Feed the Future
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Starting Point for Addressing Infrastructure-Related Safety Concerns for Women in Agriculture Education and Training

By Paige Castellanos, Penn State University

Unsafe situations both on university campuses and during agricultural fieldwork sometimes limit women’s participation in agricultural education and training (AET). Along with encouraging girls’ to select careers in agriculture, it is also essential that institutions are able to provide the necessary infrastructure that enables women’s participation.

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. Our researchers conducted interviews and focus groups about the constraints and opportunities faced by female students and faculty members in agriculture education and vocational training in four countries—South Sudan, Mozambique, Bangladesh and Cambodia—and a regional conference workshop in Mozambique. Safety concerns related to infrastructure emerged as a major topic.
 Taking a break from work in Mali. Photo credit: OIRED, Virginia Tech

Safety Concerns

Structural issues range from poor lighting, private and secure bathrooms, on campus housing to reliable transportation. In Cambodia, students mentioned that dormitories are more important for women because men can stay in Buddhist pagodas or communities. Even course schedules can pose a problem—female university students in Mozambique noted that they felt unsafe walking across a dark campus to seek public transportation for early or late classes.

Additionally, girls and women face the risk of sexual harassment or abuse while living away from home and working in a male-dominated field. Sexual discrimination and harassment coupled with the lack of any recourse for such behaviors impede women’s education. Secondary school girls in Mozambique gave multiple examples of male teachers soliciting sex in exchange for good grades. A lack of economic resources and support network or prohibitive socio-cultural norms can further complicate these issues.

Parents’ apprehensions of the risk can magnify the problem as parents worry about their daughters’ safety and guide them to other areas of study.  A Cambodian woman student explained, “A big problem that my parents worry about for me is about security for the girl. They worry for men too, but men can take care of themselves.” Cultural norms reinforce the desire to keep women and girls safe, and the dangers may be augmented by fear.

The perceptions of rural areas are also restrictive in that women from cities are warned of the dangers of remote rural locations. Additionally, in all of the countries where our experts conducted research, there was some social stigma associated with women taking trips to remote areas alone with men who are not their husbands. Women are more likely to stay close to their husbands or families, limiting their ability to participate in some agriculture programs. As one woman faculty member in South Sudan shared, “We would like to work in the field as an extension service, but, we afraid we might face problem with the family [sic].”

Starting Point

Addressing structural issues requires first recognizing that things like course schedules, bathrooms, lighting, child care and housing may be limiting factors for women. Second, institutions should demonstrate their commitment to inclusive programs with a policy audit that examines all existing policies for gender sensitivity and identifies gaps.

When we talk about infrastructure, most people think about money—buildings cost money. Clearly, affordable and safe housing in education institutions are essential. However, infrastructure changes can start with policy changes and planning that is gender sensitive. 

For example, to reduce the safety risks while conducting fieldwork, students should work in teams. These teams can be divided by gender if necessary. Many students and faculty members suggested working with parents to assuage fears. Workshop participants in Mozambique recommended that institutions host a family day twice a year on campus to help parents feel comfortable with the school and its facilities as suitable for their daughters.   

Broader policies that prevent discrimination, sexual harassment and violence need to be adopted.  Mechanisms must be in place for reporting abuse where victims are not at additional risk for retaliation.  Trainings can provide added opportunity to reduce the risk for female students and create a shift in the perception of sexual assault victims.

Change is Possible

Makerere University in Uganda has implemented a campus-wide gender sensitivity program that includes widespread training in gender awareness and analysis and changes in the entire university curriculum to include gender issues. This successful example of gender mainstreaming did not happen over night. The initiative began in 2001 and since has been incorporated into every aspect of the university’s planning and curriculum.

Recognition of the infrastructure-related issues and a policy audit provide a starting point for improving the conditions that will allow more women to engage in agricultural work.  By providing increased opportunity, we are developing high quality workers and scholars that will be dedicated to global issues such as hunger and poverty. 

The quotations from agriculture students and faculty 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).