Painting by numbers: the big picture for gender equality

by Hazel Bedford

As communicators, when we set out to make a case about inequality, poverty or women’s empowerment we need numbers to make our case. Preferably eye-catching numbers that grab people’s attention and make our message crystal clear.
Ellen Nkomakoma, a 45-year-old widow and mother of 3 in Malawi,
 is one of millions of women who work in agriculture worldwide:
“I’m a farmer, I grow maize, beans, peanuts and tobacco ...
 I also keep cattle, goats and chickens.”
©IFAD/Marco Salustro

But it’s often hard to find accurate statistics that reflect reality in the poorest – mostly rural – parts of the world. Where there are few roads and erratic electricity, there are often no reliable censuses either, and statistics that may have been commonly used for years are actually little more than guestimates, or even worse, they are ‘zombie’ statistics with no basis in fact but seemingly indestructible.

However, things are changing in the data world, especially with the emphasis put on gathering reliable statistics by the 2030 Agenda. The purpose of this blog is to share some sourced big numbers that are particularly relevant to IFAD’s work with poor rural women towards the 3 interconnected strategic objectives in our Gender Policy. Here’s a quick reminder of what they are:  
  • Empower women economically – help rural women acquire more assets, including land and livestock, make more money, learn how to manage it and have more say over how it is spent. 
  • Reduce women’s workload – make labour-saving devices available to women, improve infrastructure to alleviate the burden of daily water and fuel collection for women and girls, and promote the redistribution of domestic chores and onerous care work. 
  • Increase women’s voice and influence – enable them to take part in decision-making inside and outside the home, at the community, local, national and international level.
I’ve identified a selection of useful facts and figures by objective.

Economic empowerment

  • Women make up 43% of the global agricultural workforce – this includes farmers, family workers, casual labourers and employees on large plantations (FAO: The role of women in agriculture
  • Globally, the gender wage gap is estimated to be 23% ; in other words, women earn 77% of what men earn (ILO: Women at Work 2016
  • The ILO has noted that, without targeted action, at the current rate, pay equity between women and men will not be achieved before 2086. (ILO: Women at Work 2016
  • Women with children in sub-Saharan Africa earn 69 cents to a man's US$1, and women with children in South Asia earn only 65 cents to a man's $1. (UN Women: Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016
  • The proportion of married women in developing countries with no say in how their own cash earnings are spent ranges from 2% in Cambodia, Colombia and Honduras to over 20% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zambia and 42% in Malawi. (United Nations Statistics Division: The World's Women 2015, chapter 8, pg. 194)
  • Only 2 in 3 married women aged 15 to 49 participate in decision-making on major household purchases in developing countries. (UNSD: The World's Women 2015, chapter 8, pg. 195)

Women’s workload

  • In developing countries, women spend on average 4 hours and 30 minutes per day on unpaid work, while men only spend 1 hour and 20 minutes. (UNSD: The World's Women 2015, chapter 4 pg. 111)
  • The global working-age population is split evenly between men and women, but for every 3 men in wage/salaried work, there are 2 women. For every 4 male employers, there is only 1 female employer. (Overseas Development Institute: Ten Things to Know about the Global Labour Force)
  • 59% of women in Latin America and the Caribbean, 89% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and 95% of women in South Asia labour in informal work. (UN Women: Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016 chapter 2)
  • 663 million people still use unimproved water sources; 2.4 billion are without improved sanitation (SDGs Report 2016 Goal 6) 
  • 1.1 billion people lacked access to electricity in 2012 (SDGs Report 2016 Goal 7) – the vast majority of them in rural areas 
  • In 2014, about 3 billion people – over 40 per cent of the world’s population, relied on polluting and unhealthy fuels for cooking (SDGs Report 2016 Goal 7)

Women’s influence

  • In 2016 women held 23 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide, a proportion that had increased by only 6 per cent over 10 years (SDGs Report 2016 Goal 5)
  • The countries with the highest proportion of women in parliament (lower or single parliamentary house) are Rwanda (61%), Bolivia (53%) and Cuba (49%) (Inter-Parliamentary Union: Women in parliaments)
  • 70 countries (or close to one third of all countries with parliaments) have less than 15% participation of women in the lower or single houses of national parliaments. (The World's Women 2015, chapter 5, page 121)

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is relevant to all three objectives because it limits women's freedom of movement and action and harms their health.
  • Worldwide, 35% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non‐partner at some point in their lives. (UN Stats: Violence Against Women)
  • Half of countries in developing regions report a lifetime prevalence of intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence of at least 30%. Its prevalence is highest in Oceania, reaching over 60% in some countries. (UN Stats: Violence Against Women)
  • Research has shown that indigenous girls, adolescents and young women face a higher prevalence of violence, harmful practices, and labour exploitation and harassment than other girls and women. (The World's Women 2015, chapter 6, page 149)

Some gaps and caveats

There are no clear and consistent global statistics available on women's land use and ownership. The accuracy of widely quoted figures such as " less than 2 percent of the world’s land is owned by women” or " Women in the developing world are 5 times less likely than men to own land, and their farms are usually smaller and less fertile" have been questioned by different researchers and stakeholders. (See for instance IFPRI, Gender Inequalities in Ownership and Control of Land in Africa, 2013)

Though the margin of inequalities can vary significantly by country, region, and type of property holding, all available data shows that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to land ownership, see blog on Securing Women's Land Rights: a growing momentum with SDGs and LPI.

Treat with caution any statements along the lines of “women produce xx% of the world’s food” – women and men often contribute labour at different points in the production of a crop and this is difficult to disentangle statistically. Also, as Cheryl Doss says in a recent research article: “no evidence supports the claim that women produce 60-80% of the world’s food. Given women’s responsibilities for household work, it would be surprising if they produced most of the food.” (Women and agricultural productivity: Reframing the Issues)

The statement “women provide the bulk of labour in African agriculture” has been shown to be false (see Agriculture in Africa: Telling facts from myths)

It’s useful to remember that reality is varied and complex: like other population groups, rural women’s experiences are affected by many factors, including their location, income, status, age, position in the family, education and ethnicity. It’s true that we need big numbers to grab attention, but our messaging needs to factor in the complexity behind them. In my next blogpost, I’ll be pulling together some messages on rural women and IFAD’s work to empower them.

Finally, I’d like thank Claire Ferry, who did much of the research to find these numbers.