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Widening gaps in technology development and technology transfer to support rural women

R. Balakrishnan

R. Balakrishnan, Ph.D. is a regional rural sociologist and a Women in Development Officer in FAO's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (RAP); e-mail:

In the developing world, although rural women's work determines food production, the promoters of technology and technology transfer overlook the complex needs and livelihood conditions of rural women. Traditional biases, which are internalized by scientists, technocrats and technology disseminators, contribute to a gap between needs and actions in technology development and technology transfer. Access to technology is not neutral, and is particularly not gender-neutral. It favours those who can buy, possess and use the technology. Most rural women lack the ability to generate a demand for technology because of their disadvantaged access to education and information and their weak purchasing power. A production task segment and production technology cluster approach could increase women's productivity and improve household food security prospects. Technology transfer would be a supportive and integrated process of sustained training and timely delivery of inputs.


Un fossé qui se creuse dans le développement des technologies et le transfert de technologies à l'appui des femmes rurales

Dans le monde en développement, le travail des femmes rurales est déterminant en matière de production vivrière, mais les partisans du développement technologique et du transfert de technologies négligent de prendre en compte les besoins et réalités complexes qui entourent les activités de subsistance des femmes rurales. Les préjugés traditionnels repris par les scientifiques, les technocrates et les promoteurs de la technologie contribuent à élargir l'écart entre les besoins et les pratiques en matière de développement et transfert de technologies. L'accès à la technologie n'est pas neutre, et ne tient surtout pas compte de la problématique homme-femme, favorisant ceux qui peuvent se la procurer, la posséder et en faire usage. La plupart des femmes rurales manquent des compétences nécessaires pour générer la demande de technologies, vu leur accès limité à l'éducation et à l'information, ainsi que leur faible pouvoir d'achat. Une approche de segmentation des tâches et des technologies correspondantes pourrait accroître la productivité des femmes et améliorer les perspectives de la sécurité alimentaire des ménages. Le transfert de technologies serait alors un processus intégré associant formation durable et livraison des intrants en temps voulu.


Diferencias en aumento: necesidades y medidas en el fomento de la tecnología y su transferencia en apoyo de la mujer del medio rural

En el mundo en desarrollo, aunque la producción de alimentos depende del trabajo de la mujer del medio rural, los promotores de tecnología y su transferencia pasan por alto las complejas necesidades y las realidades de subsistencia de dichas mujeres. Las desviaciones tradicionales que hacen suyas los científicos, tecnócratas y difusores de tecnología contribuyen a aumentar la diferencia entre las necesidades y las medidas en el fomento de la tecnología y su transferencia. El acceso a la tecnología no es neutral, en particular con respecto al género, favoreciendo a quienes tienen capacidad de comprarla, poseerla y utilizarla. La mayoría de las mujeres en el medio rural carecen de posibilidades para acceder a la tecnología, debido a su posición desfavorecida en el acceso a la enseñanza y la información y su escaso poder adquisitivo. Un enfoque orientado hacia las tareas de producción y hacia el conjunto de la tecnología de producción podría aumentar la productividad de las mujeres y mejorar las perspectivas de seguridad alimentaria familiar. La transferencia de tecnología sería un proceso integrado en apoyo de una capacitación sostenida y una entrega puntual de insumos.


Technology development and technology transfer processes are considered to be primary driving forces for growth and welfare in developing countries. The word "technology" is derived from the Greek tekhn, meaning art (in the sense of "way of doing"). Technology is a means to material self-improvement (Keller, 1992). In simple terms, the purpose of technology development is to improve living conditions and, in the process, generate opportunities for people to make a livelihood and improve their standards of living. Yet, the processes of technology development and transfer usually overlook the complex needs and livelihood realities of rural women.
In a society, households are both producers and consumers which, within the context of the available technology and resources, try to find the necessary inputs to ensure food security and achieve welfare ends. Rural women's workload encompasses resource search and use strategies to fulfil household needs. Appropriate resources and technology should have a considerable positive impact on easing women's work in household production. However, the processes of technology development and transfer often ignore women's resource management stress and the physical hardship they endure. Several proponents would claim that technology is neutral, but it can also be argued that it is not neutral, and particularly not gender-neutral. The technology development process, which is driven by economic considerations, favours those who have the ability to purchase, possess and use inventions and, in the developing world, poor and illiterate women lack this ability. Furthermore, the developers of technology are not always neutral in the targets they choose for a specific technology. Pretty (1995) observes that "Central to the process of modernization is the assumption that technologies are universal. The belief that agricultural systems could be transformed without affecting the social systems is not a valid one. Technologies do not exist independent of social context." Hence, even the innovations developed with the aim of improving the living conditions and standards of rural and agricultural communities can bypass rural women.

