EXTENSION PROGRAMMES offer out-of-school educational services for rural producers-farmers, foresters, fisher-folks and herders. They are linked closely with research activities that provide improved technology aiming at increasing agricultural productivity and accelerating rural development. The review of extension services worldwide since the late 1970s shows a dominant practice of directing training and resources to men. At the same time, the role and contribution of women in agricultural development has been more and more documented and acknowledged.
FAO's Plan of Action for Women in Development, which outlines the framework for integrating a gender perspective in all FAO programmes and activities for the years 1996-2001, identifies three strategic objectives to be pursued in order to "address the root causes of persistent poverty and food insecurity among rural women and the families they support as well as the factors contributing to the degradation of the environment".
Researchers have now realized that neglecting women as agricultural producers and resource managers has weakened every link in the chain of sustainable agricultural production. Thus, one of the priorities to improve and support sustainable food security in the developing countries is to put food crops cultivated and consumed by women and their families in the developing world high on the research agenda.
New participatory and gender approaches aimed at involving women in food crops research are emerging in national and international institutions.
In Côte d'Ivoire, the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA), has conducted joint surveys by economists and breeders and have identified gender differences in farmers' preferences for rice varieties. While men prefer short statured high-yielding varieties, women find these varieties inadequate because of the difficulty they have in harvesting them while carrying their babies on their back. According to scientists, this constraint could lead to the rejection of these varieties and thus the WARDA breeders have shifted their emphasis towards the development of medium to tall-statured varieties.
Staple food crops like the sweet potato, for example, which are grown by women in sub-Saharan Africa for household consumption, are being tested and screened by the International Potato Centre (CIP), in Peru, in order to find combinations of early maturity and high yields with some degree of drought tolerance. This crop is often used by women as a famine reserve crop, and is eaten before the main harvest or when the staple harvest is poor.
A priority area on research for devising appropriate technology regards the feminization of farm labour mainly because of rural-urban male migration. This phenomenon adds extra work to women's already full schedules and the work overload - which includes household labour, farm and off farm labour - leads to change in food production patterns usually provoking a decrease in food productivity and shifts to less nutritious crops, thus endangering food security.
In southern Africa, for example, male migration has forced women to carry out field work previously performed by men, and it is usual to see women tilling with draft animals. Consequently women are increasing their workload and taking care of a wider scope of agricultural tasks. At present, nearly one out of every four households in developing countries has a woman as its head. In sub-Saharan Africa the proportion is 31 per cent of the rural households, while in Latin america and in the Caribbean 20 million people belong to households where the head is a woman. In Asia and North Africa and the Middle East, the proportion amounts to 14 and 17 per cent of rural households, respectively.
Researching and devising appropriate technology to alleviate women's farming and household work would free women and children's labour inputs and time allocation, with positive effects in women's productivity and with reduced school dropouts for children.
Yet, the choice of technology and its scale need to be carefully evaluated. Former experiences in the introduction of technology and mechanization based on a top-down perspective have favoured farmers with capital assets and displaced millions of landless producers, especially women, from agricultural work. In Bangladesh alone, estimates show that mechanization has displaced female workers between 3.5 to 5 million days of labour per day.
As to the impact of extension services on women, findings from the 1989 FAO Global Survey on Extension carried out in 115 countries, show that they only receive between 2 and 10 per cent of all extension contacts and 5 per cent of extension resources worldwide.
Studies on agricultural extension have highlighted that women's marginalization from these services is closely inter-related to their lack of access to land and consequently to financial resources like credit. Traditionally, extension personnel has devoted attention to male farmers who own land and thus to farmers who are willing and able to obtain credit allocations and invest them in inputs and technological innovations.
Women farmers face many and more specific constraints: they bear the primary responsibility for household labour and childcare, thus the nature and quantity of their work does not allow them the same mobility and time availability as men; they have lower or no formal education and this hampers them from taking part in extension activities requiring formal reading and arithmetic skills.
According to FAO studies, extension staff should be able to appropriately identify women's needs and constraints, priorities and opportunities and ensure that extension packages meet their requirements.
One of the main tools to achieve these objectives will be to train extension staff to unveil misperceptions and prejudices about women's actual and ideal roles and avoid their exclusion from the areas in which they play major roles, namely food production. Gender awareness approaches and participatory techniques and methods for the collection of gender disaggregated data are the main instruments to identify women's actual roles and specific needs.
Extension clientele are assisted to apply improved technology, to manage their resources and achieve maximum production and income. Given the evidence of women's role in agriculture and food production, their participation in extension activities will strengthen rural development strategies and food security at national and world levels.
Recently in Ethiopia, for example, field extension personnel are being trained on planning gender sensitive extension activities, based on disaggregated data from case studies conducted at the community level, using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools and techniques. Although this initiative is still on a pilot basis, preliminary results showed noticeable improvement in making extension services more gender responsive and more client-oriented.
In the future, a wider scope of research strategies must be opened to take into account the needs of landless women; the delivery of appropriate and economically viable technical advise for improving women's efficiency to produce food crops; cash crops; animal health and processing methods of farm products. Extension programmes should also acknowledge the important role of women as natural resource managers. Therefore, there is a need to train extension workers in the roles and responsibilities of women in natural resources conservation, as part of a global framework of a gender responsive environmental planning towards improved food security.
It is equally important to identify environmental problems affecting both women and men in the context of their roles in food production and natural resource use, as well as collecting gender disaggregated local knowledge about possible solutions to environmental problems.