The agrarian sectors in South and Southeast Asia are in rapid transition as development efforts intend to increase productivity through large-scale investments, new technological applications and, increasingly, sustainable farming methods. These transitions aim to benefit the larger economy while at the same time reduce poverty. More recently, they include the goal of women’s economic empowerment, or WEE.

This focus on women’s economic empowerment has gained traction and is the leading approach to addressing gender gaps in economic spheres, including agriculture. WEE strategies promote women’s access to the labour market and business development, as they integrate gender dimensions along the value chains of agricultural products. The assumption is that including women’s economic empowerment in projects and programmes will produce more gender equality in outcomes, such as ending unequal access to productive resources, market opportunities and paid employment.

However, economic empowerment does not lead straight to gender equality. Systemic barriers and patriarchal social norms still impede women from realizing their rights in the agriculture sector or benefiting from sustainability initiatives. To contribute to the elimination of existing inequalities, this brief examines persistent barriers to gender equality in agrarian contexts, asks how projects and programmes designed to promote women’s empowerment are implemented and makes key recommendations to close gaps in current approaches.

The brief is based on recent Stockholm Environment Institute work and draws on literature reviews on women’s economic empowerment in rice value chains in Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam, as well as a literature review and interviews with participants of a home gardening project on gender power relations in rural Cambodia.