How the Other Half Farms: Important new book on Gender in Agriculture

This guest post is from Dennis Avilés (right)Dennis Aviles, Oxfam’s Sustainable Agriculture and Gender Advisor

Trying to explain why half of the world’s farmers are systematically underperforming can be elusive. However, the recently published “Gender in Agriculture. Closing the knowledge gap” by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has just done that. The book is a series of background studies commissioned for The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11  with specific focus on gender knowledge gaps, which happen to be many and which run deep.

For development research and practice veterans, walking through the book is an experience of encountering both well-known old facts and some surprising new evidence. But it is also inspiring.  The chapters on data and methods send the message that complexity can be captured only when we break it down into different key types of data without losing sight of the relation between them. And in doing so, we can challenge received wisdom.  For example, Doss contests the oft-quoted fact that women produce 60 to 80% of food in the developing world, mainly because when measuring women’s labour, it is difficult to separate it from other uses as well as from men’s labour, “and that cannot be understood properly without considering the gender gap in access to land, capital, assets, human capital, and other productive resources”.

But it is as much about the kind of data to collect as it is about whom to ask and how.  Behrman and co-authors remind us that men and women spend the income under their control in different ways and that they do not always pool resources.  Therefore, the straightforward method to address power bargaining and intra household decision-making is to consistently collect data from both women and men. Mixing quantitative and qualitative methods is recommended as the best way to cover a range of agricultural issues efficiently and (here’s the best part) both methods are explained for any readers who don’t know them/have forgotten.

women-farmers-investing-african-agricultureI remain sceptical, however, about the value of building new academic models of farmers’ bargaining power and decision making processes. Behrman and co-authors argue that “formulating the appropriate model of household bargaining must be based on a better understanding of culture and context” but even if quantitative social scientists are involved, this seems self-defeating. Do we really need models to predict behaviour and change in a particular local setting and at a specific point in time? Not to mention the faces of disbelief that these attempts provoke among many practitioners in the South. Call me conservative, but I still believe that anthropological and participatory methods aimed at rigorously listening to people and understanding power dynamics are more powerful, cheaper and effective than numeric models in revealing the likely results of actors’ motivations and agency.

The chapters documenting gender gaps bring us back to the persistent reality of women’s constrained access to land, agriculture-related services and opportunities. The authors offer us not only a wide range of policy mechanisms that could overcome women’s disadvantaged position, but also highlight the importance that social norms, family responsibilities, life cycles, women’s availability of time and collective action could play in unbalancing the equation: better policies -> better outcomes. In a brilliant study, for example, Harris analyses the implications of four key health and nutritional disorders (undernutrition, iron-deficiency anemia, HIV, and malaria) for men and women and finds that women are generally disadvantaged across disorders due to both biological and social vulnerabilities.

The section on markets and gender-based barriers shows that working on gender and markets goes far beyond involving more women in value chains. Rubin and Manfre argue that “In many ways the diversity of approaches is evidence of the infancy of the intersection of these two technical areas and the steep learning curve facing value chain and gender practitioners as they attempt to integrate their activities, goals and objectives.” Initiatives that integrate market systems and gender while tackling women and water 1food security appeal to common sense, for example, developing value chains in crops with added nutritional and health benefits. However, the authors warn of the need to pay attention to women’s time allocation patterns, access to and control over income, and decision-making opportunities. This section of the book makes crystal clear that, as important as it is to tackle women’s access to productive assets and market opportunities, it is equally important to work on social norms and women’s time burden, the two long- ignored elephants in the room of economic development.

Three final studies on research, development and extension systems offer a prolific array of practical mechanisms both for increasing women’s representation and influence in the scientific community in agriculture. They are not new: calls for women to set priorities for research, encourage young girls to pursue scientific careers or strengthening women’s groups to better articulate their needs and demands, for example, are well known. What is new and practical is the updated data, albeit scattered and imperfect, to support these claims. Moreover, the old familiar strategies are presented in line with the shift of focus from production toward a broader view of agriculture and food systems.

I am grateful I could read the book; it is one of those published once every three or five years that can really guide our thought and work. The knowledge gap of gender dynamics in agriculture, so often put forth as an excuse for inaction, is narrowing.

women rice farmersOne minor criticism: a stronger focus on power analysis would have made the publication more relevant. What is the role of the global forces that influence national governments to divert resources from smallholder farms towards big industrial farming in this picture? Could the worrying currents preventing women from accessing education and training centres be reversed? What might persuade more governments to take up the gauntlet?

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4 Responses to “How the Other Half Farms: Important new book on Gender in Agriculture”
  1. Nicholas Colloff

    Agreed on the skepticism on transactional models. I recall listening to three of the world’s microfinance gurus puzzle over why none of their models explained why credit groups stayed together even when there was one or more outliers with much larger loans (that everyone was mutually guaranteeing). Perhaps, I suggested, with much hesitation, we might ask people and lo (in Bolivia) at least the answer came out that the women concerned had become friends!

  2. Mark Wentling

    Very interesting for this agriculturalist who has been working in Africa for 44 years. I should read the book as I really find nothing new in the above article. For sure, as long as African women cannot get ahead, it will be much more difficult for Africa to get ahead. But, for women and men, there are many formidable obstacles in the way of getting agricultural productivity in Africa up to the much higher levels that prevail in other regions of the world. One of these is the general fall in soil fertility. In this regard, I recommend the publication by the Montpellier Panel on the African soil crisis noted in BBC Africa news on December 4. This report is in support of the International Year of Soils – 2015. For sure, you cannot build a rising standard of living on a falling level of soil fertility, particularly in view of the fast growing population in Africa.

    • Salome Nakazwe

      Nor can you build a rising standard of living in the ever changing climate patterns that shift from drought in one season to floods in the next. The challenges affecting the agricultural sector on the continent especially in as far as this affects the ‘other half’ are indeed deep. It is difficult to measure african women’s contribution to agricutltural labour as in some cases, their contributions are interwoven in their daily existence to an extent that defining an actvitiy as work is not easy.

  3. Thalia Kidder

    Thank you to Dennis for exploring the arguments and highlights of the book… as many of us won’t get a chance to read it in as much detail!

    Indeed, more systems-wide approaches to women and agriculture are welcome, and it’s encouraging to see institutions bringing together various parts of the evidence so we can learn from each other, rather than stay in our thematic ‘boxes’.

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