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Participatory management and gender issues in non-wood forest products development

Gender, equity and participation
Participation in practice
FAO approaches

Alexandra Stephens
Rural Sociologist and Women in Development Specialist
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific


The impressive growth in agriculture in Asia and the Pacific over the past two decades has outstripped population growth, so that the Region is more food-secure now than it was when the threat of widespread famine regularly stalked the subcontinent in the 1960s. The crux of the food security problem for the 5-600 million undernourished people in the Asia-Pacific Region is not so much a problem of production, but of a lack of access to available food on the part of the poor, who lack the means to buy food. This is mainly because they lack remunerative employment opportunities which provide a livelihood.

Addressing food security problems in this Region often therefore leads from issues of growth to discussion on equity, and from growth with equity inevitably to the political issues of participation and access to the factors of production - land, water, technology, know-how and so on. Non-farm income generation however is rapidly becoming a major source of cash for landless and marginal rural families. More recently, the word sustainability has also been thrown into the dialogue. The missing ingredient in addressing rural poverty through growth, equity and participation however is often gender - a word much bandied about in esoteric circles of support for. women, but easily and readily forgotten by most when the way is clear to do so.

Gender equity however is increasingly recognised as an indispensable link in the food security chain, because women now number over half the farmers in Asia and the Pacific, and are increasingly responsible for household food security. In Vietnam women farmers number as many as 70 percent. In Papua New Guinea women grow most of the food crops, and in India women outnumber male farmers by a substantial margin (Shiva, 1991). Yet their production and their productivity is constrained - sometimes severely constrained - by a plethora of factors which have much to do with social, political and cultural issues, and little to do with biology.

Non-wood forest products can offer a lifeline to food security for an increasing number of rural households. Not all farmers can abandon uneconomic farms in favour of better opportunities in other sectors, so those forced to eke out a living on degraded lands and from denuded forests have increasingly focussed their creative sights on other rural resources to augment a meagre farm income, while the landless turn to Common Property Resources (CPR) in forests and elsewhere for the materials and produce with which to make a living. Indeed women have been doing this since time began, using a host of forest products for handicrafts, dyes, waxes, tools, clothing, medicines, food and fodder. Traditional land tenure and use patterns which accorded rights of access to common property resources such as forests allowed everyone to enjoy their bounty, but these are now increasingly under threat of exclusion by privatisation, conversion, clear felling, replacement with plantations and so on. Competition for land of all types has squeezed out the people most in need of additional resources, at a time when they can least afford to forfeit those rights. As traditional, participatory decision-making and management has been systematically eroded by power-elites, farmers most dependent on traditional access to CPRs the poorest farmers on marginal farming lands and landless rural families - are asked to surrender their right to supplement income and strengthen household food security. The predictable result is that many then plunge from poverty into destitution, fuelling rural-urban migration, dependency, unemployment, hunger, poverty and a plethora of related phenomena. The few who retain access to forest areas may well prosper through the development of non-wood forest products, but most remain at best in the margins of life. Without relevant training and necessary support to take the leap of transition from subsistence farmer to entrepreneur, many are forced to abandon rural life as "environmental" or "economic" migrants in urban slums.

Exacerbating this situation is the low priority accorded vocational education by most Governments in this Region. At a time when "manpower" planning requirements indicate the need for more, not less skilled technicians, vocational education is declining as a percentage of all education - the reverse of the situation in other Regions. Where they do exist, vocational schools and colleges are generally concentrated in urban areas, and the student population is overwhelmingly male. Girls who enroll are found mainly in the "warm and cuddly" areas of nursing, home economics, secretarial and information service sectors.

Gender, equity and participation

Inequitable access to productive resources, including access to knowledge and information, to technology and financial services, to employment, to education and extension services and to membership of rural organizations, builds poverty traps for vulnerable populations. Unequal distribution of the benefits of development ensures benefits by-pass the poor. The negation of indigenous farming knowledge, the erosion of culture, and the somewhat cavalier attitude to rural people's rights strips them of the dignity which is necessary to keep poor people out of dependency and welfare.

