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Gender is defined by FAO as ‘the relations between men and women, both perceptual and material. Gender is not determined biologically, as a result of sexual characteristics of either women or men, but is constructed socially. It is a central organizing principle of societies, and often governs the processes of production and reproduction, consumption and distribution’ (FAO, 1997). Despite this definition, gender is often misunderstood as being the promotion of women only. However, as we see from the FAO definition, gender issues focus on women and on the relationship between men and women, their roles, access to and control over resources, division of labour, interests and needs. Gender relations affect household security, family well-being, planning, production and many other aspects of life (Bravo-Baumann, 2000).


Gender roles are the ‘social definition’ of women and men. They vary among different societies and cultures, classes, ages and during different periods in history. Gender-specific roles and responsibilities are often conditioned by household structure, access to resources, specific impacts of the global economy, and other locally relevant factors such as ecological conditions (FAO, 1997).

Gender relations are the ways in which a culture or society defines rights, responsibilities, and the identities of men and women in relation to one another (Bravo-Baumann, 2000).

Rural people’s roles, as food producers and food providers, link them directly to the management and sustainable use of agrobiodiversity. Through their daily work, rural people have accumulated knowledge and skills concerning their ecosystems, local crop varieties, animal breeds, agricultural systems and the nutritional values of various underused plants. They have become adept at maintaining their own scarce resources. Men and women act differently, because of their socially ascribed roles; therefore they have different sets of knowledge and needs.

Experience shows that agricultural, environmental and related policies and programmes do not differentiate between male and female farmers. Therefore, they often fail to recognize the differences between men’s and women’s work, knowledge, contributions and needs. This has significant consequences for biodiversity as well as for gender equality. For example, Box 2 illustrates that in Bafoulabé region (Mali), women have more knowledge about the traditional rice varieties than men, as rice was traditionally considered as a women’s crop.


In Bafoulabé region in Mali, rice was traditionally considered a female crop. It was grown near rivers or where water stagnated during the rainy season. Women would take care of the field individually or in a group. Their knowledge of landraces was vast. They could identify 30 different varieties by growth cycle, plant growth habit, plant height, number of stems, grain yield, grain size, form, colour, preparation quality, utilization and taste of the end product. Men had very little knowledge of traditional rice varieties, but they had the main responsibility for three improved rice varieties introduced to the village.

Source: Synnevag, 1997.

Both men and women farmers play an important role as decision-makers in agrobiodiversity management. They decide when to plant, harvest and process their crops. They decide how much of each crop variety to plant each year, how much seed to save from their own production and what to buy or exchange. All these decisions affect the total amount of genetic diversity that is conserved and used.

In most farming systems, there is a division of labour. This determines the different tasks for which men and women are responsible. Generally, women have an important role in the production, processing, preservation, preparation and sale of staple crops. Men tend to focus on market-oriented or cash crop production. Often we find a division in crop and livestock management practices. Weeding is often a women’s task, while spraying or fertilizer application is mainly carried out by men. Women and children often look after the smaller livestock species and men are often in charge of cattle. These are only a few examples, which are not generally applicable, but will depend on the specific situations and cultures we are working.


Mostly children collect and eat the fruit from wild plants. Other wild-food and famine-food plants are collected by children and women and prepared by the latter in all the areas surveyed. Women frequently collect wild-food when they are on their way to fetch water, collect firewood, go to market, and when walking home from their fields.

Able-bodied male members of the community usually migrate to find work during food shortage. Women and children are left behind to manage as best they can. Therefore, women and children are the main actors concerning the collection, preparation and consumption of wild-food plants. Children forage and climb trees for collection while women do the preparation and the cooking. In normal times, young rural males eat more wild foods than the older generation. Although, when there is a food shortage, all ages and both sexes eat the wild foods to satisfy their need for additional nourishment, traditional fulfillment and local curative treatments. This includes consumption of Embelia schimperi (enkoko in Amharic), a fruit that is eaten to control intestinal parasites.

Source: Guinand and Lemessa, 2000.

Women are often involved in the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties. They often have more specialized knowledge of wild plants used for food, fodder and medicine than men (see Box 2 and 3). Men and women may be responsible for different crops, or varieties, or be responsible for different tasks related to one crop.

Recent decades have witnessed substantial gains in agricultural productivity and rapid advances in agricultural technology. These advances have often bypassed women farmers and reduced their productivity. Frequently the changes were linked to credit requirements that were either inaccessible to women, or were not tailored to their needs and demands. Therefore, women face a variety of gender-based constraints as farmers and managers of natural resources. In order to meet the challenges of food production for the increasing population, countries must find ways to overcome this gap in productivity.

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