Female agricultural extension agents in El Salvador and Honduras: do they have an impact?

G.A. Truitt

G.A. Truitt is an Associate Professional Officer, Women in Development, in the FAO Regional Office for Europe. This article was prepared from a study prepared for publication that was funded by the Women in Development Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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While women play important and ever-increasing roles in rural economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, most agricultural extension services are directed at programmes for men. The presence of women in technical positions on agricultural extension teams enables projects to reach a greater number of female beneficiaries and, through them, projects may even reach more of the men who were not initially involved. Female agricultural extensionists have proven their ability to produce dynamic results in the field, with many agencies preferring the work done by their women agents. As the number of female agricultural extension agents working in the field is small, limiting women to receiving training only from other women restricts potential female beneficiaries from being reached. In order to reach more female farmers, the barriers, including working conditions, social barriers, discrimination and policy limitations, that keep more women from working as agricultural extension agents must be addressed. Men must also be motivated and trained to work with women. Both male and female extension agents should receive gender training, and organizations should incorporate a gender-equity approach to their policies and programmes. Specific policy and project recommendations are made in this article.


It is widely believed that projects employing agricultural extensionists that do not utilize female agents reach fewer women and have a negative impact not only on women's participation, but also on the sustainability of the project itself. With 25 to 30 percent of all households headed by women as their primary financial support (Colverson, 1995), the inability of projects to reach women is a major issue. If the dissemination of information bypasses women, the impact of the project may be severely limited and long-term goals sacrificed, particularly when women are heavily involved in the agricultural sector. In addition, "extension activities that are carried out without the participation of female farmers risk having negative impacts on women and their families" (FAO, 1993).

This article identifies factors that limit or inhibit women from working as agricultural extension agents and provides specific project and policy recommendations to reduce these limitations. It also examines the impact that employing women in this field may ultimately have on reaching female farmers through extension services or training.

The study was conducted via both literature review and field studies in El Salvador and Honduras. Professors and directors at universities and technical schools, students, project officers, extension agency directors, beneficiaries and extension workers were interviewed. Questions pertained to male and female agents' ability to reach and organize beneficiaries, their competency with the latest technical information available and how effectively they produce results in the field. The questions also inquired about social pressures, cultural expectations and policy or programme limitations that may inhibit women from working as agricultural extension agents.


Women play important roles in rural economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Research indicates that women are most active in the small-farm sector and on high-technology export-oriented farms. Women also comprise a larger proportion than men of the labour employed in non-traditional agricultural exports (Kleysen and Truitt, 1996). In Central America, women comprise at least 25 percent of the workforce in the agriculture sector and spend an average of four hours a day on agricultural activities (Chiriboga, 1995).

From 1970 to 1990 women's activity rates in rural areas grew from 12.3 to 19.2 percent (FLACSO, 1995). Even so, official statistics on women's participation in agriculture severely underestimate the actual number of women farmers. Estimations of women's employment, based on extensive surveys undertaken as part of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)/Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Rural Women Food Producers' study, indicate that the percentage of women working in agriculture is underrepresented by anything from 50 percent in Ecuador to 500 percent in Guatemala (Kleysen and Truitt, 1996).

While half of the world's food is grown by women, a 1989 FAO survey reports that 95 percent of agricultural extension services worldwide are directed at men (Dunn, 1995). Specifically in Latin America and the Caribbean, the survey found an average of only 5 percent of extension services directed to programmes for women farmers (FAO, 1993). The World Bank (1992) pointed out that the consequence of assumptions about women's role in agriculture was "an extension system which focus[es] narrowly on women's traditional role as food growers, care givers and maintainers of basic family living standards, in marked contrast to the more complex, productive reality of rural women's lives". When women do receive extension training, it is mostly in "home economics matters only, since local traditions regard women as primarily home-makers and child rearers" (Eboh, 1993).

While 94 percent of agricultural extension agents worldwide are male (FAO, 1993), multiple studies report problems with male extensionists delivering services only to men, or focusing narrowly on traditional roles when delivering programmes to women (Fleck, 1994; Colverson, 1995; World Bank, 1992; Eboh, 1993; Jiggins in FAO, 1993).

