CGIAR Gender

Negotiating change in gender norms affecting agricultural innovation

Nairobi, Kenya 2017. Photographer: CIMMYT/ Peter Lowe

We are very pleased to release the GENNOVATE Methodology to mark International Women’s Day 2018! A collaboration engaging most CGIAR Research Programs, GENNOVATE is a qualitative research initiative that examines the role of gender norms in shaping agricultural and environmental innovation processes. Between 2014 and 2016, GENNOVATE teams gathered testimonies from more than 7,000 villagers residing in 137 agricultural communities spanning 26 countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Equal numbers of women and men of different age- and socio-economic groups shared their perspectives on and experiences with agricultural innovation processes in their villages.

Gender norms embody a society’s differential expectations about men’s and women’s proper roles and conducts. Sometimes, such norms pose constraints for experimenting with or taking up new agricultural or natural resource management practices – particularly for women. It takes agency to challenge prevailing norms, and those who do may face social consequences such as attacks to their reputation and social exclusion. Still, innovative women and men are confronting and sometimes reinventing these norms through everyday practices. These innovators are among the activists leading the way for transforming women’s lives.

Fluidity in gender norms

Patriarchal normative frameworks, which attach authority and provider roles to men, continue to prevail across most rural communities. Unsurprisingly, our case studies found it to be mainly men who learn about and avail of the latest agricultural technologies and practices.

Yet, while some contexts are more resistant to change, norms operate in fluid ways. The GENNOVATE cases plainly reveal women to be engaged in household decision making and agricultural innovation, despite facing more constraints than men.

-Patti Petesch, Marlène Elias and Lone Badstue

We uncovered evidence of norms relaxing even in some of the most conservative contexts. For example, in a large majority of villages, men and women expressed strong reactions against a vignette showing a woman (Aisha) as a successful trader and her husband (Ali) helping in housework. Reactions were disparaging as illustrated by this participant in the men’s middle class focus group of Tehsul, Afghanistan: “People will call [Ali] a spineless person. If [Aisha] has a husband, why would she need to go to the market? If the purpose is selling the crops in the market, why wouldn’t she ask her husband to sell her crops in the market?” Yet, in that same village, a female focus group member observed that, out of necessity, an extremely poor woman could be vending “some homemade items or dairy products.”

Across our data, we have many reports of normative expectations around women’s economic roles loosening for very poor women and for women who run their own households. Depending on contexts, local norms may also vary for women of different religions, levels of education, and whether single, married, mother of small or older children etc. Indeed, we found endless variability in the tightness of local dictates – they are not universal. The more we probed our data, the more we found different women and men negotiating their way around sticky norms.

In a village of Nigeria, Ilu Titun, women are active traders but report strong expectations to defer to their husband’s authority. In focus groups, women of Ilu Titun perceived that only married couples who were loving and conducted their affairs in private would be able to decide together over the share of a wife’s crop to be sold. If such a couple were open about their joint decision-making, “People might tell [the husband] that he is the head and so must make all the decisions concerning their agricultural activities.”

Although less frequent in the sample, men and women also described normative change (acceptance of a new norm as opposed to normative fluidity) to beliefs and practices that are openly supportive of innovative women. For example, in a men’s middle-class focus group from Prem, India, participants considered the couple’s reputation to be a 'non-issue', and related how women are now actively selling in their market. They say, however, that a few years ago everyone was making fun of a local woman for carrying her crop on a bicycle to sell in the market, “But as she started to become successful, people’s opinions changed. Now she is revered and people talk to her with respect and even seek her advice.

It takes a village…

It takes a village to change norms. Normative relaxation and change is stressful due to the uneven and uncertain ways in which norms are contested and upheld in practice. Vignette testimonies in our case studies shed light on the gender power relations that underpin restrictive norms as well as on the more hidden pathways through which women pursue rural livelihood initiatives. They reveal opportunities that can be harnessed to open up the possibilities for innovation available to women – and men – in agriculture and environmental management. Supporting critical reflection and lifting normative barriers are a critical part of fostering transformative change in women’s lives.

GENNOVATE’s methodology stimulates dialogue and allows women and men to critically reflect on the gender norms that shape their lives, how these may be changing, and their desirability. This reflection can be transformative, accelerating change towards more inclusive, enabling gender norms. It is our hope that the GENNOVATE methodology introduced here offers women as well as men access to and benefits from agricultural innovation and other opportunities in their communities.

This blog was written by Patti Petesch (consultant and expert adviser to GENNOVATE, Washington DC, USA), Marlène Elias (Gender Research Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, Bioversity International, Rome, Italy) and Lone Badstue (Gender Research Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Programs on WHEAT and on MAIZE, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Texcoco, Mexico).

GENNOVATE is a cross-CGIAR qualitative, comparative research initiative that aims to provide authoritative "bottom-up" research to advance gender-transformative approaches and catalyze change in international agricultural and natural resource management research for development. The GENNOVATE Methodology Guide highlights key elements of GENNOVATE’s design and approach to managing the fieldwork and the seven data collection instruments applied in each community. For more information, visit