Women’s Agency and Voice: What is our role?

Gender

Jemimah Njuki

And by “our role”, I mean those of us working in agriculture research and development programming.

I have just gone through the new World Bank Report on “Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity”. Although a 200 page document, I would encourage you to read it as it deals with some areas of women and girls empowerment that is often ignored outside of women’s rights organizations.

The report focuses on four main domains of women’s agency: freedom from violence, control over sexual and reproductive health, ownership and control of land and housing, and voice and collective action. Within the agriculture sector, the domain that has been of most interest is the third domain-ownership and control of land. Indeed, in many sectoral programs, the other domains are often almost ignored as areas not relevant to agriculture or areas that should be dealt with by women’s rights organizations.

A lot of our work in agriculture focused on women is aimed at improving women’s economic opportunities. This although a necessary pre-condition is not sufficient to achieve women’s empowerment or gender equality. As the report rightfully says “…..even where endowments and economic opportunities are better, social norms about gender roles are limiting. This problem is evident, for example, in gender roles surrounding child care and housework…”And yet there is a positive spin to this. Women with better economic opportunities are less likely to experience violence and girls from poor households are more likely to drop out of school and marry early. Not taking into account gender concerns as we do our work can however have negative consequences for women and girls, increasing likelihood of domestic violence or increasing women and girls workloads.

One of the recommendations the report makes is to engage men and boys for gender equality. Given the nature of agriculture and the focus on farm families, men, women, boys and girls included, those in agriculture have great opportunities to engage men and boys as champions of change for gender equality. Effectively engaging men, boys, communities, and traditional authorities to change norms around violence, marriage, reproduction, household gender roles, and the roles of women and men in public life can lead to the promotion of women’s agency.

The engagement of men and boys can be integrated into agricultural programming. The CARE Pathways to Empowerment Program that I was involved in as Team Leader integrates community dialogue on women’s workload, the importance of women being involved in household decision making, the harms of gender based violence, harmful cultural practices into the Farmer Field School (FFS) Approach. While in a normal FFS program, all of the topics would be around agriculture, in the adapted farmer field school, a number of the topics deal with these issues. As the FFS groups are mixed groups, it allows for discussion by men and women on the importance of gender equality. This is combined with approaches that target men and boys separately, that target traditional leaders and that target whole communities through community theatre.

For agriculture programs aiming for multiple outcomes of economic opportunities (increasing productivity, food security and incomes) and gender equality, a combination of these approaches is inevitable and partnerships need to expand to include organizations with skills and expertise in addressing these gender norms.

Research on different combinations of different approaches and how they apply in different social and institutional setups will build an evidence base on what works, where and under what context.

Read the full report here

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