In the Field: Unpacking gender and climate-smart agriculture!

By Leisa Perch

The RIO+ Centre is partnering with the Food and Natural Resources Planning Analysis Network (FANRPAN) to conduct a gender analysis of current Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) policy and practice in Southern Africa. Smallholder farmers, with limited capacity to invest or manage risk due to poorly functioning credit and insurance markets, are constrained in their ability to increase yields and incomes, and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and current climate variability. Women also play a key but undervalued and under-paid role in maintaining agro-biodiversity. Despite these well-known facts and realities, disconnects still occur within policy and investment in ensuring that these resource gaps are narrowed and risks are more broadly shared within the sector.

Seeking to understand some of the reasons behind these patterns and why a deficit remains between understanding the problem and making climate policy a reality, RIO+ organized a gap-filling mission to see this from the ground. With the support of FANRPAN and Aliness Mumba, in particular.

Between end of April and early May 2014, I spent three days in Zimbabwe and three days in Swaziland. It was an incredible learning experience. I interviewed and spoke with more than 20 people in the two countries, from the government sector, civil society, research/academic, and farmers to the UNDP country offices. The level of activity in each country is inspiring with budding good practice in several places.

The stories were diverse. A farmer on three hectares who is able to provide for her family of nine despite having no irrigation for her crops, and who dreams of expanding. A businesswoman who conceived of the Woman Farmer of the Year competition in Swaziland that is now a fixture in the yearly calendar and is supported by the Ministry of Agriculture. A Professor of Agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe who noted that we must also now consider how climate change is itself changing gender patterns and roles. The latter is rarely spoken about and inspired a quick addition to our survey questions.

Some of the usual questions arose regarding land tenure and economic empowerment. One NGO stakeholder brought it into clear perspective. He noted the need for other policies to be updated at the same time as land policies: Marriage Acts, Deeds and Registries Acts and financial rules for accessing commercial credit.

Another interviewee noted that empowering farmers must go beyond the farm, to all walks of life (see example from Zimbabwe). All of these would need to be coherent with each other and that is a big task.

Still, as a businesswoman in Swaziland noted, more than policy is needed. There is also the “people” element that makes policy come alive. Sometimes, one can lose sight of the other. The Woman Farmer Competition started with an idea and the drive of one or 2 persons and has now grown into an established activity. Moreover, taking the issue to the local Chiefs, with respect and engaging with them, has also led to new and more land for some farmers.

There is much more we need to unpack. One important issue stands out from the interviews and even discussions with researchers at the CSA Dialogue hosted by FANRPAN: how we communicate i.e. language. As I listened to an NGO partner in Swaziland translate my questions to one of the farmers I was reminded that in many of the local languages, the word “gender” does not exist. Neither do the phrase “climate change”.

Gender enters the conversation because men and women sometimes note different things and also experience different problems. As a case in point, one of the Swazi farmers mentioned that while everyone in her village had a terrible year with maize, one male farmer had success. Had we spoken to him alone, what would the record have shown? Had we only asked her what her year was like, what would we record? In Mozambique, a researcher noted, people on the ground talk in terms of crops struggling mid-season, about rivers and streams that have moved, about insects and biodiversity that no longer exist, arrive and leave at different times than before or that have never been seen before. That to them is what climate change and variability looks like in real-time.

I am more convinced than ever that it is time to retire some of the old pictures of rural women in Africa. You know the ones I mean. These are still important but they represent only one dimension of the face of rural women in Africa. In Southern Africa as we are finding, women farmers often straddle tradition and new technologies as well as rural and urban settings (see pictures).

They are full of hope; they persevere and they sometimes thrive. In other words they are practising what we could call resilience! Gender in CSA is and must be more than statistics!

During the next few months, we will:
• review policy documents for the five countries targeted by the study i.e. the Kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland as well as Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe,
• contribute to an investment plan in at least one of the target countries,
• interview more stakeholders, and
• analyze the results of a mini-survey to be launched soon in order to include more voices from the field, including more female farmers.
Continue to watch this space for more news on this project, our findings and what it may mean for how we re-think gender and sustainable development in general!

2 Comments on “In the Field: Unpacking gender and climate-smart agriculture!

  1. These (women especially) have come from far and still have quite a ways to go in achieving anything close to economic independence if that is their ultimate goal. I really think this can’t be achieved in the span of a single generation. I’ll be following this closely as well as what is happening with (black) Brazilian women in a similar predicament, I think they have the additional problem of skin color even in these modern times. Your opinion Leisa?

    • Thanks Angela for your comment and apologies for the delayed respose. A great question! We hope that our blogs will generate much more debate and hope that you will be part of that ongoing conversation.

      I would agree that the challenge of achieving economic independence is not easy and not a task limited to the five year window framed by most projects or interventions. Lasting structural change could indeed take an entire generation, but on the way, critical foundations are already being built. There is much to be celebrated at the level of individual and collective freedoms and at the same time, there is much we can learn from the resilience of women and men. More is needed of course.

      Indeed Afro-descendent women, peasant farmers as well as indigenous women in Brazil face similar challenges as those reviewed in the blog. Some of this is discussed in this Poverty in Focus ( which I had the pleasure of co-editing with great colleagues and which built on a meeting where we were able to bring some of those issues to the fore. As you would see from the article (pages 10-12) by three Brazilian women, including one Quilombola (Sandra Maria da Silva), Afro-descendent Brazilian women are still dealing with the direct and indirect knock-on effects of historical exclusion driven by race. Sandra speaks well to the issues of the past and the current challenges and much better than I can.

      Looking forward to more engagement from you and others on these issues.


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