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31 August 2022

Michael Stanley-Jones: In today's discussion of a policy brief on Women's Empowerment for Sustainable Food Systems, issued by the Ecosystems Integration Branch of UNEP with the support of UNEP- International Ecosystems Management Partnership (UNEP-IEMP), I will be talking with Dr. Linxiu Zhang, the director of UNEP-IEMP, a collaborating center of United Nations Environment Programme and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We will explore the role of gender in agriculture and food security.

Michael Stanley-Jones: You have a deep background in this topic, Linxiu. I'd like to first ask you a little bit about your background, your history. Where did you connect with this issue?

Linxiu Zhang: Whenever people ask me why I am interested in gender, I go back to my personal story, which I experienced as a child. I was the only child of my parents, and I happened to be a girl - which was not so common for an only child back then. My sense of gender differences started when I was in primary school, where I was very good – which triggered admiration from all the other parents. But whenever we received visits from neighbors or relatives, they would always say : “Oh, is this your child? She is so cute! I know she does well in school, but it's a pity now, it would be much nicer if she was a boy”.

That is when I started to be very sensitive about gender and I decided that when I would grow up, I really wanted to do as well as men. And this been carried all the way through, during my studies and even as an academic researcher.

Michael Stanley-Jones: Tell us, what is your field of research? You're a Doctor of Philosophy.

Linxiu Zhang: Yes, I was trained as an agriculture economist. And before I joined UNEP, I worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where I focused exclusively on agriculture and rural development policies in China.

In 1995, I did a study on gender and child nutrition in China's rural areas. The very impressive findings were that improving mothers' nutritional knowledge would yield much better outcomes in terms of child nutrition, than increasing the household per capita income. Since then, I know that sometimes it is not the money that matters, it is the knowledge, and more importantly, who acquires that knowledge – this will have a greater impact on the family welfare, especially children's nutrition. That is when I started applying a gender lens in my research.

Most of the time, I was doing rural transformation and especially looking at labor forces. There I found that there is a huge gender difference, as there are a lot of barriers for women to get access to resources, such as land, financial resources and technology. Some studies indicate that agriculture managed by women would yield lower productivity, but you also cannot argue that if women were given equal access to resources and especially land, financial resources and technology, they would produce as productively, and even healthier food, than men. So I did a similar study. I did a gender wage gap study, where we look at farmer women and girls going to the city looking for a job. They earned less than men. But when we disaggregate and attribute everything, deduct all the differences, it is not really a question of being a man or being a woman that matters, but the gap is attributed to lower education and access to resources. It is the difference in capacity that leads to the difference in wages.

Michael Stanley-Jones: You mentioned the limitations women face to access markets and other assets that help them be equally productive as men. Give us your insights into that. What kind of assets are challenging for women farmers?

Linxiu Zhang: Well, in the agriculture sector, I think the lack of access to land resources is very significant for women.

Michael Stanley-Jones: Is the right to own land by women farmers still a legal issue in some countries?

Linxiu Zhang: Yes, institutional settings, customary arrangements and social norms play a primary role. The customs still often say that the sole landowner is the man in the household, such as the household head. In places like China, women are the ones who marry into the man's household. Land is a property, and cannot be moved or carried away. So although the official policy says everybody in the countryside has entitlement in terms of contractual rights, oftentimes women have a higher probability of losing access to land because of family arrangements.

Also crucial is women’s lack of access to new technologies, information and financing supports. We are starting to think about whether microcredit could be targeted and focused for women.

But I think that building women’s capacity should be the first thing in the priority list because they have the ability, and those abilities just need to be unlocked. We just finished a project with UN Women focused on empowering women through marketing access, by teaching them how to use mobile apps in marketing, which has generated very early positive results. It has become a flagship project for UN Women in China. That's an example of access to technology, that is gender-sensitive and targeted to women.

Michael Stanley-Jones: Who is the audience for this kind of advice, Linxiu? Where is the investment coming from to raise women and girls out of poverty through this kind of attention to the social dimensions –education, health and a broader understanding of what livelihood means?