To date there is no consensus on whether it is more effective for a man or a woman to deliver extension services to women, however, "extension programmes with the highest number of female staff are those to which female farmers have high and moderate access, and those with small numbers or no female staff are those with few female clientele". Furthermore, "the dynamics of communication are most effective when extension agents are similar to their clients in all respects except technical competence" (FAO, 1993). In the Caribbean region, research points out that "female agents are better able to communicate with women farmers than their male counterparts, even in countries with relatively few social barriers to male-female interaction" (FAO, 1993).

In situations where it may be inappropriate for a male extensionist to approach a woman, or where women have had less exposure to working with extensionists or training, hiring a female agent may be absolutely necessary to accomplish the project's goals.

Despite the benefits of hiring female agents, there are not enough women working as agricultural extensionists to reach all women. Of the world's extension agents, 15 percent are women (Dunn, 1995). Female agricultural extension agents amount to only 6 percent worldwide; in Latin America 2.5 percent of surveyed agricultural extension staff are female. In fact, among all extensionists, the number of women is lowest in agriculture (FAO, 1993). Furthermore, between 1980 and 1989 there was little or slow progress in the number of female agents available. Therefore, "if attention to women must await the recruitment of female extension agents, it will be a long time before they are served sufficiently" (FAO, 1993).

While the use of female extension workers needs to be increased, males must also be motivated and trained to work with women. Moreover, when projects stipulate that only women work with women, there can be negative consequences. In 1994, the World Bank began a project with the Centro Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria y Forestal (CENTA) in El Salvador which included a women's programme. Because only women were able to work with women, women's access to extension services was restricted as a result of the unavailability of female personnel. The women's programme was then eliminated and all employees made accountable to female and male farmers. Extension methodologies were revised to include gender analysis. The result of this change was an increase in the number of female beneficiaries from 10 to 18 percent in only one year (Correia, n.d.).

The social, cultural, logistical and policy constraints that impede women from working as agricultural extension agents must be examined. While there are currently a limited number of female agents in the field, the barriers that limit women's work as agricultural extension agents also effectively prevent more women from being reached.

Benefits of female agents

Female agricultural extension agents bring particular characteristics and unique perspectives to a project. Interviews suggest that, in general, women's approach, background, knowledge, commitment and ability to reach beneficiaries are complimentary to the work of their male counterparts. In addition, the obstacles they have to overcome to be accepted and successful in a male- dominated occupation demonstrate a high level of dedication. The following sections discuss the participation and commitment of female agricultural extension agents, the quality of their work and their ability to reach both female and male beneficiaries in Honduras and El Salvador.

Participation and commitment

The participation of women in traditional agricultural fields of study is low, but the numbers are increasing every year. Although they are a long way from matching the numbers of men, the attrition rate for women is lower than that for men, leading slowly to an increasing female-to-male ratio.

The Pan-American Agricultural School (Zamorano), a technical school offering specialized agricultural technical degrees in Honduras, began admitting women in 1981 when six women were admitted, all with full scholarships. At first, the male students were quite sceptical about the abilities of their female classmates (and readily shared this scepticism with the women). The four that completed the programme graduated first, second, fourth and fifteenth in a class originally consisting of 250 students. These first women paved the way for the acceptance of women at the school.

One female extension agent who studied at Zamorano reported that when she or other women were ostracized by male students, it gave her more impetus to prove her ability. When she knew she did not have the physical strength to accomplish a task, she would find another way to complete it. The Dean of Agronomy (a woman) at the Universidad Evangélica de El Salvador (UEES) described the "tests" that women, including herself, went through to be accepted as agronomy students, such as giving the shortest woman the largest cow to milk.

