Women are an important asset to the global agricultural workforce, making up 43% of the farming sector, but despite the key role they play, they often do not control decision-making on family farms and are left marginalized. Many sustainable agricultural technologies remain out of reach – when organisations develop technologies for farmers, they often have men, not women, in mind.
Development organizations might have an explicit objective to empower women in agriculture and technology uptake, but the issue is not always about limits to agricultural knowledge sharing or under-resourced extension services. Sometimes the problem has more to do with gender-related expectations and social norms.
Social norms are rules of behaviour that are created and adhered to by a group. ‘Actors’ and authority figures in the group – people whose opinion about the norms matters most strongly – maintain and shape these norms.
When it comes to rural communities, social norms matter because they affect the choices and opportunities available to women – the routes through which they can improve their lives. Social norms affect everything from the type of work she might undertake – labour versus management – to the type of technology she uses. These norms hold her in a certain place in society and, unless they are addressed, make empowerment very difficult.
When it comes to technology, this is a man’s world
Social norms affect women’s ability to access agricultural technologies. An unpublished CABI study states: the notion that ‘farmers are men’ means that not only is information targeted at men, but agricultural technologies are also designed with men in mind, despite women’s substantial role in food production.
The uptake of agricultural technologies and the benefits farmers derive from the technologies is influenced by things like division of labour, access and control of resources and decision-making power.
Take biocontrol, for example. An assessment report on uptake of biocontrol methods promoted by CABI in Kenya highlighted that women farmers had limited awareness about the availability, application and benefits of different biocontrol methods on maize to control fall armyworm. Despite their high level of participation in maize production, communication about biocontrol was not targeted at women, partly due to social norms influencing how agricultural extension agents select farmers for new technology training activities.
Biocontrol products are also relatively expensive, which discourages women-headed households from buying them, and where women have unequal access to markets, again often due to social norms, low produce prices can reduce women’s incomes, thereby limiting their access to biocontrol technologies. With little access to farming finance, information and land, women often find it harder than men to access to the kind of technologies that would help them generate better incomes.
Simply put, most of the time, women are not in a position to make decisions and, therefore, have little say in the technologies used.
Building social norms into agricultural development
Extension service providers and researchers must develop technologies that adopt gender-sensitive approaches. This is why funding and projects that focus on agricultural advisory services work must include work on social norms.
First, we must assess and understand the role that social norms play in women’s agricultural roles across the food value chain. Once the social norms and the influence they have are fully understood, strategies can be developed alongside projects to address them. We must not shy away from exploring social norms in agriculture and understanding how women can be empowered throughout the value chain before projects are implemented.
Social norms are kept in place by a system of social sanctions. We must identify and engage with communities’ opinion makers in order to assess the system and fully understand how the norms affect influence women’s (and men’s) behaviour.
The goal is to understand the influence of social norms on women’s roles in agricultural systems including which norms constrain, promote and shape women’s participation in the systems. Diagnostic tools can help to identify the norms and qualitative research can help us dig deeper into the norm, understanding its influence on the behaviour of certain actors.
Gender responsive information dissemination and technology design and selection can help women’s agricultural performance and the benefit they derive from technologies. This helps to close the gender productivity gap and improve food production and security for households and communities.
Finally, gender-related social norms around control of production and decision-making power over inputs and technology can limit both the uptake of technologies by farming households and women’s ability to benefit from production gains when technologies are used. As women are targeted in technology promotion activities, it will also be useful to shift social norms that limit their ability to make decisions on use of inputs and technology in the household. A shift in social norms is needed to enable women to have greater decision-making roles on income allocation from production, in order to improve the overall welfare of households.
Bethel Terefe is Gender Coordinator at CABI. She has worked in the development sector for over 15 years, designing and implementing gender equality and women’s empowerment, water supply and sanitation and agriculture water management programs. Some of her roles have included social science research, policy engagement and influencing, networking and partnership development.
Frances Williams is Global Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at CABI where her role includes embedding gender within CABI’s work. She developed the Plantwise Gender Strategy and CABI’s Programme and Project Gender Strategy as well as contributed to economic assessments of the costs and impact of invasive species on rural livelihoods and the costs and benefits of biological control programmes.
This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for October is ‘Closing the gender gap in agriculture‘.
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