Gender and rice research: Why should we take this seriously?
Usually, special “theme days” in the year pass by me somewhat unnoticed in my busy day-to-day activities. However, this year, International Women’s Day on March 8 has my particular attention. In the last few weeks, I have been involved in refining the Gender Strategy of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP). This document describes why it is important to pay attention to gender in “rice for development research” and how we could actually go about doing this. As I read my way through the literature, and had various discussions with experts in the field, it became clearer and clearer to me that this is something we need to take seriously. While recognizing that “gender” has many dimensions, I want to focus here on women’s role in the rice sector, and on how “empowerment” of women can accelerate our impacts on goals such as poverty alleviation, food security, improved health, and more education.
In many parts of Asia, women contribute at least half of the total labor inputs in rice production, especially by performing tedious and backbreaking tasks such as taking care of nurseries, transplanting, and weeding. After harvest, it is usually the women who take care of seed storage and processing of rice (drying, milling) for home consumption. One would expect such hard labor to be handsomely rewarded by sharing in the income obtained from growing rice on the farm. The sad reality, however, is that this is the exception rather than the rule. Besides women not being fairly rewarded for their labor (an equity aspect of gender), studies have amply demonstrated that women spend money in ways that are particularly conducive to improving family livelihoods. Compared with men, women spend more of their income on providing nutritious food for the family, health care, clothing, and education for their children. And, by the way, they also spend a lot of their time doing this! So, wouldn’t it follow that, if we pay some more attention to women rice farmers as specific beneficiaries of our research efforts, we could actually accelerate the realization of our development goals? How would we do that?
I see at least three interrelated entry points. First, we could promote the fair rewarding of labor. This is probably more in the arena of advocacy, but there may be researchable issues in the domain of social sciences. Second, we could specifically develop improved technologies that help women farmers with their specific tasks (such as transplanting, weeding, etc.). We could specifically try to increase women’s labor productivity. Mechanization comes immediately to mind: it removes drudgery and frees up women’s labor that can be productively used to earn off-farm income, help children with homework, strengthen social networking, etc. Of course, mechanization also has a risk of simply displacing women’s labor (usually, when machines come into play, men like to take over!) and robbing women of their income; so, we need to team up with other development partners who can facilitate the transition to alternative and more remunerative deployment of women’s labor. Third, in our extension and dissemination efforts, we need to ensure that our newly developed “pro-women” technologies actually reach them. We need to develop targeted training and capacity-building programs, and we need to train extension staff to specifically reach out to women. This simple list of three entry points is not exhaustive; there are many more things we can do. On March 8, we will celebrate International Women’s Day and use the occasion to share our knowledge and experiences, and further commit to taking gender in rice research “seriously.”
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