As part of its week-long research meeting, the DEMETER team held a public event the 6th of June at the UN Economic Commission for Africa which attracted an audience from several regional international organisations, including the African Union as well as a number of specialised agencies, academics from Ethiopia and elsewhere and from civil society.

Some of the project’s research findings on gender equality, agricultural and land commercialisation and the right to food in Ghana and Cambodia were presented along with an additional case study from Lesotho.

Elisabeth Prügl from the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies drew attention to contemporary policies on food security and agriculture at international and regional levels and the fact that what these documents say about gender has been narrowly driven by concern with the ‘gender productivity gap.’ Often, however, these instruments end up constructing certain blanket realities and may actually assist in propagating myths about gendered inequalities in agriculture and truncate the interventions necessary to redress these.

Christophe Golay from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights provided an overview of the right to adequate food in international law and stressed its importance as an accountability framework. Obligations related to the right to food are contained in both international and regional law and rights-based approaches must be applied to international and regional policies including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Meskerem Geset Techane, Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice, highlighted the issue of discrimination against women in access to land and natural resources and pointed to the need to draw together international norms on these issues and to ensure that states and other duty bearers are aware of how these obligations should be implemented in practice.

Findings from the case studies carried out in Ghana were presented by Dzodzi Tsikata and Peter Atupare from the University of Ghana, and findings from the case studies in Cambodia were outlined by Kimsan Soy from the Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Cambodia and by Christophe Gironde from the Graduate Institute in Geneva. An additional input on land commercialisation in Lesotho was given by Gaynor Paradza, independent land governance expert.

Gender in a context of land commercialisation

The case studies documented the overwhelmingly negative impact on gender equality of land dispossession caused by the privatisation of land and natural resources that generally occur with agricultural and land commercialization. Although these take many different forms, the debate in connection with food security has tended to focus on large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, which can obscure the reality of what’s going on locally. Smaller transactions in land, including through the family and customary inheritance norms may have an equally decisive impact on gender relations and women’s human rights, particularly their right to food.

Once commercialization of land and agriculture takes place, food security issues are not resolved and diverse responses are required across various levels of governance from the international, regional, national, sub-national and even at the household level to address intra-household food insecurity. Land inheritance issues are key in some contexts, such as in Ghana, where the application of customary law may entrench inequalities based on gender. However, the answer to gendered inequalities in land ownership is not necessarily to adopt standardised governance measures. In some contexts, such as Cambodia, where joint land titling is the norm, this may not lead to gender equality or improved food security in practice as patronage politics often over-ride statutory laws on land tenure.

Women in agricultural production face a number of constraints including gender-based discrimination, a lack of mechanisms to ensure their meaningful participation in decision-making structures at different levels of governance, and the unfair division of productive and reproductive tasks. In Ghana, it was noted that land scarcity and labour scarcity issues are closely connected and both are gendered with women being less able to access hired labour to assist them in farming activities.

Land and agricultural commercialization in agrarian communities are also tightly connected to changes in the wage labour market as well as to opportunities to engage in contract farming schemes. In each of the cases presented, it was noted that employment opportunities, including contract farming, were highly contingent upon gender and that women were generally less able to access decent on and off farm jobs than men. Related to this finding was the fact that women in the main have less control over and access to income from wage labour.

Gender and policy-making

The issue of multilevel governance was raised and it was observed that in each of our case study contexts, international norms and actors are influencing national control over agricultural policy making and its implementation. In Ghana, in particular, it was noted that there is a need to reduce dependency upon external development assistance in order to ensure that national political authorities are making and taking responsibility for agricultural, land and food security policies. The impact of deepening decentralization also came through as a theme in both Cambodia and Ghana and with it the need to guarantee that fiscal decentralization policies and laws include increased budgetary allocations to promote gender equitable agricultural policies at the sub-national level.

The question of democratic accountability pathways in contexts of deconcentration and decentralisation was raised. It was noted that women are not participating on an equal basis in governance at any level (including in agricultural and land cooperatives) in any of the case studies discussed. Related to this finding is the observation that commercialization of land and agriculture has resulted in an enhanced role for the private sector in policy making at all levels and that these business actors are now increasingly responsible for allocating resources and driving legal change, including the development of accountability and dispute resolute structures. The gender dimension of these changes in governance actors still need to be assessed.

Each of the case studies also noted the importance of the prevailing legal environment and the need for effective, independent accountability mechanisms to ensure that there is a real protection for rights to non-discrimination, food and its related components including land and natural resources, decent employment and social security. Each of these components of the right to food must be promoted and protected within national legal systems and this includes examining purportedly ‘neutral’ legislation connected to agriculture, trade and land tenure through a gender lens. Presenters raised the question of legal pluralism and the issues of customary law and patronage networks along with the problems and opportunities that these non-state norms create for gender equality and the realisation of the right to adequate food. They discussed in particular, the question of access to justice and the need to identify barriers to the provision of justice for women in all areas of social, economic life including within the family and in local communities. And they analysed the ways in which remedies for violations of the right to adequate food, including compensation for loss of land, may lead to gendered inequalities.


The meeting insisted upon the need for high quality research to back up policy interventions. This should include insights that emerge from the micro level of the household or through case studies and not only from national averages. The ongoing research within DEMETER has allowed us to draw out certain broad trends concerning the impacts of agricultural and land commercialization on gender equality and the right to food. This data may assist in drawing attention to specific issues that policy makers at all levels should be aware of, in particular the importance of looking at what a gender focus can bring to purportedly neutral agricultural, trade and investment laws and policies. The focus of the research is to demonstrate that a human rights-based approach gives us the tools to analyse the gender equality and right to food implications of processes of agricultural and land commercialisation and to make recommendations that can be applied at different levels of governance in order to redress injustices and to create accountability pathways for the realisation of human rights. To this end, policy interventions should move beyond technical check lists aimed at integrating a gender dimension into agriculture to actually identify and tackle gendered power structures and inequalities. Ensuring coherence between international, regional and national agendas on economic development, human rights and gender equality is crucial for this purpose.