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Improving women's access to higher agricultural education

The case studies of women in higher agricultural education confirm that high literacy rates and enrolment in primary and secondary education are basic requisites for access to higher education. Those countries with the highest female literacy and secondary enrolment rates also have the highest female enrolment rates in higher agricultural education, sometimes exceeding that of males. The converse is also true: the countries with low female literacy and secondary enrolment rates also have the lowest percentages of women in higher agricultural education. Efforts to improve women's access to higher agricultural education must, therefore, be part of the larger effort to improve the literacy and school enrolment of girls and women in basic education.

The percentage of women agricultural producers in a country does not necessarily affect the number of women entering higher agricultural education. The two countries studied with the highest percentage of women farmers (Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria) also had the lowest number of women studying agriculture. Major obstacles to women's access to agricultural education, in addition to low literacy and low levels of primary and secondary enrolment, are the undervaluing of women's contributions to agriculture and the perception of agriculture as a male domain. In these countries, a number of strongly-held traditions and customs hinder women tanners from having secure land title, access to agricultural extension and support services, and mobility.

On the other hand, the legal and other measures taken in a country like the Philippines to remove discriminatory practices and to promote the participation of women in public life have had a positive effect on women's educational and occupational opportunities. It is significant that the Philippines has had a long history of feminism, and that the feminist women's movement in the country has been particularly active since the early 1980s in lobbying for positive legislative changes to remove discrimination and other barriers to women's advancement. Strong alliances have been formed between women's NGOs and women's units in government and academia in lobbying for legislation and measures promoting the empowerment of women and in gender sensitization efforts in governmental and non-governmental bodies.

Greater awareness of women's contributions to agriculture, changing long-held perceptions that undervalue women's work, and breaking down discriminatory practices and attitudes are essential elements in the overall effort to improve women's access to higher agricultural education. A larger number of gender-sensitive women in policy and decision-making positions can make a positive impact towards these goals, especially if they are working in a supportive environment both within the institutions and in the larger society.

This does not mean, however, that improving women's access to higher agricultural education must wait for major changes in increasing women's literacy and basic education, in attitudes and perceptions of women's work, in customs and traditions. Effecting such changes is a long-term effort which may not produce the desired outcomes for the immediate future.

The case studies resulted in a number of recommendations that can be implemented in the short- and medium-term to improve women's access to higher agricultural education, to attract women to take up agriculture as a field of study, and to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of women in agricultural studies. The cumulative effect of small changes can contribute to changing the overall socio-cultural environment in a positive direction for women.

While many of the recommendations of the case studies are country specific, most of them can be applied and adapted to other situations. Many can be implemented without great investments of time and money. Others, require greater efforts and investments on the part of governments and educational and agricultural policy makers and planners. The various recommendations can be grouped under four major categories:

1. Measures to encourage young women and better prepare them to take up agricultural studies.

2. Measures to improve conditions and opportunities for women students in higher agricultural education institutions.

3. Measures to ensure a non-discriminatory environment for women staff and students in higher agricultural institutions.

4. Measures to ensure that higher agricultural education is attuned to and appropriate to the realities and needs of both men and women farmers.

Improving women's opportunities to benefit from higher agricultural education

As the case studies confirm, where there are a greater number of women agricultural graduates there are also a larger number of women in agricultural careers. However, it is also clear from the case studies that access to higher agricultural studies does not necessarily translate into equal opportunities to benefit from this education. Even in a country such as the Philippines, with a host of legislative and other measures designed to prevent discrimination against women in employment and public life, few women are found in the top level positions in agricultural institutions, whether in teaching staff, in government positions, NGOs or the private sector.

Access to higher agricultural education is a basic requisite to provide potential women agriculturists careers at all levels from the field level, to research and academia, to national and international agricultural policy-making and developmental bodies. Other conditions are also required, however, if women are to be able to make the most of their education and to enjoy equal occupational opportunities with men. This situation is not unique to the field of agriculture. In almost all areas of employment and public life, women have yet to break through barriers which prevent them from fully participating on an equal basis with men, particularly at policy and decision-making levels.

