Mulugeta Ayene / WLE

Developmental promises made to women are not delivering. Here’s how we can do better.

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This was originally published by the CGIAR Collaborative Network on Gender Research.

For decades we’ve been talking about “bringing women on board” agricultural solutions. It’s time to disrupt this approach. Because, simply put,  ‘gender’ does not translate to ‘women’ and addressing inequalities by gender is not simply about ‘adding women’ to predetermined solutions.

What we need is to rethink agriculture, water and environment solutions so that they address – or at the very least are cognizant of – the structural issues that make women unequal actors and participants in development.

A woman in far western Nepal uses a water pump to wash pots and pans.
Andrew Reckers/IWMI

Women: All equal, overtly committed, environmental champions?

We hear persistent myths about how ‘special’ women are: less corrupt than men, more industrious and responsible, “good to the environment”. This narrative has long been proved to be untrue.

For one, not all women, or men for that matter, are equal. Inequalities between women and men (as well as among them) are shaped by other divides, such as class, caste, religion, ethnicity, age and disability. Inequalities are also shaped by unique social, economic, political as well as ecological contexts. All of these factors determine the agency and capability of different women and men to act on the environment. This is why it is unrealistic and unwise to expect women and girls across the board to ‘fix’ families, economies, environment or even climate change.

Women are increasingly encouraged to enter new labor markets, and it is assumed that paid work will in itself empower women. However, research has made clear that unless paid work provides sustained living wages under equitable working conditions and complements basic needs met through other interventions – there will be little to no empowerment for women.  

‘Doing gender’: Benefiting poor women?

Decades of development work on gender have rarely led to transformative change. Paradoxically, women-centric development has required a lot from women and given little back in exchange. This is why some researchers argue that a simplified narrative of gender as women disproportionately benefits other development actors, bringing them attention and funding at the cost of poor women, who have gained little.

For example, In India, women’s rights to property and agricultural land were not easily achieved. When they were eventually achieved, they did not spur massive transformations in property ownership. In reality, women knew that pursuing and claiming their land rights would damage their relationships with their fathers, brothers and even mothers. Furthermore, a small parcel of land, without access to related infrastructure, services and network, is hardly a productive asset.

Another example of the challenges of gender work can be found in projects working on women and water. Reducing the numbers of the unserved and underserved is slow. More specifically, for the 844 million people still without basic domestic water, women and young women’s bodies have become a part of the infrastructure necessary to supply a household with water. Yet, not a single water project has enabled reflection and dialogue between women and men on how the responsibility for domestic water should and can be shared.

Shifting old power relations for new solutions 

Moving away from the old ways of talking about women and the environment, we need to acknowledge that ground realities are complex, and gender is not the only factor that determines a person’s relationship with the environment or opportunities for impacting it.

Structural barriers such as unequal power, culture, religion, politics and poverty stand in the way of transformational change. When these complexities are ignored in piecemeal gender work focusing just on involving women – transformational change will not happen.

Understanding that no easy solutions exist will be the first step toward improved gender outcomes. Our research focus also needs to shift from just analyzing what happens in farms and fields to critically reviewing key drivers of change processes in agriculture, water and environment, i.e., politics, power and capital. Further, we need to ask why innovations in policy, technology and industry are not engendered, why they have historically reiterated rather than resolved inequalities by gender. We need to align agendas of equality with sustainability – and do so in ways that are informed by aspirational changes of youth. Last, but not least, we need to ask if there is capacity, intent and motivation in institutions that matter at scale to plan, implement, facilitate and regulate transformative, sustainable and just solutions.

Realizing the developmental promises made to women demands much more than we have done to date is a first step. But our promise to create fairer futures for women everywhere can only start with changing the way we think about gender.

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