“Changing gender roles and responsibilities,” is an important topic of discussion in the world of agricultural research for development today. This is most often owing to the fact that males in India are often perceived as being more outgoing than females, or the simple fact that in most instances men have better access to information, resources, etc. than women. While there is no expectation of a complete reversal of this phenomenon, we do expect that women today, should at the very least have better access to information than they did in the past.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of whether this was the case, and whether there have been any changes in the role of women in rice production over the last decade, a survey (the results of which is yet to be published) of 1500 women farmers was conducted last year in 450 villages of India’s Eastern states (namely Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal).
One of the driving factors of change in the lives of women there is their affiliation to self-help groups. These groups are formed and usually supported by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and, increasingly, by government agencies. These are small voluntary associations of poor and marginalized people—preferably from the same socioeconomic background—whose structures, processes, and activities help members identify the problems they confront and seek solutions that they are both willing and able to implement.
The study reveals that over a period of 10 years, such types of institutional affiliation has increased from 17 to 36 percent. It shows that there is a statistically significant increased affiliation with these organisations among women, but a decline among male members of households. Does the rise in women’s affiliation with self-help groups mean women have become more outgoing and better informed? If yes, then what is the impact on their lives? Did affiliation with organizations decrease domestic violence, a problem for many in the region? Did it improve their decision-making authority assuming that they became better informed?
The access to information related to agriculture has significantly increased over this 10 year period. During this time, women’s access to information has increased from 7 percent to 16 percent, while that of male members increased from 33 percent to 50 percent. The main sources of information are input dealers, and agriculture extension agents. Television has also emerged as an important source of information. Does this mean improved agricultural practices surpassed traditional agricultural practices?
Another important driver of change is male out-migration. We see that remittances as a primary source of income have increased from around 2 percent to 6 percent over this same period. Does this mean out-migration has increased in the past 10 years? The census of India reveals that it did. Since it is primarily males who out-migrate, what exactly is happening to the wives who are left behind? It is, after all, many of them who are in the sandwich generation; who have to single-handedly take care of ageing parents (and in-laws), as well as also their own children. Another key question for these households concerns the impact of male out-migration on agriculture. Does it lead to the feminization of agriculture or mechanization of agriculture or perhaps even abandonment of agriculture?
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. While trends in key indicators are certainly informative, they do not allow us to understand, unpack and untangle the challenges associated with those indicators. We consider women’s participation in agriculture as promising and a stepping stone toward the feminization of agriculture. However, a nagging question is whether this leads to a dual burden of work.
Do women now have dual responsibility for both household chores and additional activities associated with being exposed to new technologies and improved agricultural practices? Another thread for discussion is as to whether women’s participation is by choice or compulsion, which does indeed make a difference. If women have newly established access to output markets (one of the positive indicators of empowerment), who controls the income earned as a result? If, due to the access to information, women can now go to market to sell their products but have no control over the earnings or finances, could we really call it ‘empowerment’?
Another example would be women who own certain assets like a television (brought as dowry through marriage) but have no control over that asset. In such a context, asset ownership lacks meaning as an indicator of empowerment or well-being. Thus, a seemingly positive indicator can become neutral or even negative when delved into more deeply.
This raises the point of how do we validly and reliably measure decision-making authority? How do we measure involvement in decision-making at the household level? Do women really get involved and voice their opinion or are they just agreeing to the decisions taken by the male members of the household? What is genuine ‘involvement’?
This begs the question, do we really capture ‘involvement’? Involvement in decision-making can be seen at various levels e.g. either just participating and acquiescing to the decisions taken, or voicing their opinions even when and if they are not given much weight, or a third, more positive option which would be voicing their opinion and being genuinely being heard. While probing deeply into decision-making, it is important to know the level of involvement because that can impact the interpretation of how we as researchers qualify empowerment.
As a gender specialist, I seek answers to such seemingly basic but ultimately complex questions. I am trying to answer questions about the ‘how’ and ‘why’, and in doing so, aiming to dig deeply into the subject and provide a comprehensive picture of changing gender roles and what empowerment truly means for poor women and men of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.
Note: this post was submitted by Sujata Ganguly, a gender specialist at the International Rice Research Institute. Sujata is based in New Delhi, India and recently participated in a three week workshop at Penn State University. The data that is referred to in this post was collected in December 2015. There has been no paper published at the time of the publication of this blog post. The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and cannot be taken to reflect the official opinions of the CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network.