What can Positive Deviance reveal about gender and social change?

Today is the UN International Day for Rural Women, so here are Patti Petesch (left), Shelley Feldman (near right) and Lone Badstue (far right) to introduce some really interesting new research on what works.

What can a Positive Deviance approach add to our understanding of gender equality in rural villages? To find out we analysed a sample of 79 villages in 17 countries and identified eight that we classify as ‘transforming’. Diverse villagers from these eight cases reported significant gains in their decision-making capacity and in local poverty reduction compared to a decade ago. The remaining 71 villages fall into two groups: ‘climbing’ (villages with more modest improvements) and ‘churning’ (stagnating or deteriorating places). Here’s our paper with further details.

Headline finding: Transforming communities are distinguished by more equitable gender norms that enable both women and men to be more effective decision-makers and innovators in their rural livelihoods. Compared to climbing and churning cases, both women and men in the transforming villages attest to greater freedoms for women to be mobile in their villages and to innovate with commercial crops, agri-processing and other entrepreneurial activities.

In a transforming village of Nigeria’s Oyo state, for instance, women along with men report benefiting greatly from improved maize and cassava varieties. Village women process their cassava into speciality drinks and prepare foods that they vend in the busy village market.  “Everybody is into business now,” says one woman. Women with more resources in the Oyo village report having control over farmland and now make enough money “to allow us to enjoy the freedom to make major decisions.”

Aside from women and men connecting to opportunities, the transforming communities are also characterized by infrastructure investments, growing markets and men’s labour migration.

For example, in another transforming context in Uzbekistan’s Andijan Province, about half the village men work in temporary jobs in Russia and Kazakhstan. In men’s absence, many village women have stepped into commercial farming. They spoke of receiving valuable support from business-friendly government programs, the farming association and commercial bank loans. “We [women] need to work and take matters into our own hands and head our households,” said the local social worker.

The need for a confluence of so many favourable conditions helps to explain why we found so few transforming cases

but you knew that, right?

in our sample (8 out of 79).  It takes not only a flowering of more equitable normative practices, but also an environment providing opportunities for women and men alike to exercise agency, to access meaningful resources, and to forge good change in their own and their family’s wellbeing.

In another transforming context, a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, also with very high rates of men’s outmigration and women assuming operation and management of family farms, the women often consult with their absent husbands via cellphone. The women also speak of becoming more assertive in their households. Young women of the village report freedom to move about and engage in small-scale trade and testify to social change in their own young lives: “Education has brought about a revolutionary change—we are wiser and more capable.”

We found women actively engaged in their rural economies across the climbing and churning contexts too, but with far less encouragement, visibility and returns. “Tough men like my husband don’t give me freedom to make decisions,” explains a 50-year-old farmer and mother of six from a climbing context, also in Nigeria’s Oyo State. There are countless pressures on women to keep their economic lives small and out of sight.  In many contexts, still, men’s reputations depend on this.  Moreover, our wider data make evident that extension systems continue to provide limited support to boosting women’s productivity, despite so many women farming and men off in distant jobs.

The transforming cases help to shine a light on the positive contribution of gender equality to economic growth identified by macroeconomic studies. Gender roles and norms greatly shape the context for development and who benefits. We learned that there is real value in reaching out to hear from diverse social groups about the processes of change that they see shaping their lives and community. Where we received consistent reports that their community was on a strong path, we found a normative climate matched by resources that enabled both women’s and men’s agency to take off and powerfully reinforce one another.

This research is part of the CGIAR’s GENNOVATE research initiative.  Patti Petesch and Lone Badstue are with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and Shelley Feldman is with Cornell University. 

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