Emerging technologies and widening gaps

In the agricultural sector, technology development has been directed towards improving productivity in order to ensure the availability of food. It was taken for granted that all the technologies that drive agricultural productivity would inevitably result in improved rural livelihoods. Such an assumption has proved to be flawed within the context of persistent poverty in the region.
The Asia region has welcomed innovations and made impressive strides in the research and development of agricultural technologies. Emerging technologies have followed various trends in science and technology. The green revolution focused on new varieties of crops and technology packages that increase yields, and the technologies developed to improve the yields and marketing qualities of horticulture and floriculture varieties have had a positive impact. Although controversy surrounds their dubious social and economic gains to marginal farmers, biotechnology enterprises have found a niche in technology development.
The Asia region is also a centre for sustainable development innovations. Most evident among these is integrated pest management (IPM), the aim of which is to decrease dependency on chemicals through increased use of organic farming methods. Other noteworthy areas are innovative leadership in biodiversity conservation and joint forest management to promote sustainable natural resource management.
In many countries of the region, the development of information technology has been phenomenal. Countries such as India and Malaysia are poised to connect villages to the Internet as a small step towards realization of the 1960s dream of a global village.
In the Asia region, social innovations are important elements of the development paradigm. Collateral-free group credit for women is a social innovation that was brought about by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Fine-tuning participatory approaches for people's participation and networking are thriving actively in the region. The debate on such social issues as farmers' rights and equity in benefit sharing is well advanced, and corresponding legislative measures are being formulated.
However, for the rural community, the gains in poverty alleviation that can be attributed to technology development have not been impressive, particularly in the case of women.

Three-quarters of the world's poor (1.3 billion people) live in the rural areas of the Asia and Pacific region. The South Asia subregion in particular is home to two-fifths of the poor of the developing word. Most of the poor in the region are small and landless farmers living in rural areas. The poorer people are found among women, children and youth, older persons, ethnic minorities and victims of disasters and conflicts. Poverty involving the rural sector could remain the significant issue in the first decade of this century, considering the fact that about 80 percent of the world's economically active population are engaged in agriculture in Asia

PAI/ESCAP, 1998.

Hence, as technology development takes a giant leap forward in the region, there is a widening gap between the urban and the rural sectors in terms of gains realized from advanced and emerging technologies. This gap is particularly pronounced in the case of rural women, since their workload and technology needs most often do not direct the technology development process. It has been stated that "Women have limited access to technology and tools that would ease their workload. Technological innovations have invariably been made in the activities typically performed by men, whereas human labour and traditional techniques continue to be used in most day-to-day activities performed by women, both inside and outside the house" (Commonwealth Secretariat, 1996). Rural women continue to maximize their productivity with an inadequate understanding of emerging technologies. Furthermore, effective utilization of emerging technologies requires a basic level of education that most Asian rural women lack.

Rural women's technology support gaps

It is well documented that women do not have support to improve their productivity in various enterprises. "Although rural women are often at the beginning of the food production chain, they are at the end of the distribution chain for the productive resources and social services that are essential to their critical role in the alleviation of poverty through the production of food for consumption by rural households and, by extension, surpluses to be consumed by the nation" (UN, 1997). The Asian situation reflects the global outlook, and efforts should be directed towards bridging the gap between rural women's technology needs and their access to those needs. The underlying causes of the neglect of women's technology needs originate in history, culture and social, scientific and technological traditions.

Misperceptions of women's work

In Asia, as in other regions of the world, a commonly prevalent societal misperception is that rural women's work makes an insignificant contribution to production. Such an assessment deters efforts to develop technology that better serves the needs of women. The value women add to family welfare is taken for granted and the drudgery of women's work is considered routine. This leads to social blindness to women's technology needs. It is assumed that if women have been doing work this way for generations, then the work is not difficult. Why should women wish to change their ways of doing work and look to technology for the answers? Such a perception is common among men working the land and male scientists developing technology.

Gender differences in needs

It is seldom recognized that women and men have different interests in consumption and production and that they use resources differently. Within rural societies, gender differences in needs and household production demands give rise to diverse technology needs. A study on agricultural technology development by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) concluded that "The achievement of men's and women's effective involvement in agriculture calls for a more serious consideration of the views and perceptions of both [male and female] members of the farming community. User-oriented perspectives are important feedback for the design and development of technology options" (Kolli and Bantilan, 1997).
Particularly in South Asia, rural women are not very effective at articulating their technology and resource needs. Cultural norms dictate a sense of modesty that forbids women to express their technology needs and impairs their effective participation in participatory technology development (Hausler, 1997; FAO, 2000).