Rural women are among the poorest of the poor, and are progressively becoming poorer as the gender gap widens. Women now represent over 60 percent of poor rural people world-wide, and will number as many as 70 percent by the year 2000 (IFAD, 1993). The sources of this inequity need to be uncovered as a matter of urgency, if the family members of poor rural women are to be protected. Those of us familiar with gender issues can suggest some of the causes which could be addressed in non-wood forest resource development.

First, the limited profile of women farmers in Asia and the Pacific as elsewhere, shows problems stemming from women's lower education, relative assetlessness, a plethora of constraints in access to productive resources, their dual and triple responsibilities as a result of an inequitable division of family labour, the scarcity of time available in a long working day, their ignorance about many of the scientific and technological solutions to pressing problems, and severe limits in their access to information and services. These are compounded by their lack of community organization, cultural attitudes to women's role, and stereotypes of patriarchy as the "natural order of things" which in fact have nothing to do with capacity or competence.

Women who head rural households are especially vulnerable, not only because of the loss of able-bodied manpower but because many rural women lack the status, confidence and knowledge to make wise decisions and take appropriate actions, even when they are allowed to do so. Most have had little or no exposure to the market or to entrepreneurial activity, and are uncomfortable in the public arena. When they are forced to supplement a meagre farm income with sideline activities, most steer away from those who could help for fear of exposing ignorance or subjecting themselves to ridicule, contempt or hostility. Handicrafts therefore traditionally command very low returns on time and skill investments for reasons which derive more from female servitude and humility than from inherent weaknesses in the product or the market. The few who know the market and have recognised the potential have been able to break into markets which command extremely high prices by ensuring quality control and continuity of supplies, and mounting aggressive marketing strategies.

While such strategies may initially help the "middleman" more than the producer, it is a step towards more organization in the production of non-wood forest products, and thereby a step towards "participation." Women traditionally engaged in home based cottage industries in which they may do everything from gathering and processing raw materials to selling a finished product in the local market, are unlikely to realise a fair return on their investment of time and skill. A degree of organization and specialization can greatly enhance productivity. In a situation where culture or domestic responsibilities do not allow a woman to work outside the home, she may have no choice, but studies have shown that productivity increases tremendously when women work undisturbed in a village factory-type work place, since the fragmentation of her time at home and the incessant demands in her domestic responsibilities place severe constraints on her productivity.

Participation in practice

Participation is a word heard so frequently in recent years that it is in danger of being debased by overuse. However, the concept remains very important for narrowing equity gaps - between rich and poor, between urban and rural people, men and women and between professionals and artisans. The FAO experience suggests both organization and empowerment of rural people are fundamental to rural poverty alleviation, and that the concept of participation needs to be built in to all projects and programmes which are to be economically, socially and politically sustainable.

A participatory project implies broad, inclusive participation, so it may surprise some to know that there are many cases of such projects where a lack of gender consideration and analysis by planners excludes women by that omission. Even formal co-operative organizations which are generally firmly on the side of the poor and disadvantaged, are notoriously undemocratic about the role of women among members. While not overtly excluding women from membership they do little to facilitate their participation, and women are practically absent on boards of cooperative management or decision-making bodies.

Project plans and policies which are not explicit about women automatically exclude them, because most people think of farmers, foresters or fisherfolk as men. Resources are therefore directed to men, training and support are given to men, and men of course enjoy the benefits, even if women are later co-opted as "partners" to share the work!

Furthermore, the database on women is usually derived from data provided by men to male enumerators, neither of whom are familiar with the details of women's work, and whose perceptions are based on commonly held stereotypes of women as dependents of men, people who "don't work." This is especially true in areas such as forestry and forest industries which are overwhelmingly male-dominated at the professional and technical levels. Recent collaboration with forestry departments working on Forestry Master Plans in Asia, confirms that gender analysis in development planning in this sector is "donor driven," and will remain so until concerned officials are convinced by the arguments, internalise principles of gender equity, and acquire the tools to apply these in their daily work.

