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close this bookCERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)
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View the documentLow-input farming: Is it worth the work?
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Gender analysis has a crucial role in planning workable farming systems

By Vicki L.Wilde

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When project officers set out to implement a community forestry project in Nepal a few years ago, they wanted to do the right thing. They went directly to the villagers and asked what kind of trees they wanted to plant. "Hardwood trees," was the answer, so the project provided 3 000 hardwood seedlings - and all 3 000 seedlings subsequently died from lack of care.

Why? Because the project officers left gender issues out of their thinking. They consulted only the male villagers, who were only interested in wood for furniture-making and carving that would earn them cash. But, by tradition, it was the women who planted and watered tree seedlings. They saw no benefit for themselves in slow-growing hardwood trees, and so refused to take on the burden of caring for them. The women were spending some six hours a day collecting fuel and fodder, and - if they'd been asked - would have said they wanted fast-growing species to ease their burden.

The project officers learned a lesson from that false start; and things did improve. They called a second meeting and invited the women as well as the men to attend. This time it became clear that, to succeed, the project had to deliver both hardwood and fast-growing trees, so both sexes could get what they needed.

The Nepal project is a good example of why gender analysis is crucial to development, especially when new technologies or improvements on old ones are being introduced. In every culture and ethnic group, every environmental, economic and social setting, women and men have different roles, needs and priorities. In most development efforts, including those in the farm sector, the focus has been on men because they are considered community leaders and household decision-makers. This has warped the development process so that, in the long run, nobody benefits. Men may gain materially for a while, but when women end up worse off than they were before, the whole family suffers - to the detriment of entire communities and, eventually the nation as a whole.


Hmong women have specific tasks in farm families, which must be recognized - FAO Photo by P. Johnson

As planners struggle to simultaneously boost crop production and achieve sustainability, experimenting with different combinations of low- and high-external-input fanning techniques, the question of gender, and its inextricable links to the labor equations involved, should not be overlooked.

Increased malnutrition

Another graphic example: in South India when irrigation technology was introduced for tea production, it was the men who were taught how to use it. For many years, women had earned their wages as agricultural laborers on these tea plantations, but with the introduction of irrigation, men took over the women's jobs. The result was that men's incomes were raised. That was fine until it was realized that, at the same time, their children had begun to suffer from increased malnutrition. This was because women had lost their source of income, and within households in this part of India, it was the women's responsibility to earn the income to buy food, while men spent their money in other ways. Women had lost their access to income, but they still had sole responsibility for feeding the family. And the whole family suffered.

Similar cases have been documented in other countries. An International Labour Organisation poverty study in the Gambia found that the small percentage of female-headed households were better fed than those with a male head because when women were in control their money went on food.

Development workers are only now beginning to recognize that introducing high-technology agriculture can cause a deterioration in the well-being of rural families. Most of these projects were designed for large landholdings and have required expensive inputs. Women have been left out on two counts - first, because women's farms tend to be small and second, because even when projects do reach small farmers, only men have been invited to training sessions introducing new technologies and inputs.

FAO's 1989 Global survey on agricultural extension concluded that only about five per cent of all agricultural extension resources worldwide are directed to female farmers. The 1993 FAO publication Agricultural Extension and Farm Women in the 1980s said: "Whether by design or default, the result is a male-to-male system for transfer- ring agricultural training, technologies and information. At best, the result is sub-optimal levels of agricultural production. At worst, female farmers are handicapped in both their subsistence and income-producing agricultural activities."

But the fact that women don't benefit from high-external-input systems doesn't necessarily mean that they do benefit from low-external-input systems. In fact, women emerge the losers in almost every kind of development effort because of three mistaken assumptions on the part of far too many planners:

· within a society, both women and men benefit equally from economic growth;

· if you raise men's income you improve the welfare of the whole family;

· within a household both burdens of poverty and the benefits of wealth are distributed equally.

None of these assumptions is true. Development planners go wrong when they view households as a single unit - a lump - and don't look at the interaction between females and males within them.