Women's inadequate participation in training and extension programmes

Many training of trainers programmes are developed on the premise that technology transfer will trickle down effectively to women from men. Most often, a more realistic scenario is likely to be the stagnation of technology information at the male trainee level. Usually, the trainers are men who do not seek the involvement of women farmers in technology transfer programmes. In addition, technology transfer through a series of sources (trainer to husband/male relative [trainee] to woman) can result in information distortion. Women working in relative isolation may not be able to verify information or may modify processes because of a lack of access to the primary source of information. Such a situation can result in the improper use of technologies leading to poor confidence among women regarding their own ability to understand emerging technologies The "key contact farmer" approach to technology development most frequently identified men as the contact farmers, with the result that women's technology needs were not incorporated in the identified technology domain. This situation emphasizes the need for creative measures to encourage women's participation in training and extension programmes (Kane, 1996).
The farming systems approach placed emphasis on gender analysis of the various aspects of agricultural production, but ignored the realities of women's work in the domestic sphere. Women's activities in the home are very often physically demanding, dirty, time-consuming and monotonous, and even gender-sensitive specialists have marginalized women's value-adding roles in household production. This may be attributed to such biases among gender scholars and development specialists as: the ideological bias that improving women's economic retribution will lead to the empowerment of women; a misguided perception that focusing on the household technology needs of women is buying into the domestication of women; and Western-educated women's perception that household technology is a branch of the maligned profession of home economics (Sachs, 1996).
Rural women's understanding of local resources and their indigenous knowledge of crops, seeds and forest resources were seldom respected and were ignored in the technology development process (Thrupp, 1998; Sachs, 1996). The symbiotic relationship that existed between rural women and their ecological resource environment and forest resources were frequently not acknowledged in either the technology development or the technology transfer processes.
Technology developers are generally specialists who work independently of other disciplines, with a bias towards a single problem-solving approach and a focus on developing technology to address discrete individual production problems. However, rural production is an integrated system that requires a parallel multitask approach to production and productivity. The concept of a multitasking structure within the rural household, particularly one that is relevant to women's work, needs to enter the technology development and transfer systems.

Rural women's workload: hidden and multitasked

Rural women's work is characterized by long and strenuous days with very few relevant technologies to ease the drudgery. The sphere of women's work is more complex and diverse than is perceived by technology development and technology transfer professionals. Women's work is crucial to sustaining rural economies; the unpaid family or low-paid agricultural labour that women provide lowers production costs. Women's family labour is poorly measured by official statistics (UN, 1995). Within the subsistence production system of the Asia region, women's unpaid family labour and innovative resource use strategies determine the availability of and access to food. Such autonomous work by women is often ignored in technology development and transfer. Unpaid and low-paid female labour on the land drives the region's successful agricultural export industry.
Another aspect of women's labour that has economic implications is their work in off-farm production. Linkages between rural women's off-farm production and the world economy through the global market are well documented (Bakker, 1994).
In Asia, the labour force participation rate for women in agriculture ranges from a minimum of 15 percent to a maximum of 97 percent. Advances made in the area of women's education vary within the region. In East Asia, female primary and secondary enrolment rates are 83 percent, while in South Asia they stand at 55 percent (UNDP, 1999). The "feminization of farming" may be a growing phenomenon as countries adopt rural employment schemes in small-scale industries, self-help group microenterprises and town and village enterprises, and as urban jobs spawned by economic liberalization lure away capable young women and men from agriculture (in Bangladesh, China and India). Such internal migration can also contribute to the "greying" of farming, an increasingly common phenomenon where the elderly, particularly older women, become the principal farmers, as is occurring in China. Technology client groups in Asian rural societies are made up of poor unpaid female family workers and/or low-paid female agricultural labourers who are disadvantaged by their lack of education.

The household economy

In the Asia region, among rural households and communities, it is women who sustain food security. They do so through their multiple roles, including contribution to the family income pool by engaging in off-farm enterprises. Food production is commonly assumed to be the sole determinant of food availability, but domestic activities for which women have primary responsibility also contribute to household food security. Examples include the collection of water and fuel for cooking and the processing of grains for family meals. Almost everywhere, including in Asia, women are responsible for ensuring that all household members receive adequate nutrition. "Ensuring the nutrition security of the household, through the combination of both food and other resources, is the almost exclusive domain of women" (Quisumbing et al., 1995).