Despite these challenges, each year the number of female students at Zamorano doubles. In 1996 Zamorano admitted 44 first-year female students and currently 28 percent of Zamorano's students are women. The attrition rate is 20 percent for male students and approximately 10 percent for women. The attrition rate for women is about half that of men at both the Escuela Nacional Agrícola (ENA) and the Escuela Nacional Experimental Agropecuaria de la Región Tropical Húmeda (ENEARTH John F. Kennedy, a high school providing technical agricultural training focused on tropical production) in Honduras. At UEES, only two women in 19 (10.5 percent) from first-year classes have quit, for either financial or health reasons. From 1992 to 1995, a 25 percent drop-out rate was recorded for the male agronomy students.

Students at ENEARTH John F. Kennedy School, Honduras

Quality of work

Project directors expressed a distinct preference for working with female agents. CENTA has noted marked differences between the quality of the work done by female compared with that done by male agents. Although both fulfil their job requirements, the women have better organized groups with more visible results in the field. These extensionists have proven themselves capable in the agriculture field by not only passing exams but also by demonstrating their technical competence to male beneficiaries and their more highly trained male colleagues. This was especially important because 73 percent of CENTA's beneficiary groups consist of men.

Other organizations interviewed (including the Centro Uniersitario Regional del Litoral Atlántico - CLUSA, the Asociación Salvadoreña de Desarrollo Integral - ASDI, Catholic Relief Service - CRS and the Asociación para la Organización y Educación Empresarial Femenina - OEF) also hire women because they find most women possess a number of valuable skills and traits that contribute directly to a project's success. These include: sensitivity to difficult situations, strong analytical capacity, responsibility, punctuality and ability to reach the project's goals. The El Cajón project in Honduras specifically hired a woman as the community extensionist because project personnel felt that female extensionists are more effective at community development. The agencies also stated that the personal difficulties faced by women working in non-traditional technical fields have made them more conscious of the range of issues faced by the beneficiaries, particularly women.

Ability to reach female and male beneficiaries

An extension agent's ability to communicate effectively with beneficiaries is very important to a project's success. Interviews conducted with beneficiaries revealed a preference of some of each sex to receive extension services from a person of the same sex. However, women were said to be more responsible, friendly, efficient at forming beneficiary groups and dedicated. Both male and female beneficiaries felt more comfortable with women. Women specifically preferred to work with women extensionists because their husbands do not react negatively (i.e. with jealousy) and they felt able to discuss personal matters with women.

Extension agencies confirm women have a particular ability to form new groups of beneficiaries, particularly female beneficiaries. Catholic Relief Service (CRS) in El Salvador has more female beneficiaries participating in their projects when the extension agent is female. Projects may actually reach more men through the female beneficiaries. ASDI in El Salvador discovered that women were more willing to try alternative crops, as women's crops are considered secondary to men's in the family. When these new crops proved more lucrative, men slowly began to incorporate more of the new crop and less of the traditional one.

Female agents have proven themselves under difficult conditions. CRS found that using female agents actually enabled their project to move forward despite armed conflict. During the war in El Salvador, the organization sent female agents to distant locations, because it was assumed women would have fewer problems with the rebel soldiers, while male agents would encounter difficulties in the field. None of the women ever reported having had any problems with the beneficiaries who were fighting in the war.

Women have proven their technical competence and commitment in the field, have demonstrated a capacity to reach both male and female beneficiaries and have produced dynamic results. The extension agencies that were interviewed showed a preference for the work conducted by their female agents. The number of women studying agriculture is increasing in Honduras and both countries record high retention rates for female students in agriculture training programmes.

Barriers faced by female agents

Some projects seek women to work as agricultural extensionists because they are aware of the benefits of hiring female agents and/or are under pressure from international donors (as in the case of IDB's influence on the El Cajón project), but there are limited numbers of female extensionists available. In addition to difficult working conditions, there are many social, cultural and policy factors that inhibit female extensionists in their work.

Working conditions and location

Agricultural extension work is poorly paid and not considered a socially prestigious profession. The working conditions require long hours, travel over long distances and extensive time in the field. Many of Zamorano's graduates work in banks or other fields only peripherally related to agriculture, where they have better opportunities for higher salaries and advancement. Women frequently opt for research positions instead of extension because these enable them to work in agriculture without requiring extensive travel away from their families for low salaries.

