A growing body of evidence suggests that empowering women may lead to economic benefits (The World Bank, 2011; Duflo, 2012; Kabeer & Natali, 2013). Little work, however, focuses specifically on the potential impacts of women’s empowerment in agricultural settings. Through a comprehensive review of literature this report considers how prioritizing women’s empowerment in agriculture might lead to economic benefits. With an intentionally narrow focus on economic empowerment, we draw on the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI)’s indicators of women’s empowerment in agriculture to consider the potential economic rewards to increasing women’s control over agricultural productive resources (including their own time and labor), over agricultural production decisions, and over agricultural income. While we recognize that there may be quantifiable benefits of improving women’s empowerment in and of itself, we focus on potential longer-term economic benefits of improvements in these empowerment measures.
We consider the case for spending the marginal dollar on empowering female farmers as a means of increasing household productivity, either prioritizing women for new investments or re-allocating existing resources. The literature suggests at least two distinct avenues via which economic benefits from investing in women’s empowerment in agriculture might arise. The first is by equalizing access to productive resources (including access to and control over land, labor, and other inputs) between men and women, and the second by leveraging differences between men and women that might lead to improved household outcomes. For the first avenue, we consider two theorized pathways to economic benefits from women’s empowerment in agriculture that posit reducing female farmers’ constraints would allow them to be as productive as equivalent male farmers. Pathway 1 focuses on empowering women through increasing their access to and control over agricultural inputs, thereby increasing overall agricultural productivity by reducing gender productivity gaps. Pathway 2 focuses on women’s control over their own time and labor, hypothesizing that removing constraints to women’s mobility would increase overall household labor productivity.
In the second avenue, we consider three further theorized pathways from increasing women’s decision-making power over agricultural decisions to economically beneficial individual and household outcomes, given assumed male-female differences in decision-making under similar circumstances. Pathway 3 connects differences in men’s and women’s decisions of what crops to grow with household nutrition outcomes. Pathway 4 hypothesizes that differences in plot management between men and women, specifically women’s greater likelihood of intercropping, influence farm soil quality and long-term household agricultural productivity. Finally, Pathway 5 draws a connection between differences in how men and women spend income from agriculture to impacts on household nutrition and education outcomes. We note that any measured benefits from leveraging male-female differences in the resource choices they make may dissipate as women gain more access and control if the differences are not due to being a woman per se, but rather stem from being disempowered - since this would change the circumstances in which evidence of these differences in decision-making have been observed.
This review of the literature ultimately shows some - but not conclusive - support for portions of all five theorized causal pathways between women’s economic empowerment in agriculture and economic returns. The literature also provides some dissenting evidence surrounding women’s constraints and preferences, most notably highlighting that results surrounding returns to empowerment can be context specific. We also note some inconsistencies in published methods and findings, and several key data gaps. First, published estimates of economic returns to empowering women in agriculture are still relatively rare, are mostly non-experimental, and are often limited in terms of data quality. Second, while published estimates provide some indication that, in many contexts, economic returns to women’s empowerment might be substantial, differences in measurement and reporting impede readily comparing benefits across contexts. Third, key variables necessary for extrapolating study findings to broader estimates of the benefits of economic empowerment – including basic variables such as land area managed by women – are not readily available. Finally, data on the costs of interventions addressing (eliminating or leveraging) the male-female differences in the five pathways are limited, making calculations of potential returns per dollar of investment difficult.