Development practitioners are increasingly interested in examining the distributional impacts of technical change and innovations in agriculture. The general expectation should be that equal chance and opportunities are accorded to everyone regardless of class, caste, age and gender, for the betterment of any society. The realization that smallholder farmers do not have the same access to or even adopt agricultural technologies and innovations has led researchers to question why developed technologies are at best adopted at a slower rate or not adopted at all by all or some farmers? What kind of technologies do men and women adopt and what is it that influences their adoption, access and utilization?
ICRISAT, like other research and development institutions, has developed and promoted a number of innovative technologies in the field of agriculture and works hard at accounting for gender issues by ensuring equal distribution of those technologies to both men and women farmers. The Gender Unit of ICRISAT in Mali conducted a study in four regions (Kayes, Koulikoro, Segou and Sikasso) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC). The aim was to understand how women’s engagement in millet and sorghum innovations can contribute to their empowerment as well as to examine the cultural and economic factors related to the adoption of millet and sorghum varieties among farmers in the regions.
The study revealed that women’s overall involvement as independent growers of sorghum and millet was lower, about 10% for millet and 30% for sorghum, compared to men. Women do not cultivate millet as individual farmers on their own farms, although they participate in all its production activities on family collective fields, from harvest to post-harvest. The results of the study showed that even though women are differently engaged in the cultivation of millet and sorghum, their engagement depends on their social and age status (younger women versus old women). Older women whose sons are married are able to cultivate sorghum on their individual plots while younger women (daughters-in-law) are engaged as sources labor on family collective fields. Despite the fact that women are self-proclaimed ‘farmers’, their social status influences and sometimes determines their ability to produce or cultivate the cereal crop of choice independent of their spouses. For instance, in the study areas (Koutiala in Sikasso), only older women are considered as sorghum growers because they are often relieved of household chores by their daughters-in-law. Based on this specific social organization, division of labor and expectation, a female respondent reported that: “In our community, only elderly women who are have daughters- in-law have their own sorghum farms. Otherwise, young women don’t grow sorghum independently due to their participation in household farming activities”.
This clearly demonstrates that younger women are at best used as labor sources in the production of sorghum and millet for the ‘collective good’ of the household, following the unitary model that assumes that a family normally acts as one. The unpaid, unrecognized but significant contributions of these younger women to the family fields thus create an imbalance in benefit sharing, equity and the general welfare of the family. Thus, attempts to promote new crops or agricultural technologies have not fared as well as expected, partly because researchers and policymakers did not adequately consider different household members’ responsibilities in crop production.
Women generally face major constraints to millet and sorghum production and post-harvest activities including the inability to rent trucks, tractors or hire male family or community members to help in threshing grains. Other constraints women in rural societies like Mali face in cereal production are the difficulty in accessing improved seeds and other agrochemicals, lack of simple farm tools and equipment as well as fertile land for cultivation. Social norms and cultural beliefs that regulate division of labor among household members is another reason for women’s exclusion from actively deciding and pursuing their individual production and economic activities. It is generally accepted that “millet production is men’s work”. Women argue that the main reason for their low level of involvement in millet and sorghum innovations is related to the triple burden of reproductive, family and community productive roles.
Despite all the challenges, majority of women and households in low-income homes who cannot afford to rent threshing equipment manually thresh millet for income generation. Winnowing has become an alternative way for women to benefit from millet and sorghum crops by offering their services for special tasks culturally assigned as ‘women’s work’ (winnowing). The women organize themselves into groups and sell their labor (winnowing of millet and sorghum crops) to other farmers, for daily wages.
The women have ultimately turned their challenges and constraints into opportunities, thus paving a path to empowerment through a ‘female specialized activity’. Eventually, agricultural technologies cannot be the silver bullet to solving all problems for all people. The problems faced by the agriculture sector are multifaceted, including social conflict due to a diminishing natural resource base, changing demographics, climate change and migration. The complexity of these challenges therefore requires numerous and often overlapping solutions to mitigate them. Hence women in the sorghum and millet production regions of Mali have resorted to innovate for change to better their world #IWD2019 .
About the author
Jummai O. Yila
Scientist- Gender Research
ICRISAT, West and Central Africa