CGIAR Gender News

Naila Kabeer’s Seeds of Change harvest: a ‘simple’ question of respect and equality

Seeds of Change participants Photo: Patrick Cape/ACIAR.

During the Seeds of Change conference, we approached several people from the ‘Gender in Agriculture’ crowd to interview them on their work, on their insights about the conference and their outlook on the next frontiers of our field of research. Find an overview of all conference related outputs here.

Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics (photo credit: Sean Davey / ACIAR)

In this very special interview, we are privileged to feature eminent scholar Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. Kabeer reflects on gender in agriculture, her life lessons on gender and suggestions on areas to further explore and for future scientists to take at heart.

What is at stake with gender in agriculture – where are the key opportunities in this domain?

We know that less and less is being contributed by agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) across the world, yet in Asia and Africa, large numbers of women remain in agriculture. Large sections of agriculture are often neglected because of the preoccupation with commercialization and exports. But quite a lot of agriculture is about meeting the basic subsistence needs for food, particularly among poorer farmers, and this very often is regarded as the domain of women farmers. So it is their labor and efforts that are being overlooked.

The challenge is how to increase the productivity of subsistence agriculture so people can live off of it but also have some surplus to invest, to save and to build sustainable pathways out of poverty.  The background to this challenge is that we are living in an era of environmental degradation, liberalization of everything which permits the legal grabbing of land in vast tracts of the developing world. This makes the possibility of systematic support to poorer farmers even harder. I also worry about the extent to which agriculture is becoming industrialized. What impact does the widespread use of chemicals in agriculture and genetically modified crops have on our health and on the environment?

What is the future of gender and what is the role of researchers there? Is (women’s) ‘empowerment’ the ultimate destination? And is this controversial?

For many people, the idea of women’s empowerment is (still) controversial because they link it to some notion of a feminist take-over of the world!  That is because the idea of power has always been associated with domination and oppression.  But what feminists are talking about is the democratization of the relations of everyday life across all sections of society. We are asking for the democratization of life within the family, within the productive domain and in the domain of policy and politics. We are asking that men, women and children in all sectors of society be treated with respect and given equality of voice in the decisions that matter to them.

We are asking for the democratization of life within the family, within the productive domain and in the domain of policy and politics. We are asking that men, women and children in all sectors of society be treated with respect and given equality of voice in the decisions that matter to them.

If there is something controversial about that it is that we asking to replace the older notions of power as domination that fueled patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism with a more democratic distribution of power.  So it is likely to be controversial for those who took their inherited privileges for granted. The role of feminist researchers is to promote this vision of democracy through their work, to demonstrate the injustices and the utter waste of human resources that inequalities of power and privilege have entailed. And it is to work with others to shift the social arrangements of our society in order that we can realize the full human potential for work, care and creativity in all spheres of life.

What data and evidence should CGIAR and others in this ‘gender in agriculture’ domain provide for the wider gender community and cause?

At the moment, I have been very involved in trying to draw attention to a category of work that does not quite fall into the category of ‘production’ or of ‘care’.  I think a great deal of unpaid productive/reproductive work that is left out of estimates of economic activity because it is not done for the market but goes beyond cooking, cleaning and caring for the family which is how care tends to be defined in industrialized economies.

It includes homestead cultivation, harvesting wild foods, gathering fuel and water, looking after livestock and is generally carried out by women in rural areas more generally although poorer women in urban areas may also have to spend long hours getting water, where there is no piped water, getting access to food rations and so on.

A great deal of this unpaid subsistence work is essential to farming families and to the economy more generally, it is time-consuming and demanding but it tends to be invisible to policy makers and very often to feminists who live in the Global North.

If we want a better understanding of how economies work, how production and reproduction is organized in different parts of the world and what lies behind women’s time poverty in different contexts, we need greater attention to this aspect of unpaid work.

What did life teach you that strongly influenced your work as gender specialist?

I was brought up in South Asia: born in India, migrated at a very young age to what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but spent my school years in a Catholic boarding school in what was then Assam (now Meghalaya). One reason for sending me to a Catholic boarding school was that my parents were both secular and liberal and believed that this one would give me the best education they could afford. It was a great school, not at all restrictive or dogmatic.

Between my school and my parents, I was never exposed to the idea that as a girl, I was somehow of lesser value – a big advantage for girls growing up in South Asia. My mother was an academic but also always an activist so that added to the mix.

What drives me now, what I care about, is that women and girls everywhere should believe in their own equal worth and that society should believe in it too. I feel very strongly about how society devalues certain people, both men and women, does not listen to them, makes them invisible. My research started out with trying to understand how power works in the devaluation of women, particularly from low income households,  how it silences them, undermines their agency, denies them voice and influence in their own lives and in their communities but I have expanded my research to explore questions of child labor, people from lower castes and other marginalized groups.

If there is any coherence to be found in my work, it is that I am trying to bring to life the experience of those that are excluded. I hope that the kind of research I do, which is concerned with the empowerment of these groups through collective action, will contribute to a broader political agenda for the democratization of social relations across society.

Any advice for young/starting gender scientists?

Please take mixed methodology seriously!

Mainstream economics continues to exercise far too much influence in the social sciences so that there is too much preoccupation with modelling and prediction and not enough with understanding the world. Understanding our societies requires us to be open, pluralistic and flexible in our methods. We can take advantage of the rigor and the generalizability of the numbers, but we should also use qualitative methods of various kinds (archival research, ethnography, participant observation, life histories) to flesh out what the numbers mean.

Anything that inspired you from the Seeds of Change conference so far?

Katherine Gibson’s keynote perhaps didn’t go far enough, there was not enough time, but it triggered one of the most pressing questions we face today: how do we tackle the alarming global picture that she painted of climate change with her graphs and statistics with the local level action that will reverse this trend. This is a problem that is happening at the global level but it cannot be tackled without change at the local level.

I am guilty of many of the actions that contribute to this problem so I am having to make some fundamental changes in how I live. I haven’t got there yet! 

Watch Naila Kabeer’s public lecture at Seeds of Change: