There has been tremendous progress made in improvements in women’s empowerment in agriculture in the last decade, but despite this, inequalities persist and societies’ perceptions of the value of women have not shifted much.
Five years ago, my parents and my siblings – five sisters and two brothers – stood before our local land adjudication board. My father was sub-dividing the land to all of us. It was the first case the land board was adjudicating where a parent had decided to divide his land to all his children, including his daughters married and unmarried, since the new Kenyan constitution had come into effect in 2010. The constitution guaranteed equitable access to land and the elimination of gender discrimination in law, customs and practices related to land and property in land. The members of the land board looked at each other, unsure of what to do. They asked my father whether he was sure he wanted to give land to the girls. He said, “yes.” “And even the married ones?” they asked. Again, he replied in the affirmative. They looked at each other again. They asked my two brothers what they thought of that. My father spoke up: “It was not their land,” he said. We signed the papers and are now all land owners.
Challenging social norms
Despite legal reforms, perceptions and cultural barriers around women’s property rights, and what women can and cannot do remain largely unchanged. International development actors are now realising that if you don’t change men’s attitudes towards women, then gender programmes which focus on women will not be successful and, in many cases, could bring about increased dangers to women. In the agriculture sector, the main focus on gender has largely been on bridging the ‘gender gap’ in access to technologies, knowledge and productive resources so that women could increase their agricultural productivity and contribute effectively to household food security. Such instrumentalist approaches fail to recognise that the boundaries of what women can do are shaped by deeply ingrained social and cultural norms and intra-household dynamics, including the division of labour and decision making, which reinforce women’s disadvantage.
Social and cultural norms cannot be addressed through technical fixes. Instead, interventions must engage men and women, boys and girls, and community leaders to understand their impacts and to strategise on how to dismantle the patriarchal systems and practices that lead to inequalities. Many of the theoretical frameworks that work with men and boys currently come from public health and psychology fields, but these can be adapted to the agriculture sector.
In Malawi and Zambia, a project focused on improving livelihoods and gender relations in the Barotse Flood Plain uses community theatre to engage men and traditional leaders and change gender attitudes in the fisheries sector. Each theatre performance is followed by a facilitated discussion to spark locally-led shifts in gender norms and power relations. Results showed a 45% reduction in the number of people agreeing with the statement: ‘women should not be involved in fishing,’ among those who participated in the community theatre, compared to a 26% reduction for those who did not participate. For the men who participated in theatre, a significant shift was observed in their perceptions of ownership of their fishing and fish processing assets, with a decrease from 50% to 19% of men who indicated sole ownership of their assets. The number of men who reported joint ownership of fishing assets with women increased from 44% to 76%.
In Kenya, the integration of gender dialogues with men and women into the farmer field school approach developed by FAO in the 1990s, has led to shifts in the gender division of labour. The results of these gender dialogues include an increase in women’s participation in markets and control over income, as well as shifts in workload sharing. A 2-year project ending in 2016, that aimed to build the evidence-base for working with men and boys to promote gender equality — Engendering Men: Evidence on Routes to Gender Equality (EMERGE) — concluded that such programs can support women’s economic empowerment by encouraging men to take on household roles traditionally considered women’s responsibility, as well as help to lift restrictions that prevent women from working.