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Research and extension: a gender perspective

Research and extension: a gender perspective

Properly designed research and extension functions can have a high payoff in terms of improving food availability and providing employment opportunities as well as reducing environmental degradation and enhancing resource management. Extension programmes offer out-of-school educational services for rural producers - farmers. foresters, fisher-folks and herders. They are closely linked with research activities to provide improved technology aimed at increasing productivity and accelerating overall economic growth.

In the past, however, research and extension systems have largely ignored the needs and priorities of women and only recently have they shown any concern for the environment. Although the role and contribution of women in agricultural development has been increasingly documented, most research and extension services continue to be directed primarily toward men, with adverse consequences for the achievement of food security at both household and national levels.


At the same time as they care for their children, manage family nutrition and seek sources of income, rural women in most parts of the developing world carry a majority of the responsibility for the production of food for their families. For household subsistence as well as for the market, they produce, gather and process a wide variety of types of food.

Yet agricultural research programmes have rarely taken into account rural women's knowledge and opinions of crop varieties and planting systems. For the most part, agricultural research has focused on cash crops and other major staples such as maize, rather than on food crops such as hardier grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. As a result' women's key role in achieving food security through food crop production and selection has often been bypassed.

Neglecting women as agricultural producers and resource managers inhibits the attainment of food security goals. Thus, one of the priorities to improve and support sustainable agricultural production In developing countries is to put food crops and animals that are usually grown or raised by women high on the research agenda.

New approaches to increase women's involvement in agricultural research are emerging in national and international institutions. These seek not only to benefit women but to benefit from them, especially in the areas of crop production and biodiversity. In Peru, for example, the International Potato Centre (CIP) is testing and screening staple food crops grown by women in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the sweet potato, in order to find combinations of early maturity and high yields with some degree of drought tolerance. These crops are often used by women during periods of famine and shortage, and are eaten before the main harvest or when the staple harvest is poor.

In the Côte d'lvoire, the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) has been conducting surveys to identify the preferences of women and men farmers in adopting improved rice varieties. While men prefer short statured high-yielding varieties, women will be reluctant to grow these varieties due to the difficulties of harvesting them while carrying infants on their back. As this constraint may lead women farmers to reject such varieties, WARDA has increasingly shifted its emphasis toward the development of medium to tall-statured varieties.


Improved agricultural technology has been widely recognised. as a prime force for increased agricultural productivity, as well as an engine for accelerating rural economic growth. While rural women are knowledgeable about and use a large amount of traditional technology, they have very little access to modern technology that could benefit them in their farm and household activities. This is due to women's lack of participation in setting research priorities or in generating and disseminating conventional technologies.

Women's lack of access to appropriate technology can have an adverse impact on food security. With the growing feminization of farm labour due to male rural to urban migration, women are forced to carry out work previously done by men. Consequently, women are increasing their workloads and taking care of a wider scope of agricultural tasks.

The problems faced by female-headed households. whether de jure or de facto, vary according to their degree of access to productive resources, including modern agricultural techniques. Studies in some African countries show that the loss of male labour can lead to shifts in production toward less labour intensive and less nutritious crops or to declines in yields and output. In Ghana, lack of male labour for clearing thick bush has led to longer cropping rotations as women are unable to perform this task with existing tools. As a result, land fertility and yields declined and soil erosion increased.

Women's increased workloads in agricultural tasks, combined with dwindling natural resources, means that they often have less time with which to meet other household needs. Although the amount of labour and resources required for maintenance of the household is tremendous, very little research has gone into developing techniques for gathering fuel and water, or for post-harvest activities such as food processing and preparation.

The lack of technologies available to women constrains their ability to either produce enough food and earn an adequate income, or to ensure the maintenance and care of household members. This situation has led to changes in cooking habits and the preparation of less nutritious and/or fewer meals. In some instances child malnutrition has increased, as nutritional security often depends upon the availability of non-food resources such as child and health care, clean water and fuel supplies.

At the same time as women's needs and priorities are excluded from the research agenda, they are often affected by the unintended side-effects of modern technologies introduced for the benefit of others. Experience has shown that technology development and dissemination is not gender-neutral, and can have a devastating impact on women's access to resources and to income-generating activities, as well as on their control over their own labour. In Asia, for example, mechanization packages introduced as part of irrigation schemes have provoked changes in the organisation of farm work, often replacing female labour with male labour. In Bangladesh alone, estimates show that mechanization has displaced female workers between 3.5 to a million days of labour per year.


Women are very important to agricultural production, and their need to receive extension assistance is correspondingly high. The degree of women's involvement in crop production decision-making varies according to region, but is almost always significant, especially in poor households. In Africa, in male-headed households women make decisions regarding at the very least their own plots. women in many regions are also independent decision-makers regarding small livestock production, and their own gathering, foraging, fishing, processing and in many instances marketing activities.

As men do not necessarily discuss production decisions with their wives or transfer extension knowledge to them, there is a clear and compelling need for extension to reach women directly. Yet, a 1989 FAO global survey on extension carried out in 115 countries showed that women only received between 2 and 10 percent of all extension contacts, and a mere 5 percent of extension resources worldwide.

Studies on agricultural extension have highlighted a number of weaknesses in reaching rural women. Traditionally, most extension services have been devoted to farmers who own land and who are willing and able to obtain credit and invest it in inputs and technological innovations. Since women often lack access to land, or to other collateral with which to obtain credit' extension services unintentionally bypass women.

The attitudes of extension personnel have also been found to be an important barrier between extension and women. A study of extension in Africa found several commonly held beliefs which asserted that women are not really significant contributors to agricultural production, they are always tied down with household chores and children, they are shy, difficult to reach and resist innovations.

Moreover, extension tends to be oriented towards alleviating or improving male tasks' such as in cash crop cultivation or commercial fishing, and does not address female tasks to the same degree, if at all. Also, women have lower or no formal education and this hampers them from taking part in extension activities requiring reading and arithmetic skills.


Women and Population Division

Sustainable Development Department,

Food and Agriculture Organization

of the United Nations,

Viale delle Terme di Caracalla,

00100 Rome Italy

Telephone 39 6 52251

Telefax 39 6 52253152

Telex 625852 FAO 1


Produced by AIDOS, Via del Giubbonari 30, 00186 Roma, Italy

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