Engendering bigger impact: making the other half count

27 January, 2015 by (comments)
Women account for 45 to 80 percent of all food production in developing countries depending on the region.

Women account for 45 to 80 percent of all food production in developing countries depending on the region. Credit: Georgina Smith / CIAT

Gelia Castillo has had her fair share of challenges as a female scientist. Now aged over 80, she remembers when, as one of the earliest pioneers of the social sciences in the patriarchal agricultural system, she was greeted by astonished colleagues: “Hello, but where is Dr. Castillo?”

And yet, decades later, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, although women account for 45 to 80 percent of all food production in developing countries depending on the region, they do not benefit equally from investment in agriculture.

Remarkable steps have been taken in investigating the inequalities that prevent poor rural women from realizing their full potential to improve farm productivity and manage natural resources. Those steps are being made by no less remarkable women and men, who believe in challenging power structures so that research responds to inequality.

Among them, Jacqueline Ashby, Senior Advisor on Gender and Research at the CGIAR Consortium, gathered at the annual meeting of the Gender and Agriculture Research Network at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines last week. At “the coal face” of gender research, Network members are working to change the way research is managed and funded for bigger impact.

Shifting the balance of power

It takes time, reflected members during the week’s discussions, which focused on key themes of capacity building, climate change, gender and plant and animal breeding and collecting sex disaggregated data.

“What we’re trying to do is change behavior – culture,” reminds Kathy Colverson, International Center Associate Director of Program Development at the University of Florida. “Cultures change very slowly, especially where power relations are concerned. It takes careful, shrewd planning and the ability to change and adapt as things change.”

Women’s control over natural resources such as land and water is crucial for more equitable agricultural production and natural resource management.

Women’s control over natural resources such as is crucial for more equitable agricultural production. Credit: Georgina Smith / CIAT

Improving social and economic returns on agriculture through new knowledge, technologies or practices developed by the CGIAR and partners, does alter the balance of power in gender relations. Yet women’s control over natural resources such as land and water – especially in the light of climate change and dwindling resources – is crucial for more equitable agricultural production and natural resource management.

Vicki Wilde, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Founder of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development career-development program, said: “We know that when women earn an income that they control, you will see more investment in food, and education needs within the household.” Research suggests, she notes, women are ten times more likely to invest their income in nutrition and education than men.

Breeding empowerment

That said, stereotypes need to be avoided. It shouldn’t be assumed that women only look for nutritious traits in a crop, it was discussed. “Women also want to make a profit and opportunity to turn a crop into something else,” noted Gordon Prain, gender and partnerships theme leader for the Roots, Tubers and Bananas Central Research Program.

For example, some women prefer growing rice varieties that are easier to pound to those which might be more nutritious. The labor required to process rice in those cases takes priority, a trait which should be combined among others for breeding purposes. Farmers usually have “a portfolio of varieties,” explains Prain, better suited to babies, livestock or certain seasons.

Increasing productivity is also not always about increasing economic opportunity – this has to be done within a set of cultural values and social context. Agricultural production involves beliefs and not just the target to maximize productivity – considerations which need to be fully understood and integrated in crop and livestock breeding programs.

CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network Annual Meeting

CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network Annual Meeting. Credit: Isagani Serrano / IRRI

Collecting the data: what’s the question?

A global study  is underway through the Network*, to analyze the influential gender dynamics at play within agriculture, and the unequal social norms which often make women less productive or lucrative than their male counterparts.

Throughout the week, the importance of sex disaggregated data – careful questions aimed at both men and women vital for gender-responsive research – was highlighted. Research which finds, for example, that more men than women go to buy seed during peak buying seasons, does not reveal whether he was sent there with instructions about what to buy.

Wrapping up the week’s discussions, Gelia Castillo, at the forefront of agricultural research in the Philippines for the last three decades, advised researchers to engage with colleagues – men, biophysical scientists, gender specialists – to learn. “I hope most of you will stay long enough, grow old, to see the results of your research take root and have meaningful impact in the lives of real women,” she said.

More than a discussion forum, the Network is leveraging itself as a platform for change, guiding CGIAR’s research portfolio to respond to gender sensitivities. Bringing experienced researchers and graduates together, it is a vital and powerful support, “poised to make a historic difference,” observed Vicki Wilde. And it’s just getting started.

*This paragraph was modified on January 29th 2015 to clarify that the Global Study is not a product of the Gender and Agriculture Research Network, but a joint research initiative by gender researchers across CGIAR Programs.

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Filed Under: Asia @en, Crop diversity, Gender