Gender analysis is a tool for understanding the relationship between gender issues and development. In its most basic form, gender analysis asks four questions:

1) What is getting better, what is getting worse in the lives of the people in economic, environmental, demographic, social and political terms?

2) Who does what? What is the division of labor and responsibilities between women and men?

3) Who has what? Who has access to and control of the key resources in the community?

4) What should be done? In other words, how do we close the gap between what people need and what development delivers?

In low-input systems, gender issues must be considered in the planning process and in the labor equation. During the planning process, gender analysis can help identify the needs and priorities of both women and men. On the basis of consultations with both in what are known as participatory rural appraisal exercises (PRA), decisions can be made about which development activities require support. Care must be taken to ensure that the types of crops, trees, animals and the placement of wells, schools and other infrastructure are selected together with the women and men for whom they are intended. The planners need to be flexible enough to accommodate the sometimes overlapping, sometimes different priorities of women and men. The women may need help with their corn production while the men want to improve cotton processing.


Aid to Bhutan and other poor countries will work only if gender roles are recognized - FAO photo by F. Mattioli

In looking at the labor equation for low-input systems, the answers provided by the gender analysis questions enable planners to examine the existing division of labor and identify labor bottlenecks. Typically, women work more hours than do men. But if women are already overworked, leaving them out of the project is not the answer. Instead, planners must find ways to lessen their current work load and allow women to shift their labor over to new activities as they prefer. If women of a village are spending four hours a day looking for water, the project might provide for sinking a well close to the village to free that time for more lucrative activities.

Gender analysis also helps development specialists avoid working on the basis of stereotypes in making assumptions about labor patterns. It is often assumed that heavy labor tasks belong only to men, but as men migrate to the cities women are forced to take over traditionally male tasks, including heavy labor. On the other hand, it is accepted practice in Bhutan for men to take over the housekeeping for the first 30 days after a baby is born. Sometimes male and female labor overlaps, as often happens in Asia, sometimes it is distinct, as is usually the case in Africa. Not only do women and men have different labor roles; they also have different knowledge, concerns and priorities.

Two patterns

The division of responsibilities is very much a part of the culture of a country, but it can also vary greatly from village to village, depending on tradition, social customs, the economics, the environmental situation and the degree of development.

On a mountainside in the Khao Kho area of northeastern Thailand, two different patterns of gender roles are found within walking distance of each other.

Among the Hmong people in the highlands, women and men have distinct roles. Women are their husbands' property and handle household chores while men control the land, money, credit and their wives' labor. Midway down the same mountain, live the Thais. Here women and men work together in most of their tasks. That men help with the cooking and cleaning, and both men and women can sign for credit.

These ethnic-gender differences are important for afforestation of the area. Members of a forestry project staff now know that different extension strategies are needed for the two villages. They learned that meetings would only work well for the Hmong if they were held separately for women and men, whereas among the Thais, meetings should be held with women and men together.

Important as it is, there is still a lot of confusion about gender analysis. Unfortunately, "gender" has often been regarded as synonymous with "women." But gender analysis is about both women and men.

Twenty-five years of research has shown that if you leave out the women, millions of development dollars can go down the drain. The lack of women's participation in development has led not only to project failure, but also made life harder for rural families. But, leaving men out of the equation is not the answer either. In the Gambia, for example, projects that increased women's incomes through horticulture activities ultimately failed because the husbands felt so threatened by their wives' increased incomes that they drove their cattle through the women's gardens to let them fatten on the fruit and vegetables.

Clearly, for sustainability, both women and men must benefit from development. This is all the more important in low-input agriculture systems where labor is the primary input. Therefore, understanding the gender-based division of labor is crucial. It cannot be expected that anyone will put more labor into any particular activity unless the laborers - female, male or both - stand to gain. And this is where the planning comes in. Linking gender analysis to the planning of low-input agriculture efforts will clarify people's priorities.

When development efforts centre on people's priorities, motivations to participate are high, and everybody wins.