Approaches to technology development

According to Douglas (1999), improved technologies should be relevant technologies. "The term relevant signifies that improved technologies must match or conform to the biophysical and socio-economic circumstances of those expected to adopt them." The technology development and transfer system should recognize the social realities of multifaceted and unpaid rural women's work, which are associated with agriculture, natural resource management and rural production. Technology development should complement the rural production system and take into account all aspects of women's work within a framework of household production. The adoption of a holistic production approach is the most logical response, since the situation in many Asian countries indicates that rural economies are the primary production centres for products and commodities that meet the demands of local consumption and urban and international markets.
Currently, there is a gap, as demonstrated by the poor understanding and limited recognition of rural women's "multitasking" production roles. An integrated approach is needed in order to understand the different segments of household production (e.g. farm production, home production, off-farm production and community production) and women's tasks in these production segments, as well as to develop appropriate technologies that support rural women in their production tasks.

Rural women's work: production segment tasks in household production

When a systematic approach is taken, rural women's work can be understood as contributing to discrete segments in rural household production. On the basis of such an understanding, technology, information and services should be directed towards complementing women's specific contribution to production. The proposed production segment tasks approach seeks to gain increased awareness of women's technology requirements for achieving productivity gains (Figure 1). In this framework, rural household production includes the four segments of farm production, home production, off-farm production and community production. These are determined by rural households' asset status and choice of enterprise. Rural women's multitasking includes specific activities within each of the production segments identified in Figure 1, which shows how each production segment includes various activities that together make up rural women's workday. Rural women's multitasking work patterns require a wide range of techniques and technology to ensure a production process that is efficient in terms not only of returns, but also of reducing drudgery for women.

Production segments: rural women's tasks and technology clusters

The focus of agricultural technology development has most frequently been on crop production gains. Training the rural workforce in the use of technologies was left to technology transfer specialists. However, neither of these thrusts explicitly acknowledged women's contribution to human resources in the rural sector. Projects and programmes that have recognized the roles of men and women and the constraints limiting each sex's access to resources have succeeded in creating viable options for achieving household food security.
An example of a production segment technology support cluster for a specific enterprise is presented in Figure 2. The example relates to an FAO-executed project that deals with degraded forest land and fodder development in Nepal.1 Livestock management is the most common rural women's activity in Nepal and provides a source of income controlled by women. Project design responds to the multitasking responsibilities of women in the local production system and recognizes the constraints on their participation (Sterk, 1998). The intervention addresses the time constraints faced by women when collecting fodder for livestock rearing. Nepalese rural women spend long and strenuous days climbing the steep hills to collect fodder and fuel. This task consumes much of their time, leaving them with little for leisure or family care. The project in Nepal has created a viable alternative way of collecting fuel and fodder closer to homesteads. To create access to production resources, a number of initiatives have been established. These include group mobilization for land management, credit and savings schemes and 40-year land leases to ensure land tenure that motivates farmers to adopt sustainable land management strategies. Gender equity considerations are integrated into the project through the employment of women group promoters to organize women's groups and women-integrated groups, as well as to train rural men and women in gender role awareness at the grassroots level.
The livelihood outcome is that income from the sale of livestock provides for family needs, and this income is most often under the control of women. The most crucial benefit to women as individuals is the time saved by collecting fodder and fuel close to homesteads. Since time is the basic resource over which rural women have direct control, it can be used to increase incomes and social options. Hence, the project directly benefits women as individuals. The project design thus applies a technology cluster approach that includes agricultural science-driven technologies as well as social innovations in land tenure and group-centred access to resources.


As this article has highlighted, women's work is still largely ignored by the technology development and technology transfer processes. An integrated approach is recommended that will assist rural women through a technology support system built on a sound knowledge of their multitasking responsibilities. The goal is for technology to complement the social system. "Technology does not take root when it is cut off from culture and tradition. The transfer of technology requires sophistication: adaptation to region, to unique situation and to custom" (Kurokawa, 1991).
In the Asia region, it is the custom among rural women to adopt a multitask work culture and integrated resource use strategies in order to ensure food security and family welfare. It is therefore crucial that rural women's unique situation be recognized and their needs in the technology development and transfer processes be responded to. The provision of support to women is most often viewed simplistically as assistance to women, although such interventions can, in fact, improve Asia's household food security prospects.

1 Hills Leasehold Forestry and Forage Development Project, Nepal (GCP/NEP/052/NET).


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