Hazel Malapit on the Gender-Climate-Food Security Nexus

24/11/2023     11 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Hazel Malapit

The International Food Policy Research Institute researcher tells us about why gender equality matters for food security, the need for collecting the “right data,” and her COP28 expectations.

However controversial COP28 has been before it even kicked off, it remains an important global event on the news agenda.

Food, water and agriculture will be among the big topics discussed at the 2023 Conference of the Parties, taking place in Dubai from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. So much so that all panels and discussions on one of these themes have been gathered in one day: Dec. 10. But to what extent will gender be part of the conversation?

Hazel Malapit is senior research coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a research center that develops climate-resilient solutions to reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition, and includes gender in all of its projects. Originally an economist, she has worked over the years on different programs focusing on agriculture, nutrition and women’s empowerment.

Ahead of this COP, we wanted to take the time and sit down with her to get a better grasp of how food systems intersect with gender and the climate crisis, and why gender equality is key to better food security for all.

Why is it relevant today to look at food security through a gender lens?

Hazel Malapit – In general, if you look at, not only food security, but pretty much any development outcome we care about, I think we forget that women are engaged in those sectors. We don’t often talk about women or their roles, they’re sort of invisible in many ways. 

If you look at the food system, women are involved. They’re producing food at home, maybe in their homestead gardens, or they work in family farms, for example, in smallholder farms. They also participate in processing the food, buying the food, marketing the food, preparing the food. But because women sometimes work in these spaces in either small scale roles — they’re subsumed within the family farm, they’re not the primary farmer, or they’re not even recognized often as a farmer or as an entrepreneur — or they’re maybe based at home, we don’t see the extent to which women are participating in this sector. And for that reason, we don’t recognize that their needs are different, their constraints are different, their issues are different. And then, when crises come up – and we are in a world of many crises, intersecting and happening all at once – the ways they respond to crises and are impacted by crises also differ.

So it’s important to bring women into this conversation, because if we don’t, we’re actually missing a big part of the picture. Governments could be going on and doing their policy solutions, but then they may not get the result they’re looking for because they are not looking at all the relevant information, and all the relevant stakeholders. Women are a critical part of the food system, and they need to be recognized as such. Not only do their voices matter, but their outcomes matter, too. 

You mentioned the different crises piling on. The climate crisis is one of them. How does it affect women specifically?

There are structural inequalities that permeate all the spaces that women live in, be it the home, the marketplace, or global system and institutions, and that disadvantage women. Now, given that sort of background, you include a phenomenon like climate change – which affects different parts of the world and can require people to adapt, to use certain strategies to make sure that their families are taken care of, to make sure that they can continue to support their livelihoods, and so on – then they can impact women and men differently, depending on, you know, their starting point.

“If you discovered, for example, that climate change is a really important part in your model but you’ve been ignoring it all this time, you would try to measure it, to put it in, right? The same is true for gender issues.”

If you’re already operating from a disadvantage in terms of resources (land, information, technology…) and you get a shock that requires you maybe to sell some assets to make sure that you can smooth out your consumption, or to switch to a different livelihood because now your livelihood has been destroyed, then the options, like the climate adaptation strategies, that are available to you could be much more limited compared to somebody who, say, has a lot of land or has multiple types of livelihoods.

When it comes to food security in particular, in what ways women are specifically affected by climate change? For example, studies have shown that in some parts of the world, women are the ones who go and fetch water, get food on the table for their families, and put their family’s nutrition needs before their own.

I’m glad you brought this up because I think part of the problem is that gender norms around the world tend to assign responsibility to women for caring for the household, taking care of children, and feeding the family. And so disproportionately, those are responsibilities of women, which means that when a shock happens, and the household needs to adjust, women still need to perform those roles. That’s part of the difference that is experienced by women. They are expected to continue to provide for the family. Even if that means, you know, selling your goat, or selling your jewelry, or what have you, first. They sell their assets first, just to secure the household. And often, women tend to eat last.

What also happens during crises, and I think we saw this during COVID, is that differential adjustments also happen with girls and boys. Like more nutritious foods being allocated in ways that disadvantage girls, which could mean nutrition deficiencies down the line. Or keeping girls home from school. Or pressures around early marriage as a strategy to secure the future of children. So, there could be not just the immediate impact, but also cascading effects for future generations.

To what extent is it all significant for not just women? Basically… What does gender equality have to do with our food systems?

I would say that not paying attention to women has a lot of costs. We already see it now, because we have been kind of ignoring women for… I don’t know how long. I mean, we’re trying to do a better job, but the fact that we’re not quite there yet, I think that is playing out in the ways that our food system is broken right now. It’s because we’re not doing the right things, we’re not getting the right evidence, we’re not collecting the right data, and that’s all because we are really ignoring a critical part of the system.

If you discovered, for example, that climate change is a really important part in your model but you’ve been ignoring it all this time, you would try to measure it, to put it in, right? The same is true for gender issues. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it is working in the background. The norms are there, the structural inequalities are there in the background, and sometimes the reason why we don’t see the outcomes that we were hoping for is precisely because we failed to take these inequalities into account. They’re messing up our outcomes, and influencing incentives in different ways.

There’s a lot of data that has been collected, but I think there’s this disconnect between the kinds of data that projects are collecting and then the policymakers, the negotiators and the people who are in those spaces, who are making the high-level decisions.