There is no one formula for achieving gender equity. In each country the socio-cultural context will dictate the limits to breaking boundaries around gender roles, and point the direction of appropriate paths to equity. The important underlying principle however is not one of justice as much as that of mobilizing human resources for efficient and effective development. Many studies show that boosting female incomes benefits all family members considerably more than similar increases in male incomes. To constrain the productivity of one sex therefore, to the point where their work day has lengthened to intolerable levels, where the gap between male and female incomes continues to widen and where girl children and women die because they were not born male, is clearly bad for everyone. In several parts of south Asia, population data shows female numbers declining to as low a proportion as 92 females for every 100 males. In a society where there is more gender equality, the figures usually show females outnumbering males by around 104 or 105 to 100. Economist Amartya Sen of Harvard University estimates 100 million women are "missing" from demographic data in Asia because of systematic, institutionalised gender discrimination.

FAO approaches

Under a 1990 Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development, FAO is taking a number of steps to address issues and problems faced by rural women. One of these is education in the context of sustainable agriculture and land use planning. At a Round Table on Women, Population and Environment held in FAO's Regional Office in Bangkok in May, 1994, linkages were clearly established between women, their education or lack of it, population variables, and the environment.

Education is only one component in strategies for poverty alleviation, but the general education of women and girls has been found by the World Bank and others to yield some of the highest returns on investment. Rural girls and women however lag far behind boys and men in education, and in their access to information and extension services. The reorientation of home economics and agriculture curricula in relevant colleges and universities is now receiving priority attention, with a number of consultations having been held in the Region, and guidelines already prepared. That is in the formal sector. In order to reach rural women directly however, FAO is also encouraging improved agricultural extension and information services directly to women farmers. In Asia and the Pacific less than 4 percent of agricultural extension workers are female, yet women farmers outnumber men in many countries. In some countries there are virtually no women officials or functionaries in agriculture, in forestry or in fisheries extension. It is often in these same countries however, that it is most unacceptable for a male to approach a woman with extension advice, even as women are assuming increasing responsibility for agriculture.

The plight of women farmers is exacerbated by the legal, social and physical constraints on their access to various factors of farm and home production. These include property ownership, rights of access to financial services, membership and management of rural organizations, participation in development planning, access to scientific and technological information and control over water supplies to name but a few. In these areas FAO has documented many of the problems in order to draw the attention of member governments to gender biases which limit overall economic growth in rural areas. A 1993 Regional Expert Consultation on Gender Issues in Agricultural and Rural Development Policy cited economic, social, political, environmental and moral imperatives for policy initiatives to increase women's efficiency and effective participation. A number of countries provide dramatic illustration of women's increased productivity on farms and in rural development, when policy changes have lifted barriers and increased their access to productive resources.

Action however is limited by the dearth of accurate data on rural women which hampers the design of remedies to women's work constraints. For the first time in 1990, agricultural census data which is collected every 10 years by FAO, was widely disaggregated by sex as well as including certain specific information on women. This provided many previously obscured insights into the situation of rural women, but serious gaps are found in databases and many statistics are found to be flawed by wrong definitions and concepts when it is time to justify policy and planning initiatives. Over the past several years attempts have been made in four Asian countries to test new tools and methods for measuring women's work in agriculture and rural development, in order to provide more accurate data for policy makers and planners, because there are problems in using data which may have been collected using standard classifications, or when enumerators are not trained to probe for accurate information.

Results of pilot surveys using non-participant observation techniques to assess time use by men and women point to three major gender differences:

· the fragmentation of women's time.

· their longer working day and very limited leisure or personal time.

· their overwhelming responsibility for unpaid domestic and farm work including "cottage industry," in a skewed division of household labour.

