For International Women’s Day, CABI’s Gender Coordinator, Bethel Terefe, looks at why women are often not considered farmers in their own right, despite the significant contribution they make to agriculture.
I was recently listening to a farmer focus group in Ghana. It became clear that few attendees saw the women as farmers, not even the women themselves. Yet women in Ghana produce 70% of the country’s food crops.
Globally, gender stereotypes in farming are common, but this strikes me as particularly odd in certain parts of the globe. In low-income countries, for example, women form an average of 43% of the farming workforce. In some countries, this percentage is much higher. In Burundi, of all the time spent on agricultural work, women make up 60%.
You might assume in countries where women perform most of the agricultural work, organizations would give them commensurate levels of support. But it seems many could be inadvertently de-selecting women for farming support through their definition of ‘farmer’.
For the purposes of offering agricultural support, a farmer is often defined as the head of a household or a landowner. However, this definition focuses attention away from women, because female-led households are low in number, and few women hold land titles. Women are often seen as the wives of farmers – heads of households and landowners.
Women in agriculture: how do we overcome the stereotypes?
Are women in agriculture destined to remain “the farmer’s wife” and never farmers in their own right, even if they do most of the agricultural work?
How do we overcome this problem? We do it by changing the definition and giving agricultural advice, support and training to women farmers. This helps not only the women themselves, but also their children, families and communities.
I’ve seen in Ghana how agricultural training helps women become more knowledgeable – and more assertive. Being organized into groups helps them feel empowered enough to call for more agricultural advice.
This is important. In many countries, agriculture boosts economies. With greater knowledge, women can help to strengthen economic development and food and nutrition security.
Reaching women in agriculture and addressing social norms
International organizations know this. Through global policy, they call for women’s empowerment in agriculture. But the reality – one I see in my work in low and middle-income countries – is agricultural stereotypes stubbornly persist. This turns women into agricultural labourers rather than farmers.
Even when support organizations successfully reach resource-poor women farmers, social norms can form barriers. Norms or rules of social behaviour constrain women (and men), dictating their place in communities. Men are providers; women are caregivers. For women, social norms can block them from farming careers. Specifically it can stop them from accessing credit to buy land or travelling to sell produce at markets. Even when local laws and policies are inclusive, social norms can challenge gender equality.
While conducting gender studies in agriculture, I’ve come across support agents who say women aren’t knowledgeable about plant health. They think it’s better to give plant health advice to men. But I believe this is largely social conditioning. There are many things we can do to improve the situation.
Redefining the definition of “farmer” to include women in agriculture
We must redefine the selection criteria used for granting agricultural support. A farmer should be defined by the work they do, not household headship status or land ownership.
We must use evidence-based approaches to understand who does what in agricultural work. A simple gender analysis can shed light on the different roles men and women farmers play and, therefore, what support each needs to thrive.
Addressing time and transportation constraints helps women farmers attend agricultural training. Farm work is juggled with unpaid care work. Training sessions must, therefore, be held at suitable times. And free transport must be given for training outside the community.
Most rural women have less access to education than men. Visual aids and verbal communication can help to ensure messages are received at training sessions. Training given over the radio can be helpful. I’ve read about support agents recording radio farming programmes onto cassettes to play at women’s groups. Lively debates follow and embolden the women to try new farming approaches.
Delivering solutions to help women in agriculture have meaningful roles
Where we’ve held Plantwise plant health clinics to advise farmers on crop health, we’ve seen small but important changes. By hiring more women plant ‘doctors’ to give advice on crop health, more women farmers attend the clinics and implement the advice given.
We must employ more women in agricultural support and give them the transport they need to reach remote communities. A study we conducted in Ghana showed women support agents were unable to use the large motorbikes purchased for bigger, taller male agents, for example.
We can help women farmers become productive and resilient. We can improve the wellbeing of their families by changing the way we provide agricultural advisory services. We must help women farmers transcend stereotypes and reach their full potential.
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