Linxiu Zhang: Well, I think that first the practitioners, i.e., those who are the ones really touching on the ground. And policymakers need to be informed and sometimes educated on where their public money should be spent/prioritized.

When we talk about gender and we start talking about gender budgeting, where we decide about financial resources allocation, you need to take into consideration that you give enough resources to maintain gender equity again. This kind of budgeting needs to be a cross-sector collaboration between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education but also the Ministry of Agriculture of course. For example, in China, the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs also started to realize they need to take care of children or babies in the countryside, because they are the future human capital for rural vitalization, productivity increase and even for agricultural modernization, so all reached a consensus that early childhood development is important. Of course, the money comes from the Ministry of Finance, but others need to talk to each other and act, trying to bridge the investment gaps. I know that not many countries are doing well in this.

Michael Stanley-Jones: You remind me that when we talk about gender-responsive policymaking in agriculture, we really have to broaden the topic and use an integrated approach to how agriculture, health and education policy, for example, need to work in tandem.

How well are gender issues represented in government institutions, such as decision-making centers, ministries, public agencies, regional and local government, and so on. How well are we doing with the representation of women and of gender in these venues?

Linxiu Zhang: One of the challenges we are facing it that most of the time, women are not well represented at the decision-making level. Headcounts are not enough: sometimes, you might have 20-30% of women, but when you look at their functions, you see the statistical counts do not really represent the reality in terms of decision-making.

In order to make sure that the government is aware of that, I think a lot of analysis needs to be done to show that if you take a gender focus, all the outcomes of the decisions or interventions would be much better.

And this is true whether in the area of climate change adaptation, natural resource management, working towards food system transformation or food security: if you take gender roles into consideration and very importantly, unlock the potential of women, you would get a better outcome.

Michael Stanley-Jones: What strategies exist for ensuring that the identification and analysis of problems and the formulation of policy options are informed by gender considerations? Give us some insights into how we can ensure that those gender considerations are surfacing in the policy field.

Linxiu Zhang: I think the first institutional tools we need are knowledge, to raise gender awareness. We often say that gender-neutral policy doesn't yield gender equality results. We need to have gender-sensitive policies.

But first we need better statistics, to really tease out the gendered differentiated role that both men and women are playing. We often say that there's a lack of gender-disaggregated data. So that comes to the statistics Bureau. They need to be gender sensitive when they do the data collection: differentiate and divide the statistics by gender. Not many decision-makers are aware of these facts, so we need more evidence to convince policymakers.

And we still need more tools. UN-Women is producing some, I know that some corporations and the World Bank and others are producing a gender checklist, but you need tools to ensure that those checks can be properly done.

Some countries have gender equity strategies, but I think oftentimes we really lack evidence to demonstrate the impact of these. For example, at the community level, especially in countries who are in transition, like China, where women are the majority in charge of land and agriculture. But often, agricultural technology development does not take this into consideration. Usually we have gender-blind technology development which is not going to help the situation.

Michael Stanley-Jones: This discussion raises the need for gender-sensitive indicators in agriculture. I have seen some estimates according to which up to 70% of food production globally is produced by women, which greatly surprised me. I think many people from developed countries, OECD, advanced economic societies, have the strange impression that food comes from a multinational marketplace, where corporations produce food. But most food in the world is produced by smallholder farmers. And most of those farmers are women, but the indicators, the data disaggregation just doesn't seem to be there when you need it to make this case.

Linxiu Zhang: That's right. That’s a knowledge gap.

Michael Stanley-Jones: We have talked about how decision-making could be influenced by gender-responsive policies, about the need for disaggregated data and indicators so that we can understand if we are moving towards transforming gender relations in agriculture.

We have covered quite a broad agenda of gender-sensitive policy. I want to thank you for your insights on the topic. It has been a good introduction for the policy brief that inspired this, developed by the Ecosystems Integration Branch of UNEP with the support of UNEP-IEMP. We look forward to hearing more about the work of UNEP-IEMP and hope that we can continue this collaboration. Thank you very much Linxiu.

Linxiu Zhang: It was a pleasure.


Michael Stanley-Jones is a programme management officer with the Ecosystems Integration Branch, Ecosystems Division, UNEP, based in Nairobi.