The rationale for considering gender mainstreaming in agricultural programs relates to agricultural productivity, food security, nutrition, poverty reduction, and empowerment. In all of these, women play a critical but often under-recognized role and face greater constraints than men.

Women tend to face challenges in the areas of land ownership, access to credit and productive farm inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and farming tools, support from extension services, and access to markets and other factors central to improving productivity. In many instances, agricultural service providers are one of the only sources of agricultural information available to smallholder farmers. Increasing women’s education and other resources is a key way to reduce their constraints and increase agricultural production, which can improve food security at the household and higher level. Orienting agricultural programs to reduce those constraints can make a lasting contribution to this goal.

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That said, we need to shift away from the traditional emphasis on economically “empowering” women exclusively through micro loans or grants, training programs or networking and mentorship. These interventions are important (and comparatively easy to implement), but they are limited in their power to shape broader institutions and can only get us so far. We need to turn our attention to the larger environment where economic opportunities unfold – examine and correct pervasive gender biases in organizations and alter service provision so that it is not biased against women. The assumption that services, especially productive ones, are gender neutral and not gender biased is wrong, but so far this has been largely overlooked in both development research and practice.

Gender biases pervade the design and delivery of extension services, banking products, land, housing, and much more. For instance, the World Bank recently found that ensuring women’s access to productive resources is not enough. Even when access was guaranteed, women farmers in Ethiopia and Uganda benefited less than men farmers from extension advice, suggesting that the delivery of these services is “better attuned to the needs of male farmers”.

Gender blindness

To make the shift away from “gender neutral” (but really gender blind) service provision, companies not already doing so need to disaggregate client data by sex, so that they can identify and differentiate women’s market segment. Only then can organizations begin to understand women’s specific needs and constraints, whether they’re seeking access to farm equipment or financial services, and design and deliver products accordingly.

Given women’s existing levels of participation in value chains and the constraints under which they participate, understanding and responding appropriately to the social and economic contexts within which women engage in livestock production, processing and/or sales are, to give a few sectoral examples, is thus central to achieving rural agricultural value chain related goals.

As such, programs should include approaches that start from a careful understanding of these contexts, and either 1) work within these contexts to improve how women are included, or 2) seek to improve the equity of the social and institutional environments in which value chains function to enhance the range and quality of choices and outcomes women and men have within them. Programs operate along a continuum of gender integration approaches, from the accommodating to the transformative, and will contribute to understanding under what conditions each approach has the potential to enhance value chain performance and the outcomes of women and other marginalized groups.

Gender differences in roles and resources in agricultural production and in women’s and men’s participation in household decision-making around resource allocation, technology adoption, marketing and food consumption are relevant, though likely in different ways, across the different value chain sites. These differences imply that in order to achieve its expected outcomes, investments are to be made to understand these gender differences, their causes and their consequences.

Research and development of interventions that do not acknowledge and respond to the different socio-economic positions of women and men from the outset risk worsening gender inequalities (e.g. in income) while interventions that operate within the existing social system risk creating only incremental short term improvements.

For gender to be recognized as a critical component in climate-smart agricultural practices, the following actions are needed:

1) Invest in “action research” initiatives that are testing new farming practices and value-added activities with women as well as men. We need to learn together what works best, and how to support all those producing food in different environments, in a wide range of farming systems;

2) Catalyze and support strategic and structured partner engagement efforts, with local governments, private sector, and civil society organizations working closely with women, as well as men farmers and other food system actors;

3) Strengthen the capacity of these partners in gender-disaggregated data collection and analysis, and forward-looking and inclusive, evidence-based local adaptation planning efforts;

4) Test innovative communication strategies, together with private and public sector partners in many countries, to reach more women and youth with much needed information on exciting new options and opportunities in agriculture.

Concepts of community “resilience” and “adaptation” needs to be better understood, since the way country governments often engages with communities is in itself an important means to strengthen community resilience and adaptation capacity. The UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKIP, 2015), recently published a recommendable document about the need to think in capacity for transformability, beyond resilience and adaptation, the UKCIP uses the following terminology:

  • Resilience: the amount of change the system can undergo (or the amount of external pressure the system can sustain), while maintaining the same structure and  function;
  • Adaptability: the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization to deal with increasing external pressures, towards new structures and functions;  and
  • Transformability: the degree to which the system can build the capacity to learn and adapt, and thus continuously increases resilience and self-organizes to deal with an ever changing context.

It is thus important  for mainstreaming approaches to not only think (as an example) in terms of improved service delivery of the local government, and designing more resilient development projects, but also to ensure that programs, new initiatives, local development planning and implementation processes in themselves support increased community resilience, adaptability and ultimately transformability. This is more challenging then often understood.

The use of “modern” planning processes, which are often based on “western” utilitarian values, can easily disempower communities by making them especially aware of the problems and challenges they face, the things they do not have and on what they would require from outside to solve this. Furthermore within the inter and intra-community plan prioritization processes, it creates competition for scarce resources where contentment is measured in terms of obtaining the maximum possible external resources for the own community, independent from the actually needed and who needs them most

An “asset-based” planning approach has proven to circumvent this unconscious pitfall. The existing assets and capacities of the community are at the core of the development process, as well as what they can do themselves to address identified development constraints and future challenges. Only thereafter external support needs are discussed, which are required to facilitate the community development process. Although the engagement with communities in the planning stage is intense, the facilitation of plan implementation itself is rather ‘hands-off’, therewith leaving development responsibility and drive in the hands of communities. If the different community planning processes are thereafter scaled-up to a larger area-based context of multiple communities, the existing capacities and real need for each community can be jointly assessed and discussed and external resources can be jointly allocated where most appropriate.