Science and technology offers great opportunities for rural women’s empowerment

As the 55th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) unfolds in New York, FAO urges world leaders to ensure that rural women are fully included in the design, testing and use of agricultural technologies and innovations.

A woman scientist in a greenhouse of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute taking seeds from one particular variety of wheat. [FAO/J. Spaull]

During its annual session to review progress on gender equality and to identify critical areas where challenges remain, CSW invited Member States representatives, United Nations agencies and NGOs from all regions of the world to share experiences and lessons learned on this year’s theme: Access and participation of women and girls in education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work.

At the CSW, FAO together with IFAD, WFP and the World Bank, held two side events that focused on the practical steps needed to improve rural women’s access to productive technologies. Together with IFAD and the World Bank, FAO presented research and experiences, carried out jointly with IFAD, on the use of agricultural technologies among small and resource-poor farmers, as well as discussed new farming techniques to help increase food security and enhance the livelihoods of rural women and men.

Eve Crowley - Principal Advisor, Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division - discusses some of the benefits that science and technology brings to rural women, and the obstacles preventing them from taking full advantage of agricultural innovations:

How can science and technology benefit and empower rural women?

Science and technology offers solutions to many challenges faced by rural women: they can contribute to food security by boosting crop yields; reduce women’s domestic and productive work by introducing labour-saving technologies; and increase participation of women in the rural labour market through better communications.

Women can also benefit greatly from tools that encourage knowledge and information sharing. When made available to them, new and basic Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can help reduce women’s isolation, improve their bargaining power and ability to pool skills.

A good example of this are the community-learning centers run by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, which use innovations such as satellite and telecommunication to enable women to access agricultural extension, soil and pest analysis, and health diagnostic expertise even in remote rural areas. Some centres contain equipment libraries with innovative technology-sharing arrangements that allow poor women to access technologies, which would otherwise be unavailable to them.  Female leaders from different villages also help to identify village demand for improved certified seeds and other technologies - then purchase them wholesale, and ensure they reach women farmers who need them most. This is a significant innovation in contexts where small and marginal farmers are usually bypassed by national extension systems.

What are some key challenges faced by rural women trying to access science and technology?

Access to land, credit and education are often pre-requisites for technology uptake. Similarly, farm inputs and services are often only available to landowners. As a result, barriers that constrain women’s access to key resources also lead to inequalities in access to and adoption of new technologies.

When women are involved in the design and field testing of new agricultural technologies, such as crop varieties, small machinery, and farm tools – these technologies are more likely to work for them. Women are consequently more likely to adopt innovations, which can boost agricultural productivity and rural incomes. Yet there are some simple but revolutionary technologies, like animal traction, which are still under-exploited by women. This is because the size, design or weight of the implements fail to consider women’s physical needs and constraints.

Finally, it is important for agricultural research to pay greater attention to some of the crops traditionally grown by women. Although crops like pigeon pea and leafy green vegetables may not feature prominently on global markets, they are often vital to household and community nutrition, as well as women’s income - even when only cultivated on a small scale.

How can participation in science, technology and skills training increase rural women’s opportunities for decent employment?

Access to formal education, as well as technical and vocational training can lead to more remunerative jobs and can give women access to a wider range of opportunities. To this day, over two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people are women, and many of them live in rural areas.  In India, female farmers and agricultural workers lag behind their male counterparts at every level of educational attainment, and are between 20 and 30 percent more likely to be illiterate than men. 

Women’s participation in agricultural research – the cornerstone of successful food production strategies – is also key to ensuring their influence over the science research agenda. Women scientists and research managers can provide unique perspectives and help research agencies to address topics that affect rural women’s well-being and interests.

Why is it important to include women in all aspects of scientific and technological innovation related to food security?

Women’s indigenous knowledge and resourcefulness in agriculture can provide extensive contributions to food security and the overall innovation process. As the main collectors, users and managers of water - for instance -  women have a vast knowledge about water use and conservation that is key to successful water policies and strategies.

Science and technology can also contribute to food security through improved crops and cropping practices, improved quality of food processing, packaging and marketing. But in order for these innovations to be effective, equitable, and sustainable - they must benefit women and men equally.

What is needed at the policy level to ensure that technological innovations reach both rural women and men?

Policies must endorse research that incorporates rural women’s knowledge and that responds to their needs. In many parts of the world, rural women are responsible for housework, child care and other domestic activities. At the same time, they often seek sources of income which contribute to family welfare, and carry the responsibility for food production and household nutrition.

As a result, it is important to develop appropriate technologies that reduce women’s drudgery and time spent on laborious household tasks like fetching water and fuelwood, food processing, or preparing meals. This will give them more time for productive employment and education, and to take part in community initatives.

Public investments in infrastructure, which work towards the supply of electricity, water and transport – for instance - can go a long way to improving women’s livelihoods, as well as the food and agriculture systems in general.

Successful programmes and policies must also go hand-in-hand with institutions that promote women’s involvement and empowerment. Farmer associations and cooperatives, self help groups and trade unions can be effective in disseminating technologies and representing the interests of farmers. Yet women are often excluded from these groups due to membership criteria, low levels of education or cultural barriers. Even when they make up a sizeable share of the members in these organizations, women’s representation in leadership positions is disproportionately low.

The same can be said for extension services, which should hire women within their ranks, be designed to reach out more effectively, and be accountable to rural women as their clients.

What would be the economic gains of rural women’s access to science and technology?

The gender gap in science and technology is a major reason behind the underperformance of the agriculture sector. Achieving greater equality in women’s and men’s access to innovations will result in improved agricultural productivity,  improved economic growth and a decline in the number of hungry people in the world.

We must also remember that technology-related adoption rates are low among rural women because they face difficulties when accessing other resources. With the launch of its latest State of Food and Agriculture in March - FAO will be releasing new figures, which back up the argument that closing the gender gap in all spheres of agriculture is necessary to win the fight against hunger and extreme poverty.

During CSW, FAO, on behalf of the three Rome-based agencies (FAO, IFAD and WFP), took part in a panel discussion hosted by UN Women to exchange ideas in view of next year's theme: The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges. To help guide discussions on this issue, which is  strongly interlinked with FAO’s mandate, we presented up-to-date findings on the status of women in agriculture and rural areas in different parts of the world.