If you don’t pay attention to gender you will fail

Women farmers in Malawi. Photo: Charlie Pye-Smith / World Agroforestry Centre

Women farmers in Malawi. Photo: Charlie Pye-Smith / World Agroforestry Centre

To feed the estimated 9 billion people who are expected to inhabit our planet by 2015, we need to invest in women.

“It’s not enough to say we are gender neutral,” said Catherine Bertini, as she delivered the Sir John Crawford Memorial Address in Canberra, Australia on 27 August 2014. “We need to constantly ask ourselves ‘is there is a gender perspective to this?’”

To illustrate her point, Bertini gave the example of when farmers in Angola were keen to get back to work following a major de-mining effort in the country. The women told her they could not work as they did not have hoes. Bertini was puzzled as she could see around 100 hoes ready for use. But she was told that these hoes were for men not women. “We’d sent the wrong implements, we didn’t know. A women’s hoe has a shorter handle and pointier spade. It is adapted so that it can be used by women while squatting and carrying a child on their back.”

“If you pay no attention to gender then you set up to fail.”

Bertini challenged the people in the room – from research organizations, governments and NGOs to development workers – to always ask “is there a gender element”.

You can help by “ensuring every girl has a primary education, making secondary education universal and supporting infrastructure to give girls access to schools,” Bertini told the audience. “Invest in adult literacy programs and support out of the box extension, [make use of] the internet, cell phones and radio to give women training.”

Bertini explained how in Ghana, asking who has control of the radio knob, and when, has been key to developing effective agricultural programs that target women.

DSCN2144Bertini was Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme for 10 years; from 1992 to 2002. She currently serves as Senior Fellow, Global Agricultural Development Initiative with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Professor, Public Administration and International Affairs with the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

During her address, she further called on those present to support land rights and access for women, create systems where the voice of women can be heard and invest in indigenous crop development.

In 2011, scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre analyzed the role of African women in agroforestry in the study Gender and agroforestry in Africa: are women participating?

They found that women’s participation is very high in enterprises that are considered their domain, such as indigenous fruit and vegetable products and processing. These enterprises are attractive to women because they involve minimal labor, which women are able to provide.

“Indigenous fruits can provide women with significant income,” says the study, outlining how women in Benin can earn US$ 7 to 36 per year from shea kernels. While this may seem small, it is significant because the women are able to control it. In Cameroon, income from Gnetum africanum is quite substantial with an average of US$2,629 per household per year.

In Malawi, women who have a woodlot are able to save 15 to 180 minutes a day through not having to travel distances to collect wood. But these women earn three times less money from the sale of woodlot products than men

When it comes to extension in agroforestry, the researchers found that men receive many more extension visits than women and participate in more field days and other extension activities off the farm. Women’s involvement is restricted due several factors, in including the bias of extension workers, socio-cultural factors and women’s lack of time to participate.

Despite producing 60 to 80 percent of food in developing countries, half of all women cannot own land, nor are they educated. “They are not among those who show up at meetings and trainings or who are sought out by extension workers,” said Bertini, further emphasizing how women do not have time among their family and household responsibilities and their work in the fields to attend training.

A study by the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that when given the same inputs, female farmers are 20 to 30 per cent more productive.

“If we don’t highlight the role of women in agriculture we will fail in increasing yields and productivity,” concluded Bertini.


The Sir John Crawford memorial Address is delivered annually as part of the Crawford Fund’s Parliamentary Conference. This year, the conference focused on the theme, Ethics, Efficiency and Food Security: Feeding the 9 Billion, Well. The Crawford Fund is a non-government organization and charity that promotes and supports international agricultural research for developing countries.

See also:

Moving from food security to nutritional security

New guide to gender analysis in agroforestry

Download the study: Gender and agroforestry in Africa: are women participating?

Download the FAO report: The Vital Role of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development



Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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