A recent study published in Food Policy finds that male and female farmers in Malawi can produce similar yields when they have equal access to inputs. But according to the research, grain yields on farms managed by women are consistently lower than those on farms managed by men. This partly comes from unequal access to high quality land.
In Malawi, land inheritance is traditionally matrilineal and marriages are uxorial, meaning the husband moves to the wife’s village. Men, however, continue to dominate Malawian agriculture and society. While women tend to have land rights, this study speculates that they receive rights to lower quality farmland.
To better understand this discrepancy, the study looks at the effects that access to farming resources has on maize yields for Malawian farmers. The researchers compared yields between male and female managed farms to determine if lower yields are worsened by limited access to resources.
The researchers analyzed the differences in fertilizer use and seed quality between male and female managed plots, as well as each farm’s respective soil quality. After comparing 884 sites, the researchers concluded that the difference in access to the resources and quality farming plots were the only gender-related factors that impact maize yields.
There is nothing “about being a man or woman that innately makes you better at farming,” Dr. William Burke, lead author of the study, tells Food Tank.
This unequal ownership of quality farmland has implications for the country’s rates of hunger and malnutrition.
Malawi suffers from persistent food insecurity, and ranked 78th out of 117th on the Global Hunger Index’s list of food insecure countries in 2019. Additionally, the United Nations Human Development Report finds that 39 percent of Malawian children under five are stunted from malnutrition.
Women play a vital role in agricultural consumption decisions and are primarily responsible for making household food decisions for their families, according to research from the University of Manchester. To properly address the country’s high rate of food insecurity, U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization argues that women should be central to agricultural institutions and decision making.
The study recommends interventions to address the gender disparity in farming. While equalizing legal land rights is important, the researchers argue that this alone is unlikely to address the problem. “Women’s land rights are necessary but not sufficient for leveling the playing field,” Burke tells Food Tank. He explains that Malawi’s cultural landscape demonstrates that inequalities can persist, even when countries recognize land rights for women.
The authors believe it is essential to prioritize policies that target soil quality improvement. Improving soil health means sustainability improving the availability of nutrients in soil that help farmers produce bigger yields. Not only would improving soil help increase yields for all farmers, it would benefit the lowest quality soils, held by the most disadvantaged farmers.
Burke tells Food Tank, “Targeting soil improvement programs by default will disproportionately benefit women.”