Improving access to services for women in agriculture
Groups that offer agricultural services must find ways to engage the millions of women working the fields who aren't being reached by current programmes
Agriculture extension programmes should focus on supporting and training the many millions of women who work on farms in India. Photograph: Str/EPA
Women account for 43% of the agricultural labour force (pdf) in developing countries on average but only receive about 5% of training and advisory services, known as agricultural extension. This makes them less productive than men, and closing that gap could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 12-17%. How might it be done?
A starting point is to look at how agricultural extension services are delivered. Traditionally, these have been provided by the public sector, with ministries of agriculture responsible for sending experts to visit farmers. But although women play a significant role in farming, they are still often perceived as not being "real" farmers.
"Many people assume that farmers are men," says Kristin Davis, aresearch fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "In fact women are often either household heads themselves or by default because their husbands are working in cities or mines. But traditionally the focus has been on men and technology."
Persistent inequalities in land rights reinforce this exclusion, because women still hold less land than men in developing countries and have less security of tenure, so that when husbands die their land may go back to their family. This means that where extension services are delivered based on land ownership, women farmers are more likely to be passed over.
"There's also the fact that some people are landless and still farming," Davis adds. "In India, women go out and use land not owned by anybody. So we have to redefine what is a farmer."
Agricultural extension has seen a paradigm shift over the decades, moving from top-down 'training and visit' approaches to more participatory and demand-driven approaches such as farmer field schools and mobile data services. This has the potential to broaden access, but can also reinforce women's exclusion. ICT services delivering agricultural information, for example, still depend on women having access to technology and being able to pay for some private data services.
"Women often don't have access to the technology as well as men do," says Davis. "If there's a radio in the home it's often controlled by the man, and they listen to the programme the man wants."
In many countries, levels of numeracy and literacy are also lower for women, which means that even if they have access to information through mobile phones, they may not be able to translate that into improved farming practice.
One way to tackle this is to rely less on words and data, and more on visual transmission. In India, Digital Green's video-based form of agricultural extension is both visual and participatory, with farmers making videos to share with other farming communities.
"The literacy rate of men in rural India is around 77% and of women ... 58%, so video is powerful given the lower rate of literacy among women as well as the inherent visual nature of farming," says Rikin Gandhi, CEO of Digital Green.
Digital Green has used existing networks of women's self-help groups involved in micro-savings and credit to reach women farmers, and has found the video screenings to be a very popular form of outreach.
"Currently, 76% of the 115,000 farmers attending our video screenings are women," says Gandhi. "When women become the first recipients of new knowledge in their household, we have found that their husbands often ask them about what videos they watched. Over time, we have seen that some women are able to have more of a decision-making role in their households."
Possibly the best known participatory approach to extension is the farmer field school which first emerged in the late 1980s in Asia. Farmer field schools move away from the top-down style of training to make learning more farmer-led and inclusive, which can be a way of reaching more women farmers.
"Our research showed that farmer field schools are very effective at reaching women as well as men," says Davis. "It's taking place right there in the community, working on a field, and it's a group so it's more culturally appropriate in many places."
Even so, there are still some practical barriers to women's attendance, which are easily overlooked.
"Women, because of their multiple responsibilities in the household, may have a much more restricted ability to travel, particularly to evening meetings," says Kathleen Colverson, programme leader in livelihoods,gender and impact at the International Livestock Research Institute.
"That's a real concern, and it's something I've discussed with male extension agents. If you wish to encourage female attendance at meetings, provide transport and childcare so that women will be able to come."
The majority of extension workers are still male, and redressing this balance may also help make the services more accessible to women. According to Colverson, cultural norms in communities are more of a barrier than any reticence on the part of male extension workers or women farmers themselves.
"About 90% of extension workers are male and my experience has been that they recognise the need to reach out to women farmers, but they are clueless on how to do it or they are obstructed for other reasons," she says.
"At one training I did recently, one man stood up and said I really understand the need but show me how I can work with traditional male elders who are not receptive and not interested."
Addressing access to agricultural extension therefore depends on much more than just the provision of the service itself. Factors as diverse as cultural norms and access to childcare or even clean water can all directly influence women farmers' ability to access information and training.
"We have consistently advocated for free essential services, particularly water and sanitation services," says Ines Smyth, senior gender adviser at Oxfam. "They are crucial for women because they reduce the burden on their time as well as improving health and wellbeing. When they could be at training, they are not available because they're busy in their role as carers."
But, as Smyth points out, this also means there are various ways for development organisations to support women's access to agricultural information and training, without having to actually provide those services themselves.
"That's our responsiblity as practitioners, to work out how can we make the most difference," she says. "Where are the openings and opportunities, and who else is doing what? We need to think creatively about points of entry."