Power in Numbers

Measuring women’s empowerment

Photo of grandmother, mother, and daughter in Guatemala.

Three generations of women in Guatemala, where the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index was piloted.

When the US government wanted to make sure its global hunger and food security initiative Feed the Future was having a positive impact on women in the countries it was serving, it called on IFPRI to help. The result is the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), an innovative tool that was collaboratively developed by IFPRI, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), and the US Agency for International Development.

“When we were commissioned to do this work, we were mandated to design, develop, and test an index to measure the greater inclusion of women in agriculture-sector growth resulting from the Feed the Future initiative,” explained Agnes Quisumbing, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. Quisumbing, Senior Research Fellow Ruth Meinzen-Dick, and Research Fellow Amber Peterman served as the key IFPRI researchers developing the index.

The WEAI actually comprises two indexes, both based on individual interviews with women as well as the men in their households. The first index assesses women’s empowerment in five areas: decisions about agricultural production, power over productive resources such as land and livestock, decisions about income, leadership in the community, and time use. The second index measures gender parity—that is, whether women are as empowered as the men in their households.

As Meinzen-Dick explained, most gender indexes are based on national data and do not really capture the reality that individual women face. The WEAI, in contrast, is a composite measure that indicates women’s control over critical parts of their lives in the household, community, and economy, through one-on-one interviews. “It’s a simple, technically robust index that gives powerful insight,” she said.

Sabina Alkire, OPHI’s director, is co-creator of the Alkire Foster method for measuring multidimensional poverty, which was used to construct the index. She called the index “a major advance in our ability to measure empowerment.”

Piloted in Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Uganda, the WEAI is being rolled out in 19 countries hosting Feed the Future programs, where it will be used to understand the connections between women’s empowerment, food security, and agricultural growth.

Although women make up 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force, their yields are up to 20 percent less than those of men. By identifying women who are disempowered and the areas in which they are disempowered, the WEAI can help show program leaders where they should focus their work. Ultimately, using the index to help empower women could not only increase global food production, but also have far-reaching benefits for families and future generations.

In This Issue


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A vibrant market in farm machinery services is emerging in Africa.


Smart Money?

Many African governments subsidize fertilizer for farmers. Are the subsidies worth it?


Lightening the Double Burden

Obesity and undernutrition increasingly appear among members of the same household. Is there a way to prevent this "double burden" of malnutrition?


The Family Business

Most farms are family farms. Should we be helping small family farmers to stay in agriculture, or to move up and out?