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Addressing gender gaps in agricultural production systems

May 17,2015

Through the adoption of a participatory approach, ICARDA scientists are gaining a better understanding of gender gaps and wage equity in agricultural production systems. ICARDA’s gender strategy enhances women’s involvement in the farming systems.

In a region struggling with food insecurity, ICARDA scientists were baffled to find tomatoes rotting in the fields in rural Egypt. On initial investigation it appeared to be a case of lower prices being offered by marketing agents.

However, a participatory research conducted by ICARDA scientists showed that the tomato variety was not well-suited to local food preparation and preservation and the women did not like its taste. It was clear that the women’s preferences had significant impact on the perceived value of the tomatoes, but were not taken into account when selecting the seed variety.

This revealed the importance of engaging women in decision-making in the local agricultural systems. However, despite their significant role in agricultural systems, women often remain marginalized. Addressing the ‘gender gap’ is essential for their empowerment and raising overall productivity.

Role of women in agriculture

According to the United Nations, women make up approximately 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force. This ‘feminization’ of agriculture is prevalent across many of the areas targeted by ICARDA. Women undertake 60 percent of agricultural work in Syria and Jordan, and in Egypt they are entering traditionally masculine spaces related to irrigation, land management, and agricultural cooperatives.

Participatory Research

Participatory appraisal shows that agricultural research is more effective if scientists recognize the role of different household members in agricultural activities related to production, processing, and marketing. However, due to the complex social, cultural, economic and political factors, integrating a gender perspective into the analysis of farming systems is still a challenge.

Invisibility of women in agriculture

When ICARDA started a participatory plant breeding program in Syria, initially, women were not engaged in the process. With time, when ICARDA researchers became aware of women’s interest in the program they coordinated directly with the community, respecting the cultural sensitivities, and created women-only venues for discussion.

With women on-board in the program, barley varieties were selected that better responded to farmers’ overall household needs. Along with marketability, additional factors like reduced cooking time, taste preferences, and the quality of straw for producing handicrafts were considered. Including women’s opinions benefited the research in terms of understanding the trade-offs between income and household well-being.

Empowering women

ICARDA recently conducted a diagnostic study on the value chain of argan oil production in the Souss Massa Draa region in Southwestern Morocco. One of the objectives was to investigate whether women’s participation in the value chain resulted in empowerment. Interestingly, empowerment has a varied understanding. Often it is defined in terms of women’s relationships to specific crops, livestock, or the tasks performed rather than their level of knowledge or skills.

Women farmers are an important part of the booming argan oil industry but economic returns for them are few. The study determined that women are locked in a poverty trap despite their participation in the value chain.

However, the access to income has given them respect within their household and community, and they control its allocation to an extent. They do not receive adequate wages, but benefit from social responsibility programs, literacy courses, and sometimes make small investments. Their empowerment also comes through their skill development.

It is important to understand the tradeoffs between empowerment within the household. For example, an empowered mother who spends long hours at a collective cracking nuts may lead to a disempowered adolescent daughter, who sacrifices her education to take on greater household responsibilities. ICARDA scientists are continuously working towards gaining a better understanding of gender gaps and addressing them adequately.

Wage equity in the agricultural sector in Morocco and Egypt

Improving wages and working conditions for women is also an important part of ICARDA’s research. A research was conducted in Egypt and Morocco to investigate and assess how working conditions, opportunities, constraints and sociocultural norms interact to shape the experiences of female and male agricultural laborers working under different terms and conditions (full time, part time, formal, informal, seasonal and permanent) in the agricultural sector.

It was found that higher-paid equipment-intensive tasks tend to be assigned to men whereas women are much more likely to find themselves performing lower-paid time-intensive tasks. Even in the informal sector, men are routinely paid more than women for the same work.

Enforcing equal-pay legislation for women as well as training employers to respond adequately to gender equity is an essential first step towards enabling women to benefit equitably with men from their labor contributions to the agricultural sector.