So I think it would serve us as a research community, as a development community, to make sure that we incorporate it, because that will just really help us reach the goals, whether the goal is SDG5, which is gender equality, or whether other goals. Sometimes there are trade-offs that we don’t see, and if we don’t anticipate those trade-offs, then our investments are wasted, which is a real tragedy, because there’s only so much resources to go around.


In your work at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), you’ve studied the effects of women’s empowerment in the agricultural sector across different countries in Asia and Africa. What are some takeaways that you believe more people should know about? 

I hope we’re at that stage where we no longer need to make the case of why women should be part of this conversation, why attention needs to be on women. But if that case needs to be made, there’s enough evidence globally. The FAO’s most recent The Status of Women in Agri-food Systems report makes a pretty good case. 

There’s this story somebody told me about the COP, not this last COP, but one of the negotiations around gender were breaking down because the negotiators didn’t have any data to bring on gender. And me, as a researcher, it’s like… “Well, there’s data.” There’s a lot of data that has been collected, but I think there’s this disconnect between the kinds of data that projects are collecting and then the policymakers, the negotiators and the people who are in those spaces, who are making the high-level decisions. So there’s almost these, kind of, missing pieces in the middle that we need to fill. We’re not going to have gender on the agenda properly well-resourced and we’re not gonna make much progress on it until we’ve done the homework.

But the other point is that, even when we’ve made that case, we’re not collecting the right data [on national and global scales]. We’re not setting measurable targets. We’re not judging progress. Like how do we know that we’re actually succeeding when we’re not collecting the right data? 

Speaking of collecting “the right data,” in October 2023, the Women’s Empowerment Metric for National Statistical Systems was introduced by the IFPRI. What is this tool for exactly?  

We have methodologies, we have ways to collect data, the problem has always been that these are long, they’re very complicated. National statistical offices are not used to interviewing two people in the house, they’re not used to, you know, interviewing women necessarily. So what we did then is say, “Let’s use what we’ve learned out of those tools and try to come up with something light, something you can easily include in a standard agricultural survey, that will add only 15 minutes.” So that’s our goal, 15 minutes added to your interview, which we think is a reasonable time, and then it will be able to capture the different dimensions of women’s empowerment, and help you track at the national level.

So this tool measures women’s empowerment, but it also measures men’s empowerment. Because really, we want to be able to look at gender, to look at that gender gap. And it’s just a measure of different aspects of agency — intrinsic, instrumental, collective. It looks at empowerment overall, and summarizes that for women in a particular population. 

Then you could analyze that along with your other nationally representative data. You could look at how women’s empowerment is linked to your nutrition outcomes, your agricultural outcomes, your GDP growth, and what have you. 

Now, the tool is still sort of new. And I think now, in the next phase, there’s going to be an initial cohort of countries that will be rolling it out. They’re going to start collecting it at the national level. So stay tuned for that. 

What do you wish to see more of in the news on the subject? With COP28 right around the corner, and more generally all year long.

One of the things I do want to hear more about is just continuing to show the big gap in terms of leadership, in the global voices. I think that it’s just a symptom of the inequalities that permeate all the way down, in the community. So it shows up there, it shows up at every level. And then, women being at the table is one layer, but do they really have a voice? Are their concerns actually being reflected?

Inclusion, and especially gender inclusion, is really important, for addressing climate change, whether it be adaptation or mitigation. I think it is the other thing we need to worry about, because the distribution of impacts and benefits and costs is really paramount.”

What would be great, too, is featuring more women farmers as innovators, as agents of change. Because they’re also at the forefront, adapting. So I think not just interviewing women as they are negatively impacted by, say, climate change — because you do have this usual narrative where, “oh, they’re the vulnerable, they have negative impacts” — but also show women in power positions as innovators, being entrepreneurs. So just kind of changing that narrative. Yes, women can also occupy that space. They’re there, they exist, it’s just that we don’t hear their voices as much. 

The other thing I would love to hear more about, and this is a little more controversial, the mobile access gap. Like in conflict and fragile settings, the data collection challenges are even more difficult. Even standard surveys are not always possible. And I actually co-wrote a chapter on gender and fragile settings, in last year’s Global Food Policy Report, and one of our recommendations was around closing the mobile access gap, and the gender digital divide. Now with mobile technologies being more available, people are really leaning into doing phone surveys, using that as a platform for disseminating climate information, technology, all kinds of interventions. The problem is that there is a fundamental gap in access to mobiles. Now, if there is no gap, that would be a great way to reach women. For instance in humanitarian settings, if you would include a mobile phone as part of the care package that the refugee gets, and make sure that the woman has control over that phone, not just the man, that would be phenomenal. It would open up all kinds of possibilities, not just in terms of data from them, but like push messages, nutrition messages, all kinds of things.

Do you think that gender will be part of the discussions around food, water and agriculture at COP28? 

I mean, we are going to try very hard to keep it on the agenda, to shine a light on it, to bring the evidence that exists. There are a lot of promising approaches, a number of events happening around gender and food, that is at least a starting point. If we could at least get some energy around these topics, it’s really critical. So I think I’m just looking for some political will to actually back this up. 

There are things that can be done, we have ideas. We just want follow-through. We want commitments, and real resources put behind this. 

Inclusion, and especially gender inclusion, is really important, for addressing climate change, whether it be adaptation or mitigation. I think it is the other thing we need to worry about, because the distribution of impacts and benefits and costs is really paramount. Who’s benefiting? Who’s bearing the burden? And unfortunately, often it’s women, often it’s the marginalized groups. So let’s do our best to amplify those voices. 

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