These figures point to the need for innovations including technology to address some of the more menial, labour-intensive tasks assigned to women, as well as to effect a fairer division of labour in the home. Women lack economic access even to proven simple, and often cheaply available technologies. Financial and information services to women are insufficient to make these technologies accessible. Women need direct access to relevant information in order to make informed choices, as well as a whole range of financial services which make credit for women a productive investment component, and not a liability or yet another burden of self-sacrifice to meet repayment obligations. They also need training to fill gaps which would help them maintain technological hardware, manage farm, household and other economic activities, and ensure the adoption of sustainable production practices.

A necessary complement to these of course, is financial management training - from bookkeeping and accounting to the whole range of professional and managerial training. Perceived or real lack of management skill is a major barrier to women's access to credit, as well as a glass ceiling on their capacity to leap from cottage industry to medium-scale local operations, and on into larger, corporate institutions. If the scale of poverty among rural women is to be reduced and eventually eliminated, their capacity to add value to their time and to their primary products must be constrained neither by legal and social barriers, nor by their own human capacity for management. Dismantling barriers around access to all the factors of production is therefore essential.

To this end, the role of women in the FAO Plan of Action for People's Participation is relevant. Programmes for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) have been reviewed with intent to enlist rural women as partners in decision-making and management right from the start i.e. at the identification and formulation stage, in data collection and analysis, and in all mainstream activities.

If rural women are to play an equal role, they must acquire a knowledge base equal to that of rural men. Their "indigenous knowledge" and wisdom must not be lost, but it must be complemented and enriched by relevant scientific and technical information. Their much higher rate of illiteracy and lower economic and social status are major constraints to their acquiring this new knowledge, but women are becoming increasingly assertive in demanding access to new knowledge and skills. The education of women on land tenure systems and their rights to land, water and common property resources for example, are issues which emerge with the dismantling of the various social, economic and political barriers placed around educational and service institutions such as agricultural cooperatives. Women's participation in study tours, training and meetings, decision-making processes, the monitoring and evaluation of progress and in the distribution of benefits also elicit great interest from, and return great benefits to rural women and to their entire families.

Case studies have been published to share successful initiatives for the empowerment and mainstreaming of rural women by such actions, and these have contributed to relevant policy changes by some member governments. Of particular note in these success stories is the enabling environment which policy and planning initiatives at the national level have given to rural women's empowerment when these are translated into programmes at sub-national levels.

Another action which appears to have had a positive impact was the gender awareness and analysis training carried out among FAO professional staff, to equip them with the skills and commitment to respond more positively to women's concerns, and to integrate these in all FAO-supported programmes. FAO has further provided technical support to many Governments to do the same. Such training when backed up by policies which seek to redress gender injustice can effect profound changes which benefit poor women. The impetus given to these actions was set out in the mandate known as the Forward-looking Strategies, the report of the Third World Conference to Review and Appraise Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women 197685, but this has inevitably been diluted in recent years. The fillip given by preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women to be held in Beijing next year has allowed national priorities and issues to be brought up and analyzed anew both in the countries, as well as at the Regional and International levels.

Under FAO restructuring, the Women in Agriculture Service has been relocated in a new Department for Sustainable Agriculture. This may be a recognition that gender considerations and women's participation are essential components of sustainability. Time will tell whether it leads to more relevant actions for rural women, but in the end it is people, men and women at the grassroots who can work to close the growing gender gap by ensuring more participation by women in mainstream activities. A facilitating legislative and policy environment of course is necessary to optimise their potential, but the single biggest obstacle to women's participation at all levels today remains a problem of attitudes, stereotypes and limited vision of women's potential. That has nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with gender, and fortunately gender roles can be changed - by you, as much as by me.


FAO. 1990. Women in agriculture and rural development: FAO's plan of action. FAO. Rome.

Shiva, V. 1991. Most farmers in India are women. FAO/FFHC/AD. New Delhi.

Women and children play import roles in collecting, processing, and marketing NWFPs.

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