Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Empowering Women for Success in Agriculture

By Paige Castellanos, Penn State University

The roadblocks preventing girls from entering the field of agriculture are creating a growing problem for food security and agricultural production, particularly in low and middle income countries. Analyses of agricultural education and training (AET) systems indicate that women are underrepresented in all roles throughout institutions and generally lack access to agricultural innovations and inputs. In parts of the world such as Africa and Southeast Asia, girls have lower enrollment rates at all levels of education. In higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up less than 35 percent of students majoring in agricultural fields and in many other developing countries, less than 25 percent. This underrepresentation is juxtaposed with evidence from the World Bank that shows women make up an estimated 43 percent of the agricultural workforce, and that equalizing women’s access to resources could increase agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 percent to 4 percent.

The Innovation in Agricultural Training and Education—InnovATE—project investigates gender-specific barriers to participation in AET programs and higher education, as well as pathways to success. AET institutions must capitalize on the strengths of female students and simultaneously empower women to make a global impact.Training women scientists in Mali. Photo credit: OIRED, Virginia Tech

Barriers to Agricultural Education             

Institutional limitations, infrastructure issues, as well as socio-economic and socio-cultural differences, influence the ability of women and girls to access education at all levels. Agriculture students in Cambodia, South Sudan and Mozambique all mentioned as a barrier to girls’ education the costs of education and families choosing to send sons instead of daughters to school. 

Agriculture-specific barriers can also reduce women’s participation. These could include a negative perception of agricultural work and women’s physical abilities, lack of preparation in the sciences in secondary schools, gender-biased pedagogy and curriculum, and safety concerns. In Bangladesh, students identified as gender constraints in AET “conservative ideas” and religious views that women should not work in remote areas or study and should stay home.

Characteristics of Success

Despite all these challenges, the personal stories our researchers heard revealed courageous, perseverant women who were excited to work in agriculture and unwilling to let any gender-based obstacle deter them. One woman student in Bangladesh said, “Women think they can do it even if men think they can’t.” Another woman student in Cambodia said, “I never listen to people who say ‘she cannot do it.’ I only listen to me, and listen to the people who encourage me.” A woman student in Mozambique talking about working in rural areas said, “They [men] will think that we are scared, that we are not strong, but in reality we are not scared of anything.” The characteristics of these successful women in agriculture generally fell into these categories: family support, awareness of agricultural careers, and individual determination and confidence. The trick is in encouraging the development of these characteristics.

Creating Pathways to Success in Agriculture

Clearly, gender equity is a complex problem that requires an integrated approach. Some concrete steps to breaking down the existing barriers for girls in agriculture are:

  • creating awareness about agricultural careers through mentorships and career counseling;
  • developing gender-sensitive curricula; and
  • investing in improved infrastructure that recognizes gender differences and that allows girls to be inspired and to actively engage with global agricultural issues.

The success stories demonstrate a need to deliberately cultivate confidence and leadership among women in agricultural education. Finding women role models and encouraging mentoring is important to success. One woman studying at university in Mozambique recounted that she saw “a woman who was an agriculture engineer and had a big rice field and told people about things. She had a big field; she had freedom.”

Creating a dialogue can increase awareness of these issues and spur proactive solutions. In the coming blogs, we will go into more depth on specific challenges for women in developing countries. We invite you to discuss these urgent issues and share your experiences in the comments below. 

The quotations from agriculture students in this post can be found in InnovATE’s thematic study, Mainstreaming Gender in AET: Overcoming Challenges through Policies and Practices by Emily Van Howeling (University of Denver), Maria Elisa Christie (Virginia Tech) and Asha Abdel-Rahim (University of Juba, South Sudan).