Topic Guide: Women’s empowerment in a changing agricultural and rural context


The aim of this Topic Guide is to provide readers with a better understanding of the elusive concept of ‘empowerment’ in agricultural and rural contexts. The Guide summarises and signposts readers to current debates and thinking around women’s empowerment, whilst being conscious that supporting empowerment has no definitive response. There are many ways to support or enable empowerment. The Guide has been purposively structured in five sections to aid understanding around 5 broad themes, each of which can be read as a stand-alone piece.

Section 1 contains a summary of issues around gender. It begins with a glossary that unpacks gender related jargon and includes a helpful review of what is meant by ‘empowerment’. This part of the Guide also explains why we have focused on women, and outlines what this might mean for those supporting rural livelihoods.

Section 2 broadly examines how to support the empowerment of rural women at the policy and programming level. It reviews the importance of inclusive planning for growth and how collective action is often a necessary ingredient for support to empowerment. Access to information through conventional agricultural advice channels and through Information Communication Technology and are also examined in this section. Approaches that have stressed the key constraints that affect women’s productivity are outlined, noting that productivity increases and resources are just one consideration in a path towards empowerment.

Women (as a group) face constraints, barriers and discrimination. These constraints are often not addressed. For instance in subsistence agriculture, women require considerable targeted support such as better access to assets, information and advice. Section 2 also examines evidence that was located on land, livestock and forestry regarding access to and control over different assets for women. Due to the range of issues covered in this Guide, it is important to stress that not all gender dimensions are discussed in depth.

Section 3 explores waged work options for women in rural areas and social protection initiatives. A high proportion of women and girls produce for markets and/or are wage-dependent on the agricultural sector, taking on seasonal or casual work to supplement incomes with paid work on other farms or plantations. With no option but to ‘step out’ of agriculture, we stress that women require higher earning work opportunities in better conditions. Emerging evidence from off-farm livelihoods options that may support rural women’s path to empowerment are presented, as well as long known challenges around better quality work. For example, domestic workers also require labour rights. Section 3 also touches on support that can be provided to rural areas by reviewing some types of social protection (support for labour market programmes, some public works and cash transfers programmes).

Section 4 focuses on empowerment issues related to entrepreneurship, particularly along agricultural value chains. In many rural contexts women require support to develop new business opportunities along supply chains and access to market information. A review of some evidence around skills/business training for entrepreneurs is presented, before taking a very brief look at microfinance and its link to empowerment. Approaches that link smallholders (women in particular) to markets are examined, looking at women’s empowerment in new and emerging value chains for example, through contracting arrangements.

  Section 5 concerns monitoring, evaluating and assessing impact. Various guidelines are now beginning to layout different dimensions of empowerment that can potentially be measured. This section questions whether we can really measure empowerment, outlining four different frameworks that may help in this regard. When reviewing material for this Guide, it became clear that many studies do not necessarily focus on women’s ‘empowerment’ per se. Impact studies that mention empowerment use a diversity of indicators to measure progress towards ‘empowerment’. In Section 5 we therefore outline some key points that can be used to provoke discussions on monitoring and evaluating women’s empowerment.

This peer reviewed Topic Guide has been produced by Evidence on Demand with the assistance of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) contracted through the Climate, Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services (CEIL PEAKS) programme, jointly managed by DAI (incorporating HTSPE Limited) and IMC Worldwide Limited.


Murray, U. Topic Guide: Women’s empowerment in a changing agricultural and rural context. Evidence on Demand, UK (2015) viii + 140 pp. [DOI: 10.12774/eod_tg.january2015.murrayu]

Topic Guide: Women’s empowerment in a changing agricultural and rural context

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