In 2007, the United Nations declared 20 February to be World Day of Social Justice. In their declaration, they recognized that “social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations” and that “in turn, social development and social justice cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Women pack boxes of fresh vegetables in Cape Town, South Africa.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It also recognized that social justice is interlinked with global development priorities: while there have been increasing opportunities for social and economic development, supported by technological change, new information tools, economic growth and the ability to improve global living standards

at the same time there remain serious challenges, including financial crises, insecurity, poverty, exclusion and inequality within and among societies and considerable obstacles to further integration and full participation in the global economy for developing countries as well as some countries with economies in transition.

Challenging inequalities in agriculture

The issues outlined in this resolution remain present around the world and continue to underpin many of the global challenges to sustainable development. Indeed, we can see their presence in many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year, the theme for World Day of Social Justice is “overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities for social justice”. This means challenging the inequalities that prevent social justice and understanding the opportunities for change.

The agriculture sector can provide us with a good snapshot of these themes. Agriculture is fundamental to human survival – the sector plays a vital role in global economies – but is also central to ensuring global food security. However, not everyone is able to participate equally or equitably in agricultural value chains, and not all are able to achieve food security.

Empowering women farmers

Women often contribute most of the labour to small-scale agriculture (normally defined as farms of less than 5 hectares). In Uganda, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, 75% of agricultural labour is done by women (Gender and Agriculture Sourcebook). Women are often the main labourers and producers, but their contributions to agriculture are frequently overlooked. They often lack rights such as land ownership, control over farm-level decision making, and access to agricultural support services that would allow them to expand and improve their farming practice.

Social factors such as restrictive gender roles mean that women are often denied a voice in decision making at household through to national levels, so they are often not able to advocate for what they need to continue their entrepreneurial efforts.

For instance, limitations on women’s ability to travel can mean that they must sell their produce at lower rates because they can’t travel to more lucrative markets. Or, they may be open to exploitation at the hands of middlemen, who know that they will accept lower rates for their produce than they should, because they cannot access markets.

It can mean that women aren’t able to engage in valuable additional activities – turning their agricultural products into processed goods that can get them higher income. Agricultural technologies – machinery, irrigation technologies, even mobile phones and ICT – are frequently unavailable to women because of educational, financial and social barriers.

However, we also know from evidence and experience that when these barriers are removed, there have been substantial improvements in women’s finances, opportunities, and food security. When women have ownership over land, can make decisions about their agricultural businesses, can have access to ICT, they can thrive and increase their socio-economic position, dismantling some of the gender inequalities that persist.

A woman in Uganda tends to her tomatoes on her homestead.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Engaging young people in agriculture

Similarly, we also see inequalities facing youth in agriculture. We are seeing a global trend of youth disengagement with agriculture, and migration to urban areas to seek economic opportunities. Much of the world’s food is being produced by an increasingly aging farming population.

Engaging youth in agriculture is fundamental to ensuring sustainable food production. However, because of their age, they are often unable to access the resources they need to maintain financially successful farming enterprises.

Young people are often unable to access the resources like credit and productive tools (such as tools, seed, fertilizer) they need for farming, particularly in changing environmental conditions. Yet evidence also tells us that they have an appetite for innovation and entrepreneurship: when programmes are in place that provide education, technology, and access to these resources, young people have created a better future for themselves, and invested in their communities.

Inequalities in agriculture persist: women continue to provide the majority of labour in agriculture globally, but do not see the benefits of their work nearly often enough. Young people migrate for economic stability, undermining the sustainability of rural areas and agricultural production. However, when opportunities are in place to provide support and opportunities for women and young people, there have been demonstrable improvements in their lives. This presents a substantial opportunity to challenge inequalities and create a more resilient, food secure future.

Sarah Cardey is an Associate Professor in International Development at the University of Reading.