Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The gender issue

Promotional art for The Simpsons episode Girls Just Want To Have Sums, copyright Fox
Promotional art for The Simpsons episode,
Girls Just Want to Have Sums

(copyright Fox)
There is an episode of the animated television show The Simpsons, where one of the characters gets himself into a lot of trouble for making a series of unintentionally disparaging remarks about the achievement of a woman. That character, Principal Skinner, the head of the elementary or primary school is trying to praise a past student, who has returned to her hometown as director of a stage show.

Each remark, is interpreted as sexist, until Skinner is seen begging anyone to “just tell me what I need to say to make it all go away”.

I kept running that through my head when trying to write this post on gender issues. Was I saying the right thing, or was I about to drop myself in it, saying something inadvertently wrong.

The point here is how complicated the whole issue can be (warning – potential dumb, Skinner-style comment following). The cause of at least some of that complexity is the differing circumstances of women in the developing world, particularly those who run smallholder farms, particularly when viewed from the lens of the expectations and realities surrounding equality in the developing world. 
And the reality is that the majority of the 500 million or so smallholder farms in the developing world are run by women.

I recently heard a story, told by a colleague, of the challenges that these women farmers face. The story, as described too often by the women farmers, is that their husbands are the ones who visit the places where they hear, or are likely to hear, a radio broadcast about farming.

Whether this is in the equivalent of a cafe, pub or wherever else men congregate, the point the women made was that they did not get exposure to this information on radio. Instead they are left to figure it out themselves.

With so many smallholder farmers being women, this is an issue. There are no easy answers to this quandary, just as it is too simplistic to think of gender in terms of clearly defined women’s or men’s roles.
Reaching the person or persons on the farm who need to know about a new innovation, technology or practice is the key. In some cases this is the male of the household, more often it is the woman.
A common factor for many women in developing countries is that the work they undertake is often informal, low paid or non paid. On farms the problem becomes one of women doing the work, with limited control or knowledge over inputs, prices paid for any surpluses and expenditure of any income derived.
The social and cultural dimensions such women navigate are complex.

Even something as simple as money management reveals gaps in gender parity. In Sub-Saharan Africa for example 27% of men have bank accounts, only 22% of women have accounts, according to findings by a report funded bythe Gates Foundation, the World Bank and the Gallup World Poll.

Of those with accounts 38% use them for receiving remittances from family members living abroad. The same report found that 88% of respondents in the developing world use banks for personal use only, and not business. The main reason for taking out a loan was to pay for family emergencies, most commonly someone falling ill.

A savings club is far more likely to be used in Africa, for example, to save. The members of the club pool their excess money, typically a few coins here and there, and take it in turns to receive a month’s collection. This approach to savings is similar to how many farmers, particularly women, go about growing crops. They rely on word of mouth, and watching their successful neighbours for ideas. Approaches often spread simply by being successful.

At ACIAR we work to incorporate gender into project design. This includes understanding the roles played by both men and women, identifying constraints and how these are influenced by gender roles, and specific opportunities for targeting research and communication activities to women and also to families. Gender impacts are monitored throughout the project, including in reporting.

A final story illustrates some of the point. Research in Indonesia on how men and women negotiate demonstrated differences in style and outputs.

Men focused on winning the negotiation, that is feeling they had got a good deal. Women, who had led the way in doing the work understood better the price needed to recoup their investment. The result was they had a bottom line price they needed, and would negotiate to get that. 

The different approaches used serve to highlight just one issue involved in this area. It is not straightforward, but getting gender right in the design of projects leads to a lot of success, and can encourage the spread of ideas.

Warren Page, ACIAR Communications Manager

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