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Four Fast Facts to Debunk Myths About Rural Women

Jacqui Ashby is a senior gender adviser at CGIAR. Jennifer Twyman is a gender specialist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

With adequate extension support, women farmers can increase productivity and food security in Africa. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

With adequate extension support, women farmers can increase productivity and food security in Africa. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

PARIS, Mar 23 2015 (IPS) - We are lucky to live in a country that has long since abandoned the image of the damsel in distress. Even Disney princesses now save themselves and send unsuitable “saviours” packing. But despite the great strides being made in gender equality, we are still failing rural women, particularly women farmers.

We are failing them by using incomplete and inadequate data to describe their situation, and neglecting to empower them to improve it. As a consequence, we are all losing out on the wealth of knowledge this demographic can bring to boosting food supplies in a changing climate, which is a major concern for everyone on this planet.

The millions of poor farmers, both men and women, all over the developing world have an untapped wealth of knowledge that we are going to need if we are to successfully tackle the greatest challenge of our time: safeguarding our food supply in the face of climate change.

Whilst it is true that women farmers have less access to training, land, and inputs than their male counterparts, we need to debunk a few myths that have long been cited as fact, that are a bad basis for policy decision-making.

New research, drawing on work done by IFPRI and others, presented in Paris this week by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security will start this process – here are four fast facts that can serve food for thought.

  1. Rural women have more access to land than we think

For decades the same data has done the rounds, claiming that women own as little as 2 per cent of land. While this may be the case in some regions, these statistics are outdated and are answering the wrong questions. For example, much of this data is derived from comparing land owned by male-headed households with that owned by female-headed households. Yet, even if the man holds the license for the land, the woman may well have access to and use part of this land.

Therefore a better question to ask, and a new set of data now being collected is, how much control does the woman have over how land is used and the resultant income? How much of the land does she have access to? What farming decisions is she making? There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that women play a significant role in agricultural production. This role needs to be recognised so that women receive better access to agricultural resources, inputs and services

  1. Rural women are not more vulnerable to climate change because they are women

We need to look beyond gender to determine the root causes of why individuals and communities are more vulnerable to climate change. We have found many other contributing factors, such as gender norms, social class, education, and wealth can leave people at risk.

Are more women falling into this trap because they don’t have control over important resources and can’t make advantageous choices when they farm? If so, how can we change that? We must tackle these bigger problems that hinder both men and women in different ways, and not simply blame unequal vulnerability to climate risks and shocks on gender.

  1. Rural women do not automatically make better stewards of natural resources

Yes, rural women are largely responsible for collecting water and firewood, as well as a great deal of farm work. But the idea that this immediately makes them better stewards of natural resources is false. In fact, the evidence is conflicting. One study showed that out of 13 empirical studies, women were less likely to adopt climate-smart technologies in eight of them.

Yet in East Africa, research has shown women were more likely than, or just as likely as men to adopt climate-smart practices. Why is this? Because women do not have a single, unified interest. Decisions to adopt practices that will preserve natural resources depend a lot on social class, and the incentives given, whether they are made by women or men. So we need more precise targeting based on gender and social class.

  1. Gender sensitive programming and policymaking is not just about helping women succeed

We all have a lot to gain from making food security, climate change innovation and gender-sensitive policies. The millions of poor farmers, both men and women, all over the developing world have an untapped wealth of knowledge that we are going to need if we are to successfully tackle the greatest challenge of our time: safeguarding our food supply in the face of climate change.

A key to successful innovation is understanding the user’s perspective. In Malawi, for example, rural women have been involved in designing a range of labour saving agri-processing tools. As they will be the primary users of such technologies, having their input is vital to ensure a viable end product.

In Nicaragua, women have been found to have completely different concerns from men when it comes to adapting to climate change, as they manage household food production, rather than growing cash crops like male farmers. Hearing these concerns and responding to them will result in more secure livelihoods, food availability and nutrition.

We hope that researchers will be encouraged to undertake the challenge of collecting better data about rural women and learning about their perspectives. By getting a clearer picture of their situation, we can equip them with what they need to farm successfully under climate change, not just for themselves, and their families, but to benefit us all.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 
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