Rural women across the world still battle for equal rights in agricultural development. However, an international research finding has revealed that giving women access to agricultural and human resources is actually the gateway to end hunger and poverty in homes and communities.
In its 2006 study on gender and food security in 14 countries, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), headquartered in Washington DC, said improving programmes targeting women not only improve their economic welfare but also improve their children's health and educational attainment. "Investment in women - particularly in education - is the key to poverty reduction and income improvement," the study revealed.
Countries included in the study are Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Philippines, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala.
The study points out that rural women allocate more resources towards improving education and child health and nutrition once their status and access to resources are improved.
"Resources in the hands of women are often reflected in higher investments in children's human capital - both education and nutrition," explained Agnes Quisumbing, one of the study's researchers.
The study was launched as the world faces its toughest challenges in achieving food security: Some 1.2 billion people in the developing world still struggle to find food on a daily basis; and about 800 million are food insecure; while 170 million children under five are malnourished, states the Food and Agricultural Organization in its 2005 situation report.
By 2025, another 1.6 billion would become hungry because of the continued strains of population growth and inappropriate agriculture activities in the environment, according to the 2005 situation report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Investments in human capital - particularly education and nutrition - are the most important investments a country could make for the next generation, Quisumbing says. With enough education, children are able to find work and move into better-paying jobs, she adds.
In the Philippines, for instance, because families tend to invest more in the education of the girl children, daughters are more likely to make their remittances to their parents' households. Quisumbing says these remittances usually go to production investments on the farm such as farm animals and seedlings as well as to finance the education of younger siblings.
Experiences in other countries indicate that investing more in women improves the status of the whole household, especially that of the girl children.
The study shows that agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa is most likely to increase by up to 20 per cent, once women are given equal access to education, health service and agricultural inputs to improve farms.
While in Bangladesh, increasing women's access to production assets would result in better health outcomes for girl children, says the study. Improving women's decision-making powers within the family and society also significantly reduces child malnutrition rates.
The most compelling results are found in the PROGRESA, an anti-poverty program in Mexico that extends health, nutrition and education packages to poor mothers through direct cash transfers. The study showed that the direct cash transfers to poor mothers led to a 14 per cent increase in the enrolment of girl children in secondary school.
Gender research such as the IFPRI study is significant in shaping policy programmes for development, says Quisumbing. The IFPRI study, which targets policymakers from governments and development institutions, is deemed timely as the countries involved in the research commit to the poverty-busting Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the United Nations until 2015.
Of the eight goals, four are directly linked to gender - achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women; reducing infant and child mortality; and improving maternal health.
Quisumbing also urges both government and private development planners to highlight the role of rural women in achieving food security in the countryside. She says rural women play significant roles in earning household income and ensuring family members' nutritional status but their contribution in the agricultural sector is usually not compensated.
Families depend on them for income when household experiences unexpected declines in income due to sickness, unemployment of the husband, or natural calamities that destroyed agricultural production.
In the end, rural women pick up "sideline" businesses such as selling food products in town markets, poultry or livestock raising and working as domestic aid to augment the family income, Quisumbing says. This is in addition to their traditional role of caring for the children.
"Women not only need to be informed of their rights, but need to be empowered to demand their rights, knowing that they will be protected in the courts of law," she says.