ENA is located near the city, as are most technical schools. It is the only institution of its kind in El Salvador to offer vocational technical training specifically in agriculture-related fields. Training engages students from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m., with leave only once a month. Since those who elect to work as extensionists are often raised in rural areas, the location of technical schools limits rural women from studying, as they must confront the problem of being away from their families for a number of years. Since many rural communities do not have high schools, admission into the school may also not be possible as few rural women and men are qualified to enter technical school. Furthermore, even for qualified students, tuition may not be affordable. Finally, as women are new to this field, the demand for female agricultural extension agents is not well known. If women are going to invest money in studying they may prefer to study a subject that is known to lead to employment quickly.

Besides the unattractive conditions of extension work, women face additional obstacles such as lack of day care, which affects single mothers in particular. It is often not possible for women to arrive home in time to fulfil their domestic roles. Some women find it necessary to leave the field and return home before dark for safety reasons or to attend to their children. Working a long distance from where they live, or being asked to move to the community where they are providing extension services, may also create conflict with their roles as wives and mothers.

Vehicles for transportation present a problem. Agencies that have vehicles tend to utilize motorcycles (although the roads are poor and it is difficult to manoeuvre on them). As motorcycles are heavy and cumbersome, some women find them difficult to drive. Jeeps are the best form of transportation in some areas, particularly given the rate of crime in both Honduras and El Salvador, but are not readily available because of their high cost.

Extensionists are poorly paid. Most agencies report paying by job category and/or by educational background, although in at least one agency, until 1996, female agents earned less than men for the same job. Even so, very few of the agents interviewed (male or female) earn a salary that would not be considered low by local standards.

Social barriers and beliefs

Almost all of the female agricultural extension workers interviewed experienced problems being accepted and respected by male beneficiaries when they first began working. Unlike their male counterparts, the women had to prove their technical knowledge before they gained credibility. Beneficiaries in some agricultural project areas would not let a menstruating woman into the fields under any circumstances, for fear she would ruin the crops.

Social pressure often comes from the woman's family. Some husbands have "removed" women from agronomy programmes because it is not "feminine". Often female agents remain in the field to sleep which their husbands find inappropriate.

Discrimination and policy limitations

Women studying to become agricultural extension agents face the problems associated with being a minority in their degree programme, including the sexism of some professors. The director of ENEARTH John F. Kennedy said that, at first, the professors were too easy on the female students, protecting rather than training them. Female students from various schools were discouraged from pursuing extension work by professors and noticed that universities never mentioned female agronomists or promoted women working in agriculture-related fields.

Some of the policies that are intended to support students, in practice, impede females from entering this field. In Honduras, schools are required to provide female and male support staff (such as counsellors and nurses) and facilities proportional to the gender mix of students who live on campus. ENEARTH John F. Kennedy does not have the funds to hire extra female staff and this has caused the school to limit the enrolment of women to 20 percent and to require women to live off campus. The female students report that the families they live with in the town expect them to help with household chores even though the women pay to live there.

At CENTA, where female extensionists have a 20-year history, early retirement or positions as agricultural extension agents (after passing a technical exam) were offered to staff. Although the women who took the positions are continually trained and produce noticeably better results than men according to the director, the men expressed frustration that the women who do not have the same educational background in agriculture earn the same salary. Even though recently hired female agents have degrees in an agriculture-related field the tensions between the older staff remain.

In many agencies women reported being overlooked for additional training or advancement. Very few women head field agencies, even though many serve as acting chief during the absence of the agency director. Only 7 percent of extension programme administrators in Latin America and the Caribbean are women (FAO, 1993).

There are also institutional impediments imposed on women working in this field. Although most female extensionists are technically trained in agriculture, they are still sometimes restricted to working directly with women or providing extension for traditional women's work such as sewing and baking. A female agent, trained in horticulture, was hired by CLUSA in El Salvador to provide technical assistance but, instead of working with men where her technical expertise could have been applied, she was asked to work with women who were sorting coffee beans.

