Students Reflect: Gender, Integrated Pest Management and the Road to Equitable Agriculture
This post is written by Sara Hendery, communications consultant for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management (IPM Innovation Lab).
Women make up nearly 40% of the agricultural workforce; however, they seldom have equal access to the time, information and resources necessary for growing abundant harvests.
Virginia Tech’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab, which introduces ecological farming strategies to farmers around the world, collaborates with Women and Gender in International Development (WGD), also housed at Virginia Tech, to address the gendered components of agricultural research.
The teams operate by two fundamental questions — how do the gender relations, norms and attitudes affect the impact and outcomes of IPM Innovation Lab research activities? How do IPM Innovation Lab research activities affect gender relations, norms and attitudes at the household and community level?
By conducting interdisciplinary research on gender issues within agriculture, the teams aim to increase opportunities for women in integrated pest management (IPM).
At the core of that goal is student research. Since the IPM Innovation Lab’s inception in 1993, the program has supported at least 600 graduate students, many of them exploring gendered disparities in the areas of agriculture, natural resource management, food security and beyond.
Maria Elisa Christie, director of WGD, remarked that student insight and involvement in gender research and international development brings an important nuance to the work.
“I have been fortunate to help guide many graduate students at Virginia Tech and universities in other countries to carry out gender-focused research in agriculture through the IPM Innovation Lab,” said Christie. “Students bring their intellectual curiosity, attention to detail and motivation to overcome challenges. They go beyond the anecdotes and stereotypes — or outright disinterest — about gender that we as senior gender scholar-practitioners unfortunately often see in our work. Not surprisingly, some answers students find are not as clear-cut as scientists would like, but value is in the subtlety, and this subtlety brings greater understanding to important gender issues.”
As International Women’s Day approaches, three graduated students supported by the IPM Innovation Lab and WGD reflect on their research, findings and the bigger dialogue surrounding women, agriculture and power. The summation of their experiences is simple — gender matters.
Robert Ochago, Ph.D. candidate, Wageningen University and Research
Kaitlyn Spangler, postdoctoral scholar, Penn State University
Laura Zseleczky, communications manager of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish
Q: Describe the gender research you conducted under the IPM Innovation Lab.
RO: Gender influences participation in farmer group activities, according to studies conducted in a variety of countries, with men and women facing different opportunities and limits. However, because gender is a fluid concept that changes over time and space, the situation in Uganda was likely to be different. In the Sebei and Bugisu subregions of Uganda, I was a part of a study done to evaluate the gender-based constraints and opportunities influencing smallholder farmer participation in a coffee IPM group.
KS: My research with the IPM Innovation Lab was part of the Asia Vegetable and Mango IPM project, specifically in the country of Nepal. During the summer of 2017, my research team and I conducted fieldwork across four villages in the midhills of midwestern Nepal through semi-structured interviews, gendered focus group discussions and participant observation with 109 farmers and key informants. We were most interested in understanding the intersections of IPM and male outmigration — or men leaving for work, either domestically or internationally, for months or years at a time — and how this affects and is affected by the feminization of agriculture — or the negotiation of household power and agricultural labor for those who remain at home.
LZ: My research focused on identifying the potential gender-based constraints and opportunities of introducing an IPM program for tomato farmers in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana. We studied men’s and women’s agricultural practices, knowledge, perceptions and access to resources. The goal was to better understand the gender dynamics of tomato farming and pesticide use so the IPM Innovation Lab could appropriately design a package of interventions that would equitably benefit men and women tomato farmers and help them reduce pesticide use.
Q: What were your major findings?
RO: A higher proportion of men compared to women reported high participation in the coffee IPM group activities. Women’s lower participation rate was attributed to their social status. Men were found to have a higher level of IPM knowledge for addressing the coffee stem borer pest compared to women. Farmers’ participation in the coffee IPM group was significantly influenced by their sex, interest in seeking coffee production information, quantity of coffee harvested, knowledge of coffee stem borer IPM practices and other factors.
