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

Nurturing Connections for More Gender-Equitable Agricultural Communities

Uproarious laughter echoes through the cashew trees as the group from Napalakaha village in northern Cote d’Ivoire watches a respected local elder enthusiastically pretending to pound cassava roots like a little girl, only to get a scolding from a local young man, acting the part of his mother, that he is making a mess and "no one likes a messy girl!" A woman in the audience slaps her leg with glee and exclaims in Senufo, “It’s exactly that!” 

Despite the fun, the group is, in fact, exploring gender norms and the role of society in sensitizing boys and girls into male and female roles. After a couple more men play-act a mother instructing a daughter on how to be a good girl, the women will take the stage in pairs to act out how men instruct sons on their roles as "good boys." Laughter will undoubtedly ensue, and then the group facilitator will use that as an entry to discussing the differences between the experiences of boys and girls, the lessons they are taught about their roles in society, and the ramifications of this for their opportunities and choices later in life.

This is one activity of Nurturing Connections, a participatory curriculum for exploring gender issues within agriculture, nutrition and health developed by Helen Keller International (HKI). The goal is helping women and men gain a greater recognition of women’s rights and abilities to contribute, both on and off the farm. Empowering women is central to allowing them to live a fulfilling, rewarding lives, and gender norms and rules within a society can strongly influence decision-making within agriculture. This is particularly true with respect to the division of labor and resources. For example, who gets to decide what land is used to grow which crops? These choices can have significant impacts on food availability, including diversity of nutrient-rich crops. Gender norms also affect whether the crops produced are consumed or sold and who within a household eats certain foods (and how often).[i] When women have greater influence over household decisions, income use and how to spend their own time, both their own nutrition and that of their families tends to improve. Empowerment can thus strengthen women’s contributions to food and nutrition security as food producers, income earners and caregivers.[ii]

Though women’s status in agriculture is not as limited as sometimes assumed[iii], in many parts of Africa women still have limited power to make decisions, have less access to land and resources, earn less from their labor than men do and must shoulder heavy burdens of unpaid work in caring for their families. Addressing malnutrition and equitably improving agricultural production thus require explicit effort to empower women as well as to encourage men to play a key role in caring for children and supporting their nutrition and health.

HKI’s nutrition-sensitive agriculture projects have regularly targeted women for training and input-provision, aiming to increase their knowledge, productivity, and earnings and therefore their status and power within their household and community. More recently, through the CHANGE (2013-2016) project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, we have worked to make empowerment more explicit and to more directly address the underlying social norms that constrain women’s choices through novel gender-transformative approaches. Gender-transformative work focuses on transforming the social norms, attitudes, behaviors and institutions that underlie or reinforce gendered inequalities, actively working to examine and overturn gender disadvantages and power imbalances.[iv] Such approaches recognize that women are not independently able to change such deeply held norms: social change requires the active participation of other members of households, communities and institutions.[v]

Nurturing Connections, originally developed by HKI Bangladesh and adapted for West Africa with the support of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), is one such approach. It is a four-month-long participatory curriculum, featuring weekly sessions held within peer groups (women, their partners/husbands and community leaders/elders) as well as one monthly community meeting in which participants from all three groups come together in a mixed group to explore the skills and knowledge acquired beyond the safety of the peer group. Sessions consisted of a series of participatory exercises about communication, gender or decision-making, such as the one described above.

An impact evaluation led by ICRW found that this curriculum fosters significant increases in shared decision-making across several key domains, including childcare, nutrition and domestic work, and livestock rearing, as well as smaller changes in intra-household communication and views on gender equity.[vi] In the long term, such changes may lead to increased agricultural productivity for women, greater purchasing power and improved household nutrition, sowing the seeds for healthier and more equitable agricultural communities.

[i] World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development. (2008). Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[ii] Golla A, Malhotra A, Nanda P, Mehra R. (2011). Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment: Definition, Framework, Indicators. Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women.

[iii] Doss C, Meinzen-Dick R, Quisumbing A, Theis S (2017). Women in Agriculture: Four Myths. Global Food Security, in press.

[iv] Hillenbrand E, Karim N, Mohanraj P, Wu, D. (2015). Measuring Gender-Transformative Change: A Review of Literature and Promising Practices (Working Paper). Atlanta, GA: CARE USA.

[v] Okali C. (2011). Achieving Transformative Change for Rural Women’s Empowerment. Paper presented at Expert Group Meeting: Enabling Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment: Institutions, Opportunities and Participation. Accra: UN Women.

[vi] Nordhagen S, Bastardes Tort C, Kes A, Winograd L. (2017) Nurturing Connections? Evaluating the Impact of a Women’s Empowerment Curriculum in Cote d’Ivoire. ICRW Working Paper. Washington, DC: ICRW.