Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger

Asian Development Bank


Women and girls worldwide face many inequities and constraints, often embedded in norms and practices and encoded in legal provisions. Some laws, such as those governing access to land, include inequitable and exclusionary provisions, thus institutionalizing discrimination. Where such legislative measures are not in place, customary rules and practices often have restrictive consequences for women limiting their access to key resources such as land and credit, and affecting household food security and nutrition.

This report explores how gender equality can contribute to food security. Its focus is on Asia and the Pacific, though developments in other regions are also referenced. It describes the relationship between gender-based discrimination and the different channels through which households and individuals access food. It concludes that while equality of treatment between women and men and food security are mutually supportive, gender equality remains an elusive goal in many regions, and a transformation of traditional gender roles is urgently needed.

Women and girls are affected through two main channels. One is the limits on their access to education and employment opportunities, which curtails their economic autonomy and weakens their bargaining position within the family. Their weakened bargaining position translates into little or no voice in household decisions, differential feeding and caregiving practices favouring boys and men, food and nutrition insecurity, and lower health and nutrition outcomes.

Second, the discrimination they face not only exposes women to material deprivation, it also makes it more difficult for them to fulfill their vital roles in food production, preparation, processing, distribution, and marketing activities. Challenging the constraints women face must therefore be treated as a key component in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Such an approach is achievable, it is inexpensive, and it can be highly effective. The cost to society of not acting urgently and more decisively will be considerable.

However, more than good intentions are required to remove the inequities and obstacles facing women and girls. Nor is amendment of legislation that is gender-discriminatory by itself sufficient. Social and cultural norms and the gendered division of roles they impose must be challenged.

The report recommends the following country-level strategies:

  • Multisectorality.Measures in different sectors must be combined and complement each another. Some of the most promising practices identified were successful because of such complementarities. For instance, school feeding programs that source local raw materials that are cooked by poor local women in school mid-day meal schemes at the same time improve girls’ school enrollment, support access to markets by small-scale farmers, and employ local women with few other sources of income.
  • Women’s organizations. Gender-sensitive food and nutrition security strategies should identify how the emergence of women’s organizations can be facilitated and encouraged, whether in the form of unions, cooperatives, or NGOs.
  • Inclusive decision making. A shift from top–down, technocratically driven strategies and programs to bottom–up, participatory ones is urgently required. The arguments for such a shift go beyond the question of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The poor understand the obstacles they face and are generally hugely inventive in identifying solutions. Policy-makers that involve them in design and decision making will make choices that are better informed, better understood, and ultimately more effective.
  • Phased approach. Gender-sensitive food and nutrition strategies should be phased, multiyear strategies, reflecting the reality that not all changes can be implemented at the same time. Required transformations should be launched at the earliest possible time, with clear time frames established to avoid delays.
  • Rights-based strategy. Two characteristics distinguish a gender-sensitive food and nutrition security strategy that is rights-based. Such a strategy goes beyond a policy commitment by government authorities to implement certain plans. It is enforceable, and progress is monitored by use of indicators that are aligned with the normative components of the right to food and the rights of women.


Asian Development Bank (2013). Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger. Mandaluyong City, Philippines.