KS: The feminization of agriculture has been divergently framed as either 1) an empowering process for women by providing them more opportunity to make decisions in their husband’s absence or 2) a disempowering one by increasing women’s labor burden of household and agricultural work without adequate change in decision-making power. Our research finds that these processes are nuanced within the complexities of daily livelihoods. Instead, we show that male outmigration provides an opportunity for individuals and households to renegotiate their prior gendered expectations, and the ways these are renegotiated are dependent on the household structure and preexisting power dynamics. We also show how important community spaces, such as IPM farmer group meetings and financial cooperatives, are for challenging societal gender norms. Therefore, the feminization of agriculture is occurring in complex ways within and beyond the household.
LZ: One of the key findings of this research was that gender roles and the gender division of labor can benefit and harm both men and women. In the study area, men had a higher risk of exposure to pesticides than women because pesticide application was considered “men’s work,” although women did face some exposure to pesticides when washing the field clothes of their husbands or selling produce that had been recently sprayed. Ultimately though, women lacked the access to labor, credit and transportation that would enable them to be as involved as men in the lucrative tomato sector. The economic and cultural capital returned to men, despite the hazards of pesticide exposure, placed them at a distinct advantage as compared to women. We concluded that the adoption of IPM methods by tomato farmers could significantly reduce their exposure to toxic chemical pesticides, but any IPM program would need to be developed in collaboration with the farmers to ensure it did not increase burdens in unequal ways (e.g., increasing weeding, a task considered “women’s work in many areas,” due to reductions in chemical herbicides).
Q: How do you feel your research contributes to bigger conversations surrounding women, agriculture and power?
RO: According to the findings, research and development approaches that use groups should conduct a gender analysis with the goal of identifying and addressing women’s strategic needs and barriers to involvement in commercial enterprises, such as coffee group activities. Additionally, men and women should engage in communication and information exchange to ensure a more equitable distribution of the coffee IPM group’s benefits. Finally, interventions should target averagely experienced coffee farmers who engage in both on-farm and off-farm income-generating activities in order to increase farmer group participation.
KS: I think any chance we can get (as researchers, citizens, activists, etc.) to ask women directly to tell their stories and share their experiences is immensely important. My research helps to elevate the complexity of these stories, especially when we may be tempted (again, as researchers) to sum it all up in a convenient, oversimplifying narrative. It also emphasizes the reality that women have always been and continue to be essential to agriculture globally, and their roles and expectations are evolving alongside other globalizing forces.
LZ: My research was part of a larger, crosscutting effort to understand how gender relations can affect and be affected by the work of the IPM Innovation Lab. I think it is so important that Innovation Labs prioritize this kind of research because unequal gender dynamics can undermine the potential benefits of the technologies and innovations they are working to develop. In the case of my research, I learned so much about the nuances of where women and men did and did not have power in the tomato value chain. So often, it’s not as simple as “women are empowered” or “women are disempowered,” and I think the gender research through the IPM Innovation Lab is filling critical knowledge gaps about how men and women can engage with its technologies and practices in ways that benefit everyone more equitably.
Q: In what ways did you or do you still use what you gained from your IPM Innovation Lab/WGD research in your past or current work?
RO: In 2000, I became a program officer on gender with Sasakawa Global, implementing the Gender for Growth project in Uganda’s crop value chains. I conducted a gender capacity assessment and trained staff on how to incorporate gender issues into their project work on a day-to-day basis and conducted a gender analysis among the beneficiaries. I developed training materials and delivered them across many platforms, including radio commercials and gender-based talk shows across Uganda’s four local radio stations, the shows of which are still in use today. I also became a gender-based monitoring and evaluation specialist with [International Livestock Research Institute] ILRI Uganda and implemented the CGIAR Livestock and Fish research program’s gender strategy in the Uganda pig value chains project with the support of the gender team from ILRI headquarters, among other roles in which I have continued to use this relevant work.
KS: My research with the IPM Innovation Lab and WGD was the first time I really got to dig deep into qualitative methods, feminist thought and, really, the research process in its entirety. Those experiences have proven fundamental to my continuing career through my Ph.D. and now my work as a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State. I have carried on the importance of building theory, of asking critical questions and of taking care to share and value people’s stories.
LZ: I now work as the communications manager of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish, so while I’m no longer conducting research, my experience with the IPM Innovation Lab and WGD gave me a great appreciation for how the research process works in an innovation lab and a familiarity with issues related to gender and international development. I think this background has been so helpful in preparing me to better communicate the findings and successes of the Fish Innovation Lab.