ASDI currently employs a pregnant extensionist. The only concession they needed to make was to provide a jeep instead of a motorcycle for transportation. Most organizations, however, feel that extension is inappropriate for pregnant women. Before being hired, women are frequently asked if they are married and have children and as a result the majority of female agents are young and single. This effectively restricts the number of more experienced women in the field.

There are sizeable social, logistical and institutional policy barriers that impede women from engaging in extension work. Specific attention must be given to the practices that discriminate against women. Logistical issues and working conditions should also be reviewed in order to attract more women and men to extension work as well as to improve the quality of the work delivered. Finally, social barriers and beliefs must be examined to make extension work more attractive to women.

Recommendations for increasing the number of female agents

Given the numerous economic and social benefits of employing female agricultural extension workers, it is of utmost importance that their number be increased. What follows are specific policy and programme recommendations that will increase the number of women working in the field.

Increase female enrolment in agricultural training

Incorporate affirmative action. In order for there to be more female agricultural extension agents in the field, more women must enrol in agriculture-related studies. Zamorano and ENA have incorporated affirmative action policies to ensure that this happens. ENA also allows women to bring their children to live with them at school.

Provide scholarships. With donor support, Zamorano offers some scholarship programmes for women. The results are directly visible, as the number of women studying specific agricultural specializations where scholarships are provided is 14 to 25 percent higher than it is for specializations without scholarships.

The Escuela Agrícola de la Región Tropical Húmeda (EARTH) in Costa Rica has offered full scholarships to all of ENEARTH John F. Kennedy's female students who perform well in their studies. In addition, the Honduran Government provides Kennedy's female students with a small stipend, since they are required to live off-campus.

Extension agencies could also provide scholarships for women to study agriculture, with the promise that they would return to work for the organization between semesters and after graduation for a specified period of time.

Use female role models. At UEES, the Dean of Agronomy is a woman and this has helped to bring recognition to the fact that women are capable and respected in the field. Ensuring class materials incorporate male and female role models will also help to undermine the myth that women should not work in agriculture-related fields.

Publicize the high demand for female agricultural extension workers in rural areas. According to the Department of Agronomy at UEES, all of their female graduates find employment. Donors are also putting pressure on projects to employ female agricultural extension agents. As most agricultural extensionists are from rural areas, this information needs to reach those areas. Schools should publicize the high demand for female extensionists through university literature.

Set target enrolment rates. FAO recommends setting target enrolment rates for women in agricultural training institutes to measure progress. The enrolment of girls in secondary schools should also be increased, as it is "the factor most closely associated with female participation in intermediate agricultural training". As a more immediate solution, FAO recommends that home economics training programmes be reoriented to include agricultural topics (FAO, 1993).

Put the available trained women in the field

Hire female agricultural extension interns. Hiring female interns to work in the field as agricultural extensionists could encourage more women to become extensionists upon graduation. CRS in El Salvador hires women during their summer break from school and, in at least one project area, the male beneficiaries complained loudly when the female agent had to return to school.

Job requirements may need to be temporarily adjusted. Particularly in Honduras, a number of women are now graduating from extension programmes. Young agents or those with less experience could be hired on a trial basis, or could work on a team with older extensionists to provide additional on-the-job training.

Seek out women to work with non-traditional crops. New fields of expertise offer women more opportunities because they are not historically "male" areas of work. Several female Zamorano graduates have created a lucrative niche for themselves working with non-traditional crops, such as melons and cut flowers. Projects working with such crops should specifically target female extensionists.

Hire more female agricultural extension agents. More donors should put pressure on agencies to hire female agricultural extensionists by setting conditions in project operations. Extension agencies can also employ affirmative action policies when hiring extensionists, as is being done at some of the technical schools.

