Innovation Lab addresses agricultural gender inequality in Cambodia through leadership, education and mechanization. (Photo credit: Molly Webb, SIIL)
Researchers with USAID’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL) take a holistic approach to their work, looking at the ways in which their innovations affect all aspects of a farmer’s life. For SIIL investigators, gender dynamics are a constant issue of importance.
“The one thing we know is that so much is changing for women around the world. We want them to know enough so that they can respond to that change in positive and productive ways,” said sociologist Cornelia Flora, Emeritus Professor at Iowa State University, research professor at Kansas State University and member of the SIIL’s External Advisory Board.
In Cambodia, for example, gender equality is a national priority, but problems still persist.
“Male family members are moving away from villages into cities or going to other neighboring countries to find employment,” said Vara Prasad, director of the SIIL. “But the families still have to continue farming because they have the land and they can’t waste that, so those who are left must take over the farm. Those individuals are primarily women.”
Encouraging women to lead through education and cooperation
It is important to consider whether women’s needs as smallholder farmers are being addressed within complex farming systems. Women often lack many of the resources necessary to succeed, such as transportation, knowledge of markets, education, and land rights.
These barriers to entry are what the SIIL researchers are trying to help women smallholder farmers overcome, by providing strategies for them to earn extra income, improve their crop yields, and decrease their time and physical burdens.
One of the ways to help women overcome barriers is to work with the cultural barriers that exist, rather than against.
“In many countries, there are some culturally gender-specific crops or gender-specific species of livestock, that they can get income from,” Prasad said. “For example, legumes are often a ‘woman’s crop.’ Whatever income they get from peanuts or home vegetable gardens is going to be theirs. Whatever they get from chickens is theirs as well, in many places.”
Home vegetable gardens are particularly important when it comes to improving quality of life for women, their children and their communities. While Cambodia is mainly a rice producer, like the rest of Southeast Asia, vegetables are a crucial contributor to the household’s income. More income leads to better nutrition, access to education and an improved standard of living.
But there are tradeoffs. The more time women spend growing vegetables, the less time they have for household and family labor, a responsibility that, culturally speaking, men usually aren’t willing to take on. That’s why social scientists such as Flora believe it’s so important for researchers who provide outside interventions to understand the culture within which they work.
“In this way, we can ensure the benefits we push are ones that are universally valued by both men and women. Make the family’s life better, not just women’s lives,” she explained.
Men aren’t always going to be open to these innovations, and they may worry how their lives will be affected. “As outsiders, we can help. We make it clear that these are not just women’s benefits—that children are doing better, men are eating better, and there’s more household income.”
“SIIL is recognizing and including all participants, men and women, and welcomes them and respects them equally, and that’s really important,” Flora added.
For example, SIIL researchers Ricky Bates and David Ader work as part of the Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN) Cambodia project. Their research aims to address issues of agricultural diversification in Cambodia through a gender and ecological lens by identifying policies or cultural norms that limit women’s participation.
“If we identify some of these constraints, and can work with the established system, with NGOs and other groups, and at least open up or lessen some of these barriers, then it’s an avenue for the sustainable intensification technologies to be adopted, embedded in the system and scaled up,” Bates said.
Education and training is a large part of their work. “We use linkages with ongoing networks that are already working here,” Ader noted. Connecting with existing projects of similar focus promotes efficiency and sustainability within the SIIL research portfolio.
“What one organization did was gather women’s groups in every province in Cambodia. The women themselves selected representatives. These are women that are already seen as role models in their communities, so engaging with them is one way these types of partnerships can help us,” Bates explained.
Reducing drudgery with tools that fit women’s needs
Though farming offers economic possibilities, day-to-day farm work can be difficult for women, especially without the help of modern agricultural tools that are not designed with women farmers in mind, or even made available to them.
Alan Hansen’s work with the SIIL’s Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) involves empowering women through modification and introduction of tools and machinery that are more suited to their needs. Over the last few years, the ASMC has developed or adapted three main tools to reduce women’s drudgery on the farm: the ripper, the planter and the seeder.
For example, simple tasks such as digging holes can be strenuous when the farmer has to stoop down on the ground, stand back up, move, and repeat the process. Hansen’s team has been introducing a device with a longer handle so a woman can dig a hole for planting while standing.
The ASMC also works with machinery. Hansen says the problem often lies with the agricultural manufacturing company. “There may be some physical strength associated [with using the machinery] and the designers may sort of think, ‘Well, a man is the right person to be doing this.’ But why not design the machine so a woman can work with it from the get-go?”
To address this issue, the ASMC conducts focus groups and household surveys using the Women Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI). The five domains they measure are decisions about agricultural production, access to and decision-making power over productive resources, control over use of income, leadership in the community, and time use.
Innovation hubs in each country where the ASMC works help them to connect with local universities, specifically working with the designated gender specialist. They also work with gender and agricultural extension specialists at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, including Paula Faulkner.
“The need for equity for women farmers is vital,” Faulkner said. “This project gives a voice for women farmers and helps them be successful by receiving appropriate tools, credit, land ownership and most importantly, sustainability.”
“Push-back is common, whether it is subtle or blatant,” said Faulkner. “Gender inequity is found on all levels, not just for farmers.”
The goal is to provide more education such as training and demonstrations in group settings — with male and female participants — to discuss equity and the value of having two adults, not just one, contributing to the household earnings.
Through this type of education and empowerment, the SIIL community hopes to see change for women in coming years.
“I hope to see their health improve. I want to see women and girls in schools studying agriculture,” said Flora. “And I hope to see them involved in other kinds of nonagricultural decision-making.”