By Cai Cai

Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods to 40 per cent of the global population. It is the main source of income and jobs for poor rural households. There are about 500 million small farms worldwide, producing up to 80 per cent of the food consumed in a large part of the developing world.

Sustainable agricultural development, as defined by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is "the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such development ---conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable."

In view of its critical importance, sustainable agriculture is a core issue of Goal 2 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by the Open Working Group of the United Nations General Assembly on SDGs. The proposed Goal 2 includes the following target:

"by 2030 ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality."

Gender equality and women's empowerment is central to inclusive and sustainable development. Women are part of the solution in developing more resilient and sustainable farming systems, promoting food security, natural resource management and environmental conservation. Accordingly, it is of critical importance for governments to develop forward-looking, gender-responsive policies and programmes for the post-2015 era to enable rural women to contribute fully to sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Women in the Asia-Pacific agricultural labour force
Women are the backbone of the rural economy and the agricultural labour force in developing countries, working as farmers on their own account as unpaid workers on family farms and as paid or unpaid labourers on others' farms and agricultural enterprises. They are involved in crop and livestock production at subsistence and commercial levels.

Women comprise an average of 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. In Asia and the Pacific, their share in the agricultural labour force ranges from about 35 per cent in South Asia to 52 per cent in the Pacific (see Figure 1)

Compared with the industry and services sectors, agriculture has a higher share of female employment in the region, being a more important source of employment for women than for men. Thus, in South and South-West Asia, 61 per cent of employed women are in the agricultural sector compared to 40 per cent for employed men (see Figure 2).

Gender gap in agriculture
The Asia-Pacific region recently reviewed the progress and challenges over the past two decades in implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a visionary agenda for women's empowerment adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Twenty years on, the Beijing Platform for Action's statement that "Poverty is particularly acute for women living in rural households", and "the majority of rural women continue to live in conditions of economic underdevelopment and social marginalization" (United Nations, 1995), still holds true. While agriculture is a key source of employment for women, this has not translated into their economic empowerment.

The productive capacity of rural women is constrained due to their lack of access to resources, such as land, finance, information, extension services and technology. For instance, individual land titles held by women accounted for about 5 per cent of land ownership in Bangladesh, 13 per cent in Kyrgyzstan and 28 per cent in Thailand (FAO, 2010).

Agricultural extension services are important channels for providing information on new technologies, plant varieties and market opportunities to farmers. However, due to social norms, gender discrimination and inadequate recognition of their role in food production, women have limited or no benefits from access to extension services and training in new crop varieties and technologies. Available data show that only 5 per cent of agricultural extension services are provided to women farmers (United Nations, 2011).

Closing the gender gap in access to and use of productive resources and services would unlock the agricultural productivity potential of women, increasing farm output substantially. Studies on the yield gap between male and female farmers provide estimates of a gap of 20-30 per cent on average, and most attribute this to lower input use by women. According to FAO estimates, the productivity gains resulting from ensuring equal access to fertilizer, seeds and agricultural tools for women, could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by an estimated 2.5 to 4 per cent, thereby reducing the number of hungry people by between 100 million and 150 million (FAO, 2011).

Recognizing that rural women are particularly disadvantaged in accessing financial services due to institutional, socioeconomic and cultural barriers, financial institutions and governments in the Asia-Pacific region are collaborating in enhancing women's access to credit. A large-scale, state-subsidized and interest-free loan initiative to promote rural women entrepreneurship in China was launched in 2009, jointly by the All-China Women's Federation, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, and the People's Bank of China. In four years, loans totalling $24 billion had been issued to more than 2.3 million rural women to start agribusinesses and created more than 8 million jobs in the country (ESCAP, 2013).

Their economic empowerment does not benefit women alone, but has a broader social and economic impact. Many studies have revealed that when women control additional income, they spend more of it on food, health, clothing and education for their children, than men do. This has positive implications for short-term well-being as well as long-run human development and economic growth through improved health, nutrition and education outcomes.

Unleashing women's potential for sustainable agriculture and rural development
Rural women, as the main producers of food and crops, have traditional knowledge and skills, and possess great potential to contribute fully and substantively to sustainable agriculture, natural resource management and environmental protection if provided an enabling environment of improved access to productive resources and gender-responsive policies and programmes.

National reviews of the Beijing Platform for Action by a number of Governments have reported progress in mainstreaming gender in policies, plans and programmes that seek to promote equal access for women and men to natural resources and energy sources as well as equal participation in climate change initiatives and disaster risk response. This includes development of national policies that promote equal ownership, management and use by women and men, of natural resources, such as water, land and forests. Some of these policies include specific measures such as quotas to ensure women's participation in planning and decision-making processes for natural resource management and environmental conservation (ESCAP, 2014c).

When provided with opportunities, rural women engage actively in the promotion of sustainable agriculture and rural development, helping find and implement innovative solutions. In Fiji, rural women are adopting new eco-friendly farming methods with support from three government departments in charge of fisheries, cooperatives and women's issues. A study of community forestry groups in India and Nepal found that groups in Gujarat, India with more women on committees and those in Nepal with all-women committees, substantially outperformed other groups, resulting in better forest regeneration and improved forest condition (ESCAP, 2014d).

Developing forward-looking policies for empowerment of rural women
Governments in the Asia-Pacific region are committed to accelerating the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action by strengthening institutions, increasing financing, enhancing accountability, and strengthening partnerships and regional cooperation.1

Governments can advance rural women's empowerment and economic opportunities by, inter alia:

a) enacting, revising and implementing laws to ensure rural women are accorded equal rights with men to own or lease land and other property, including through inheritance and registration processes for land tenure;
b) increasing rural women's access to financial services, including through targeted financial products and access to financial literacy training;
c) expanding opportunities for women smallholder farmers to diversify production and increase productivity through commercial farming and access to wider and profitable, high-value product markets;
d) providing women smallholder farmers with agricultural extension services, grain storage facilities, transportation, information and technology, and access to agricultural inputs;
e) developing innovative partnerships to accelerate women farmers' engagement in value-chains and to help bring their products to national and international markets;
f) providing improved infrastructure, labour-saving technologies and care services for children, the elderly and the vulnerable in rural areas; and
g) transforming gender relations at all levels -- including in institutions through women's increased representation and participation, and in communities and households with an increase in decision-making, voice, and sharing of benefits.

This will create an enabling environment for rural women to participate fully in promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development, realizing their potential as leaders and critical agents of change.

(References will be made available upon request)

1 "Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Advancing Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment", adopted by the Asian and Pacific Conference on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: Beijing+20 Review, convened by ESCAP in cooperation with UN Women, in Bangkok, 17-20 November 2014.