Institutionalize gender equity

Incorporate gender-equitable policies. Organizations should review all policies, including promotions, training access, salary and work assignment locations, to ensure that they are gender-equitable. Female agents must not be restricted to providing extension in traditional areas of women's work and working only with female beneficiaries. Nor should female beneficiaries be limited to receiving extension services from the few female agents available. Full incorporation of gender-equitable policies must be supported at all levels of organizations. Finally, vacancy advertisements should specifically invite both male and female agents to apply.

Technical schools and universities should review their policies for gender equity paying attention to enrolment quotas, teaching methods, internship opportunities, etc. Female role models should be used in courses and female students encouraged to consider working as agricultural extensionists. Female students should not receive special treatment nor should they be restricted from engaging in the same course/fieldwork as their male counterparts. Policies that limit women's enrolment may need to be relaxed until a specified critical mass of female students are enrolled.

Hold gender training seminars. Effective gender training seminars should be held at universities/technical schools for students, professors and directors. Schools should require all students to take a semester-long gender training course prior to graduation and ensure that all courses incorporate gender-equitable practices.

An extensive gender training programme, including frequent refresher courses, is essential for the managers of extension agencies as well as for both male and female agents. Such seminars should also provide an opportunity for teamwork and to discuss any unresolved issues between male and female agents who work together in the field.

Facilitate logistical arrangements

Provide appropriate transportation. Where possible, appropriate transportation should be provided for both male and female extensionists. In areas closer to the city, ASDI provides vehicles to transport extensionists back to the city in the evenings. If their agents work late, ASDI provides a place in the communities for extensionists to stay. CENTA has been active in equipping women with suitable transportation for the terrain by acquiring motorcycles suitable for women. If cost hinders the purchase of additional vehicles, then motorcycle training should be offered to agents as needed.

Set flexible work schedules as appropriate. Extensionists, particularly women, who are able to set their work schedules can avoid being in the field at night when they are most susceptible to crime. This also allows women to return home to attend to their families. In those cases where women return home only on the weekends, agencies can set up a system whereby agents can be easily informed in case of a family emergency.

Increase salaries. Both male and female extensionists are poorly paid. Raising salaries would help raise the social status of extensionists and attract more agents. Donors can specify higher salaries for extension agents and should specify that female and male agents be paid the same wage based on either job category or education. As some organizations raise salaries, others will be encouraged to do the same.

Alter societal opinion of women working in agricultural extension

Demonstrate that women are part of the team. Special efforts may be needed initially to encourage male farmers to accept female agents. CENTA began to incorporate female agricultural extension agents in an organized way three years ago. When necessary, the chief of the extension team goes to the field with the female agent to demonstrate to the community that she is part of the team and is there to provide technical assistance in agriculture.

Conduct a media campaign in rural areas. The concept that agriculture is a man's occupation must be altered. Conducting an educational media campaign using radio or other appropriate media, particularly in rural areas and beginning with school-age children, can begin to change the misconceptions that women do not work as farmers and should not be agricultural extension agents. Not only will this facilitate women's entrance into this field of work but it may also enable more female beneficiaries to receive agricultural extension services.


To increase the number of female beneficiaries receiving agricultural extension services, the number of female agricultural extensionists working in the field must increase. Extension agencies and beneficiaries rate the work conducted by their female agents highly.

While studies demonstrate the positive impact of women receiving training from women, limiting women extension agents to working only with women may actually decrease women's access to extension services as a result of the unavailability of female personnel. Employing female agents leads to more female beneficiaries being reached, regardless of whether a man or a woman provides the extension services. Furthermore, targeting female beneficiaries can actually enable a project to reach more men.

Gender-equitable practices and policies should be incorporated throughout all levels of the organizations providing extension services. Institutions should provide gender training to their extension teams and take a gender-based approach to the formation of extension methodologies. Women should be included in their teams as agronomists, engineers and technicians. As the male and female members of the teams learn to work together, with men trained and versed in gender issues and women providing the same level of technical advice in agriculture as men, they will come to understand community dynamics and provide better services. Communities will also learn to accept women working in agriculture, which will enable more female farmers to gain access to agricultural extension services.


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