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Integrating gender equality for a sustainable future


Inequality — whether based on gender, economic status, or other elements — prevents many people from accessing services and opportunities, and moving out of poverty.

Since the onset of COVID-19, there is a real concern that existing inequalities have been exacerbated, as already vulnerable and marginalized groups face additional challenges and further reductions in their access to services and opportunities. Despite comprising 50–75% of the African workforce, women represent a group that is consistently under-represented in leadership roles and policy discussions.

Gender equality as a cornerstone

Amid challenging times and prevalent inequalities, the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) initiative, jointly funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, is both well-positioned and determined to bring equality to the forefront of agricultural research and achieve a food-secure future for Africa.

Key to supporting women is to integrate gender equality from the beginning of the program’s development, and within each of the projects implemented across Eastern and Southern Africa. As explained by Santiago Alba Corral, Director of IDRC's Climate-Resilient Food Systems program, “The fact that inequality, and the potential of gender-transformative research, was already part of the design of CultiAF has actually helped us absorb part of the shock of COVID within the projects, because every single initiative already had a gender framework as part of its approach.”

The project, by embracing gender equality from its conception, has built-in resilience and enhanced ability to respond in any context, while maintaining progress for women’s empowerment. “When a society, community, or project has embraced and integrated gender equality at its core, we are more resilient, even to the biggest pandemic of the century,” emphasizes Alba Corral.

Empowerment through improved livelihoods

Edidah Lubega Ampaire, CultiAF Senior Program Specialist, highlights a number of specific initiatives that enable CultiAF projects to improve women’s involvement and livelihoods. For example, the Malawi fisheries project and the precooked beans initiatives in Kenya and Uganda have innovated financing mechanisms that benefit women.

The Malawi project negotiated a discounted interest rate for women with a private bank. This was in response to evidence that, while improved fish-processing technologies were both sustainable and effective, the women who were the primary actors in this innovation had limited access to finances and were thus unable to own and implement the technologies in their business operations.

The discounted interest rate has enabled women to take loans from the bank. This will not only increase the productivity and success of women in the fish value chain, but also demonstrate that women reliably pay back their loans, thus ensuring improved access to finance for more women in the future. In addition to the loans, this project has worked to “connect women to markets and build their capacity in business, applying gender-transformative approaches to address gender inequality in these communities,” enthuses Lubega Ampaire.

A digital framework developed by the precooked beans project pays farmers directly for their produce. This ensures female farmers receive all they money they earn, without transactions being detoured through their husbands. This system empowers women as autonomous business owners, enabling them to register their businesses in their own names, and access their profits independently.

Inclusive climate change interventions

COVID-19 has changed the world in more ways than we could ever have expected, and the full extent is yet to be seen. The pandemic has served as a timely reminder of the issues we must face as a society — namely, climate change and gender inequality. It has highlighted the fragility of food systems and, in doing so, emphasized the urgency of the climate crisis. It has emphasized that the time for change is not decades in the future. It is now. And, just as responses to the pandemic have had to be multi-sectoral, emphasizes Alba Corral — with health, education and labor departments addressing the medical response to the virus, school closures and the need for safe work environments — so the response to climate change must be global and cross-sectoral.

The pandemic has also drawn attention to inequalities that have been ignored by many in the past. As Lubega Ampaire explains, “The pandemic has exposed inequality more clearly for all to see … and made evident that situations affect men and women differently, so now no one can argue that the gender disparity we’ve been working to address does not exist.” She emphasizes that we must capitalize on this increased awareness to “rally alliances and partnerships and to undertake actions to address inequalities.”

Making women’s voices heard

Improving female representation across sectors is crucial to achieving greater equality as well as developing sustainable interventions to climate change and food security. Different perspectives are needed to ensure solutions are adaptable, realistic, and inclusive. In other words, it is imperative that women be given a seat at the table in policy discussions and that their voices be heard. In this context, gender inclusivity is not done for the sake of superficial equality, but rather to ensure the best outcomes possible for women and for society.

“We don’t integrate gender only because it’s the right thing to do,” says Alba Corral. “We integrate gender because it gives us the best of the research we can provide, and the most sustainable of the interventions we can design.”