Changing deeply-engrained and centuries-old attitudes, perceptions and customs? which are the foundations supporting male-dominated structures and culture, is a long-term effort. In spite of great strides that have been taken for the empowerment of women in the past decades, the barriers that hinder women from using and benefiting from their full potential are still firmly standing. A look at the statistics on women in decision-making positions in national and international development bodies and research institutes is sufficient to prove this claim.

Improving opportunities for women to benefit from their agricultural education is even more of a challenge than improving women's access to agricultural education. Nevertheless, the case studies suggest a number of measures that can be taken. These can be categorized as follows:

1. Measures to better prepare women students for agricultural careers at all levels. These would include increasing practical work and skills training in areas such as management, research, extension, specializations for which there is a job market in the country, and nontraditional agricultural occupations for women. There also needs to be more opportunities for women to take part in post-graduate and in-service training in skills necessary for career advancement.

2. Legislative measures to prevent discrimination in hiring and employment and to prohibit harassment on the basis of gender.

3. Measures to improve working conditions for women, taking into consideration family responsibilities. These could include flexible working hours, provision of child-care facilities, maternity and paternity leave, and flexibility in posting women with family responsibilities in the field.

4. Measures to provide financial aid and services to women to set themselves up in agricultural enterprises or to become established as farmers. These could also include assistance to women agriculturists and extensionists to provide their clients with inputs, credit and other services.

5. Measures to professionalize agricultural occupations to make them more attractive; improve salaries and emoluments especially for those working in rural areas; and eliminate disparities in salaries of men and women.

6. Organization of women agriculturists in professional associations that can act as pressure groups to promote women's access to agricultural education and occupational opportunities.

7. Gender sensitization at all levels of national and international governmental and non-governmental bodies dealing with agricultural development policies and planning, including research institutes.

How can international institutions such as FAO assist governments and NGOs in their efforts to implement such measures? The case study on the Philippines makes a number of suggestions for the provision of technical assistance by international organizations in:

Some areas which were not explored in depth, but which warrant further examination, are the causes for the extremely low numbers of women professionals at the highest levels of agricultural research institutes and in the highest management and decision-making positions in those agencies in the UN system which are dealing most directly with agriculture.

The agencies in the UN system most directly concerned with agriculture have units and officers dealing with women and development and gender issues. These agencies have mandates to promote women in development and have carried out gender training programmes for their staff and/or produced materials and guidelines on gender issues and agriculture. Yet among all the bodies in the UN system, they rank among the lowest in women in the highest professional and management positions.

Another avenue which might warrant further exploration is the role that women's organizations could play, in collaboration with gender officers and units within international agricultural organizations and institutions, to lobby for a greater number of women in top level positions within these institutions. Could not women's NGOs play a supportive role in pressuring agricultural institutions to become more gender sensitive and to mainstream women throughout their programmes?

Women's organizations, on the whole, have been less involved with the concerns of rural women than with those of urban women. During recent years, especially, the women's movement has mobilized globally to influence the policies of a number of United Nations agencies. This can be seen in the large number of women participating and lobbying off the UN world conferences on environment, human rights, population and social development. In the process, strong networks and alliances have been built between women's NGOs and professionals within many United National agencies.

Lobbying and building of alliances between women's organizations and the agencies in the UN system dealing with agriculture exists, but to a lesser extent than in the urban context. At the World Food Summit, the percentage of women's NGOs and female delegates to both the Summit and the NGO Forum was perceived by some to be relatively low in comparison to their participation in previous UN world conferences and summits. This being so in of the crucial importance of food security issues to women, both as providers of food to their families and as the world's major food producers. Sensitization and awareness building of women's roles and contributions to agriculture are just as crucial for women as for men and may also contribute to overcoming the obstacles to women's access to and benefit from higher agricultural education.

This would help promote advocacy and networking strategies which have proven crucial in making break-throughs for women in other areas of development, and in the monitoring and implementation of agreements and declarations which have come out of United Nations world conferences. The World Food Summit Plan of Action recognizes the need for cooperation and action by all sectors of society to achieve its goals, and this includes the improvement of women's access to and benefits from agricultural education.

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