Visions of a sustainable food future

Jennifer Twyman, Social Scientist

“We can only begin to change gender norms if we are aware of them”

Creating more opportunities for women and men

On my first trip to Western Kenya in 2005, I visited a small orphanage where I was struck by how limited their future opportunities were. It taught me that opportunities are not equally distributed: some people have options, others don’t. I wanted to learn more about the processes creating these unequal outcomes, to find ways to reduce inequalities and create opportunities for those facing limited options.

As a gender researcher, I often wonder what it is we really want to achieve when we talk about concepts like “gender equity,” “gender equality,” and “women’s empowerment.” What would success look like? I believe all people should have opportunities and options to earn a living; to receive an education; and to have access to health care, nutritious food, clean air and unpolluted soils and water.

CIAT has been working to address these kinds of social issues for years. Today, gender research at CIAT includes identifying women’s contributions to agriculture and the rural economy. Agricultural systems – like all economic systems – rely not only on productive activities such as growing food, but also on care activities within the household. Looking after children, the elderly or sick, cooking, cleaning and washing are all activities that often go unnoticed – perhaps because they usually don’t have a tangible economic value. But food production can’t happen without this vital work going on behind the scenes.

On-going work to establish “gender inclusive” programs and policies that reflect the needs and preferences of men and women is also important. These efforts can contribute to more effective crop varieties and agricultural management practices for responding to climate change, for example.

This type of research is vital to creating more equal opportunities and improving rural development. Moving forward, we also need to better understand the social norms that influence what men and women of different social groups (ethnicity, race, age, class, etc.) should do. Sometimes these norms are so ingrained that we believe they limit what women and men are actually capable of doing. Recognizing how these norms affect our actions, and the impact of our research, is a crucial first step to having real impact on people’s lives. We can only begin to change gender norms if we are aware of them.

That’s why gender research isn’t just about, or for, women. It’s about men, too. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about recognizing the needs, preferences, and challenges of different groups of women and men.

So how can we achieve this? First, we should continue to work directly with rural communities, listening to what different groups of men and women need and want; understanding their own visions of the future. We can then provide information and research better aligned with their thinking.

Specifically, as agricultural researchers, we can provide women and men of all ages, ethnicities, and races with information, technologies, innovations and opportunities that give them the chance of a better life.

If we can do more work like this, we might then find that current and future generations have many more options for living the lives they want to lead.

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