Saying the right thing and following through: transforming gender relations in small-scale agriculture

The recent State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report from FAO notes that the prevalence of severe food insecurity is increasing globally and is higher among women than men in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To address this and other gender concerns, many are calling for gender transformative approaches: structural change in social and political life, and in access to and control over assets.

While the current situation is challenging, there are at least two more challenges on the horizon. The first is that gender transformation must be situated within the rapid changes already occurring in rural areas, including the feminization of small-scale agriculture. While feminization of agriculture could possibly open up decision-making arenas for women, Itishree Pattnaik and colleagues in their recent article elegantly suggest that the feminization of agriculture may better be described as the feminization of agrarian distress, with women's growing contribution of labor in agriculture adding to their already heavy work burdens, thus further undermining their well-being.

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The second challenge is the larger rural transformation that needs to take place to address global challenges such as poverty. We have argued elsewhere that food systems need to be transformed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, to build widespread resilience and to put agriculture and food on a low emissions development trajectory. The financial resources needed for such a transformation dwarf what the development community can provide, thus we expect the private sector to play a major role. Small-scale producers could potentially be sidelined, with the greatest threats to those with fewer resources and power: women, among others. For example, the commercialization of dairy in Kenya has severe negative impacts for women.

Aisa Manlosa and colleagues recently wrote that effecting transformative change that addresses root causes of gender inequality remains a largely unresolved challenge. They go on to suggest that transformation involves three elements: widespread change in what is visible (e.g. increasing women’s participation in meetings and  access to information and resources), fundamental structural change in the institutions and rules that govern and create visible conditions, and change in norms and deeply held views of individuals and organizations. Changes in norms and views are the most difficult to bring about, but on a positive note, Manlosa and colleagues found that even in a context where there were no interventions that directly challenged gender-unequal norms, policy change and efforts to address the first level—“visible” gaps between men and women—can enable changes in the third level—norms and views. In a different example in India, Hariharan and colleagues (2018) found that knowledge and capacity development of women and men farmers in Climate-Smart Villages promoted gender equity in farming households as well as increased economic, political, and social empowerment of women.

There is now a substantial literature on gender and agriculture. But if we know so much and we are saying the right things about gender mainstreaming, why are positive changes so difficult to achieve? Perhaps there is insufficient follow through to action, and too much focus on description and the collection of gender-differentiated data. Instead, we need more participatory work and political action with and by:

  • farmers and their service providers, to change the visible dimensions; 
  • policy makers, private sector and civil society organisations, to change the rules of the game;
  • communities, to promote women’s leadership and decision making; and
  • all stakeholders, to promote individual and community reflection aimed at rethinking norms and attitudes.

Female farmers have lower productivity than male farmers due to less access to extension, information, services, credit and technology. There would appear to be many areas where interventions are feasible, but following Manlosa and colleagues we need to try and build linkages across the three elements: visible, institutions and rules and deeply held views. For example, information can be a force for empowerment, but can the work on the ground be complemented by participatory work with the extension agencies and digital providers to address inequity inherent in the rules of the game? Given the increasing role of the private sector, is there enough work on inclusive business models, or as the Asian Development Bank has asked, “How inclusive is inclusive business for women?” While quotas for women in leadership positions remain controversial, a ‘do no harm’ approach brings both women and men to the table to navigate changing gender relations and power dynamics.

Changes outside agriculture are also crucial, for those in agriculture, those whose agricultural livelihoods are complimented by off-farm labor and those transitioning out of agriculture. They include social protection (such as cash transfers or community self-help mechanisms); entrepreneurial skills for stepping out of agriculture; and physical infrastructure that reduces women’s unpaid care work (e.g. transportation, energy, water). We should always be looking for ways of fostering linkages among the three elements. For example, electricity access can influence norms, as shown in Uganda where improved access resulted in men participating more in domestic work and unpaid care duties.

Advancing women’s equality could add US$12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. Can agriculture be part of that revolution?


Bruce Campbell is the Program Director of CCAFS. Sophia Huyer is Gender and Social Inclusion Research Leader for CCAFS as well as Director of Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT). Jayne Curnow is the Research Program Manager for Social Sciences at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).