation, an uncertain situation aggravated by war or natural disaster (ibid.). Such disputes are exacerbated by the fact that, globally, 75% of landowners cannot document their ownership and 90% of land in Africa is undocumented, subjecting women to culturally founded prejudice and biased opinion in any fight to prove possible land rights (Villa, 2017). Additionally, compared to men, women do 2.5 times more unpaid labour, such as childcare, water carrying, and cooking, and tend to these duties in conjunction with the actual farm labour (World Bank, 2017), putting them at a further disadvantage when securing profits, credits, and equal respect in their communities (UN Women, 2018).

The 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs)

Given the potential inherent in closing the gender gap related to property rights, it is unsurprising that the rights of rural women in agriculture are highlighted in the UN forum. The 17 individual SDGs are the UN’s answer to this issue, and jointly form the cornerstones of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 (Sustainable Development, 2015). The Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2011, Jacques Diof, seems to echo Kofi Annan thirteen years later by saying: “Gender equality is not just a lofty ideal, it is also crucial for agricultural development and food security. We must promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture to win, sustainably, the fight against hunger and extreme poverty” (UN News, 2011). Diof pinpoints the relevance of women’s rights and, particularly, the development of rural women’s rights to reach the UN’s 2030 SDGs, by once again articulating the association between issues of famine, gender equality and financial security. However, Diof not only highlights the above, but accentuates the potential international relevance of these issues, to constitute positive global repercussions if considered seriously by the UN and its partners. Apart from SDGs such as gender equality (SDG 5), good health and well-being (SDG 3), and no poverty (SDG 1), other relevant SDGs linking to female land ownership are decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) or industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9) (Sustainable Development, 2015). Most importantly though, the economic empowerment of women through obtaining land ownership is an example of an intersectional solution to a host of issues. Through providing greater food and income security, thus improving conditions for people currently living on an absolute minimum, highly exposed to natural disasters or the slightest changes in climate, might in the most positive of scenarios, therefore, additionally help provide some economic buffer in regions vulnerable to climate change. 

Facilitating change

Gender equality, as a human right, must therefore be a guiding principle in the fight against hunger and poverty in the process of adapting to climate change, not only because it is an abstract ideal, as Kofi Annan and Jacques Diof stated, but because it makes rational sense and has the potential to provoke fundamental change for women, children, and men in nations around the world (SIDA, 2015a). So far, microfinance and conditional-cash-transfer (CCT) programs have been launched by a variety of NGOs, in the hopes of aiding women in purchasing land or starting small businesses to earn independence (Moeller 2019). These are either programmes targeted at women, granting them small loans to start a business or programmes offering welfare services on the condition of certain requirements met by the beneficiary (Millan et al. 2019), both aspiring to reduce poverty and inequality of opportunity (Moeller, 2019). They do, however, only address a fraction of the overall issue of gender inequality and have been criticised by feminist scholars, such as in Tara Cookson’s book Unjust Conditions (2018), for placing an unfair burden of responsibility on women and girls to facilitate development (Moeller, 2019). Cookson examines the hidden costs of mothers trying to meet the numeral conditions of CCT programmes at great cost, where the unequal gender-based strain of labour remains along with time and resources required of women, to access public services and the coercive demands of local authorities, ultimately increasing their overall financial debt (Moeller, 2019). The apparent quantitative data regularly collected by the World Bank, UN agencies or for instance the Nike Foundation to demonstrate the success of the programmes they initiate do not fully disclose the true cost for the people involved (Moeller, 2019). Furthermore, the structure of the programmes might instead actually exacerbate gender inequalities (ibid.). Instead of fundamentally changing gender roles, the duty of development is placed on women and girls because the data seems to show a greater developmental return from investing in females (ibid.). Having gained this knowledge, ideally, future solutions should confront more aspects of gender inequality and poverty, without indebting women or families further and exacerbating gender roles, by placing the sole responsibility on the individual woman. Taking the lessons learnt through microfinancing and CCT programmes and applying them to the more holistic approach of female property ownership could lead to sustainable changes which empower whole communities. Reports by, for instance, the Swedish government’s aid organisation SIDA (SIDA, 2015b) and the Landesa foundation working for the expansion of land rights (Giovarelli, Richardson, and Scalise, 2016) argue for the importance of making the participation of rural women a state policy. As consistently working with the rights of rural women on a national level will provoke durable changes to legislation, otherwise blocking women from land ownership, to instead nudge the mental, religious or cultural barriers described above, hindering their economic and social progress (SIDA, 2015a). This can be done by supporting partnerships between government and civil society, including women’s organisations or encouraging the development of rural women associations to formulate new inclusive legislation, guidelines and accountable follow-up mechanisms (idem). 


14 out of 829 million people starving every day are children under the age of 5 (Action Against Hunger, 2022). The issue of tackling hunger, malnutrition and child mortality rates is included in the UN’s SDGs, as is remedying gender equality and promoting decent work and economic growth. As described throughout this article, a partial solution to impact all these human rights issues would be the equal distribution of land between men and women, as currently only 10-20% of landowners in developing countries are women (SIDA, 2015b; UN News, 2011), although they represent close to half of the agricultural labour force (World Bank, 2017; UN News, 2011). This is in addition to the unfair legislation and credit regulations on land inheritance and cultural barriers keeping women from effectively changing governance to a more balanced distribution of rights (Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women, 2017), and despite De Schutter’s findings about the strong positive implications of greater female influence on farming in areas of female education, health and food availability (De Schutter, 2012). Where the application of microfinancing and CCT programmes might have helped some women, it is a flawed method in the way that it places the responsibility of development on the individual woman and strains the resources of the family through impossible conditions set in the programmes (Moeller, 2019). Land ownership is not the only solution to poverty, hunger, and gender inequality, but it is an illustration of the potential of a more interdisciplinary, cross-sectional approach to solving the global issues we face today. Sometimes small ideas have the potential to create ripples. Changing the land ownership rights for women in developing nations could be such a ripple, with the potential not only to improve the life quality and life expectancy of the woman, but to impact the community and, subsequently, future generations, in terms of nutrition, poverty and education, while granting prospective female generations greater political influence and respect. By abstaining from CCT-programmes conditioned by cash transfers or singularly focused poverty aid programmes, women can instead be helped to achieve lasting power and equality through permanent ownership.  


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