Want to beat poverty in south-east Asia? Start by supporting its women farmers

Marie Lisa Dacanay Agriculture, Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

Marie Lisa Dacanay and Ashley Aarons introduce a new guide that sets out how to empower women small-scale farmers, including supporting women to take up roles beyond production such as processing, distribution and marketing

Cover image from the new guidelines of a woman farmer in Vietnam (Photo: Quang Nguyen Vinh)

Women play a vital role in the agriculture sector in south-east Asia. In Cambodia, for instance, 75 per cent of women are agricultural workers; in Myanmar, it’s 69 per cent. However, women in the agricultural value chain (AVC) remain unrecognised, undervalued, and underpaid. That means, if we want to tackle poverty among women in the region, women small-scale farmers must be able to reap the benefits of their hard work.

One stark, economic inequality facing women farmers in the region is land ownership, only 13% of agricultural land title holders are women, and without land, it is hard to access credit. Another challenge is barriers to women’s participation in the agricultural labour force such as unpaid care and domestic work responsibilities, limited access to resources, and under-representation in producers’ groups. And this is in a context of wage inequality across south-east Asia, where 58% of women earn less than their partners.

So how do we address the challenge of women’s economic empowerment in AVCs in south-east Asia? This week, the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA) and Oxfam launch new guidance – Guidelines for Transformational Partnerships and Women’s Economic Empowerment in AVCs – that we hope offers policy makers and programme designers some answers. The term “small-scale farmer” we use here has varying definitions but typically refers to families growing crops or livestock on small patches of land with little machinery and little capital.

Why focus on women small-scale farmers?

Why should women small-scale farmers be the top priority in sustainable poverty reduction in the region? Our guide offers four broad reasons: 

  1. If women small-scale farmers (including assetless agricultural workers) are engaged as stakeholders, and can take their fair share of wealth created in AVCs where the rural poor are concentrated, we will see a significant reduction in poverty and inequality in the region, especially as woman make up a majority of the rural poor.
  2. If we invest in women farmers and innovations to support them, we increase their resilience in terms of being able to feed their families through pandemics and other natural, social, and economic disasters – and also improve the resilience of the supply of the food they produce for others.
  3. If we address barriers to the meaningful economic inclusion of women and their participation in agricultural value chains, they will be able to contribute much more to economic growth – and also benefit much more from it.
  4. Helping women small-scale producers and their organisations to boost their bargaining power and to get a fair price for their produce boosts their confidence to take up activities beyond production that can raise their incomes, such as processing, distribution and marketing.

Learning from past successes

Supported by Oxfam’s Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South East Asia (GRAISEA) programme, ISEA did a rapid appraisal, identifying practices that have successfully impacted the lives and livelihoods of women and men small-scale farmers in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The new guide draws on these best practices, sets out the challenges that women farmers face, and makes recommendations for action to address them. Its full implementation should help small-scale producers to overcome barriers to development through more inclusive AVCs in food, agriculture, and forestry. The recommendations are designed to enhance and complement regional policies and approaches to support women small-scale farmers.

Key recommendations for policy

Crucial elements for policy makers to focus on include:

  1. Innovations that support AVC development. To ensure food-secure and empowered small-scale producer communities, they must have access to appropriate technology and community-based innovations. Governments in the region can play significant roles in developing and promoting digital technologies such as e-commerce platforms that can support producers. They can also support producers through innovative public investment schemes, humane social protection models, and policies such as supporting gender-responsive vulnerability assessments, risk financing, and market governance.
  2. Sector- and organisation-wide empowerment. Women’s economic empowerment in agriculture means enabling women’s inclusion and meaningful participation not just in production but in all roles. That means mapping the current and potential roles of women in AVCs and understanding the constraints they face accessing resources or job opportunities.
  3. Investment in sustainable consumption and production systems. As small-scale producers take up roles beyond production in AVCs, they need to be supported to become climate-smart environmental stewards and stakeholders of sustainable consumption and production. Investing in such support will promote efficient use of resources, conservation, better waste management, and other enterprise practices and lifestyles that contribute to a green economy and healthy planet.
  4. Partnerships with social enterprises and inclusive businesses. Governments that wish to build back better after COVID-19 must forge stronger partnerships with social enterprises and inclusive businesses in AVCs. Ways to do this include: establishing or strengthening dedicated units in agriculture ministries to support social entrepreneurship; incentivizing inclusive business qualifications; and developing an ecosystem for wholesaling and retailing hybrid financing for social enterprises.
  5. Boost cross-sectoral collaboration. Cross-sectoral collaboration between AVC stakeholders must be strengthened by developing communities of practice. These could serve as vehicles for more meaningful learning, greater strategic impact, and increased participation from different AVC players, especially women. Such communities of practice can be used by governments to co-create new AVC models, complete with a system for measuring and communicating outcomes consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Throughout the process of implementation, it will be crucial that women participate and have their voices heard.

We believe women farmers are south-east Asia’s most hardworking, yet most undervalued, workforce. We hope that our new guide can help the region take an important step to rewarding women fairly and at last giving their economic contribution the value and respect it deserves.


Marie Lisa Dacanay

Marie Lisa Dacanay is a pioneer in social entrepreneurship education and research in the Asia Pacific region and the Founding President of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA). In 2019, she was recognized as Outstanding Social Innovation Thought Leader of the Year by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and World Economic Forum.


Ashley Aarons

Ashley Aarons is Team Lead of GRAISEA for Oxfam. He is a market system development and private sector engagement specialist with a particular focus on agricultural markets. He has extensive experience in managing global and multi-country programs and building donor relations.

GRAISEA (Gender Transformative and Responsible Business Investment in South East Asia) is a regional programme funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok

You can download the new guidelines here and also watch a recording of the launch event for the guidelines, featuring both authors of this blog.