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

Male Out-Migration: A Change in Households, a Change in Public Spaces

Nepal is a nation marked by one of the world’s most unique terrains, where climate and vegetation shift like an emerging seed. Most residents are involved in small-scale agriculture, but commercial and household agricultural production depends significantly on the availability of resources and climatic factors. In 2017, a Virginia Tech graduate student conducted research that showed agricultural outcomes are not just dependent on natural spaces, but human-made ones, too. 

Kaitlyn Spangler is now an alumna of the Geography Master’s program at Virginia Tech, where she also worked as a Graduate Research Assistant for Women and Gender in International Development (WGD), under Director Maria Elisa Christie. She spent two months in the Surkhet District of Nepal, where she conducted 57 household interviews, 11 key informant interviews and seven focus group discussions, as well as participant observation, studying the gendered implications of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) among smallholder farmers.

Spangler’s research underlined how male out-migration, where (mostly) men leave rural environments for urban work, has shifted women’s attendance and participation at IPM meetings and other places where agricultural decisions are deliberated.

“Women have long been engaged in agricultural activities in Nepal,” Spangler said, “but in the communities I studied, they haven’t necessarily been directly involved in agricultural production. Women I interviewed said that ten years ago they did not frequently leave the house without permission. Now, in migrant households, the eldest woman and/or daughter-in-law is often a member of the IPM farmer group to represent the household. They learn about IPM at group meetings and teach the rest of their household or perform it themselves.” While some men still do learn and practice IPM before or after they migrate, the IPM technology adoption process is primarily enacted by the women of the household who remain in the community, she said.  

Spangler’s research also showed that women have assumed leadership roles in spaces like farmer group cooperatives, savings and credit cooperatives, market places and IPM research plots during periods of male out-migration. Further, women who are leaders in the IPM farmer groups reported that they are now able to speak in front of large groups more so than they were before participating.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management, which collaborates with the Women and Gender team and funded Spangler’s research, aims to diminish crop damage in developing countries and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through IPM strategies. The subtle, but common, changes occurring at the household level in Nepal, according to Spangler’s research, could have implications for the Innovation Lab’s execution of agricultural extension activities, like farmer field days, workshops, trainings and more.

“The spaces where people gather and how people gather are changing,” Spangler said. “In addition to women participating more in farmer groups in general, my research showed that men and women are also interacting with one another in public agricultural spaces more frequently now than ten years ago. The use of these community spaces for collective agricultural decision-making helps share the risk of using new agricultural technologies. With that in mind, agricultural extension activities must not only utilize farmer groups as a convenient place for information dissemination; extension services should help enhance the social benefits and gender-transformative potential of group dynamics and active participation.”

Women’s formal decision-making authority and political participation has often been disproportionate to men’s, evidenced by a history of unequal access to natural resources, education, formal land rights and agricultural technologies. The patterns of participation in Spangler’s research, while not derivative of all men's and women’s experiences, does suggest, however, that public spaces are beginning to become more inclusive, which is a shift in terrain that is fertile, expanding and welcomed.  

“Developing, disseminating and supporting new agricultural technologies, such as IPM, is a key part of sustainable food production as competition for land use, natural resources and political power intensifies,” Spangler said. “However, adoption of such technologies is complicated and dynamic. A more thorough understanding of the social factors that underlie rural spaces at the individual, household and community levels is essential to motivating lasting and beneficial change.”

In Nepal, the valleys run deep, bathing the nation in low, supple curves, while mountain ranges undulate high and wide, hitting some of the uppermost cavities of the sky. On the heels of Spangler’s research, it is following variations more closely that might be the key to a more applied, equitable and educational agricultural system.  

 Written by Sara Hendery