Equity Actually in Agriculture, Not Always Equality

in Research , Tagged Gender Equality Strategies, gender equality, Agriculture.
  • Barbara Chambers

    Barbara Chambers

    Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra

    Barbara Chambers is an Adjunct Professor in International Development Research with the Australian Institute for Sustainable Communities, Faculty of ESTeM. She worked recently in two agricultural social science projects with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, one in the Central Highlands of PNG with the University of Tasmania, the National Agricultural Research Institute and Fresh Produce Development Agency in PNG. The other was in Pakistan with UC researchers’ Dr John Spriggs, Adjunct Professor in International Development Research, Professor Rob Fitzgerald, Dr Sandra Heaney-Mustafa and Pakistan researchers Sajida Taj, Nadeem Akmal, Tehmina Mangan and Mustafa Nangraj.


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In PNG and Pakistan the tussle over gender ‘equality’ or ‘equity’ is more than just semantics. When it comes to women working in agriculture in developing nations Professor Barbara Chambers, from the University of Canberra, argues women need equity well ahead of equality.

Equitable treatment and opportunities might be more relevant to developing agricultural societies than equality, if that means ‘sameness’. Gendered roles in agriculture are strongly drawn and men are often the ones who manage the long-distance marketing of produce and therefore the ones who get the first, if not only access to profits.

Drawing on social science projects undertaken by UC researchers for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, it became apparent that equality in agriculture in developing countries, such as the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Pakistan, is often not as important to poor and marginalised women as equity.

Women contribute to their families’ wellbeing in several ways, and they want to feel valued for the work they do.

Women contribute to their families’ wellbeing in several ways, and they want to feel valued for the work they do. Their contributions can take many forms. It may involve selling surplus supply to village or local markets; collaborating on agricultural production, harvesting and packaging produce; or engaging in dressmaking and embroidery, weaving baskets or cloth, or making billums.

In developing countries, traditional roles in agriculture are more embedded than Western norms. As such, often it is a matter of being valued for your difference, rather than seeking sameness, that matters most. Paraphrasing the words of the women themselves:

We don’t always want to do what men do, or if we do then we need them to pick up some of our labour and release time for us to be equally involved in traditional men’s roles in agriculture. In PNG, we would like access to land for the crops we like to grow, to seed, to equipment that we can easily use, to safe markets and to benefit financially from our labour so that we can reinvest in our contribution to a sustainable livelihood. In the Central Highlands of PNG, we would like to be literate in our language, learn about basic farm business, horticulture, post-harvest technology and budgeting. Most of all we want to safely engage in long distance markets and to sustain our family’s food and nutrition, buy in that which we don’t grow, to support our wantok (relatives to whom we have a financial obligation) and to be able to pay school fees and bride price.

In Punjab rural villages of central Pakistan, some of us want our daughters to have the freedom to learn about computing and mobile phones, leave the village for education and work, but often our culture and religion don’t support this. If I am not culturally allowed to work in agricultural production, then treat me equitably and let me add value to crops such as mango and citrus by making pickles, dried fruit or jam. If our men traditionally look after cattle and milk marketing, then let us get more involved in calf raising, or making cheese and butter from milk.

However, there are institutional arrangements, especially those at the macro-societal level, where equality is sought by women with a higher education level in developing countries. Equal access to schooling and higher education, politics and employment are increasingly demanded by women leaders in these countries.

Gendered power relations, in these traditional male cultures, often mean that women’s voices are not heard or listened to by men. Even in research conducted by physical scientists, women’s perspectives on possible improvements to livelihoods through new techniques or training are not taken into account.

Male scientists may argue that as women are not directly involved in agricultural production and long distance marketing, they do not need to be consulted about innovations, or canvassed in household and farm surveys. This ignores the fact that changes and developments have significant impact on women and their families, especially with respect to livelihoods.

Women contribute to their families’ wellbeing in several ways, and they want to feel valued for the work they do. 

The high levels of domestic violence in developing nations is well documented, with rates of violence against women in PNG among the highest in the world. Domestic violence is often an outcome of women demanding equality, or at the very least, a greater say in household decision making. Interventions based on improving equality by out-country researchers and aid workers may therefore result in harm. Department of Foreign Affairs guidelines on improving the equality of women and girls also counsels a ‘do not harm’ approach.

In recent ACIAR projects aimed at improving women’s business acumen, it has been demonstrated that engaging the whole family in analysing and deconstructing the roles played by men and women and children is more successful in bringing about change. A more nuanced approach appears to have a greater impact on changing gendered roles and on improving gender relations.

When men value the diverse ways women are able to contribute to a sustainable family income, for example, in the selling and possible export of traditional crafts, such as bilums or string bags or selling surplus produce to the local market, then an equitable relationship is established. This may be the first step towards gender equality for women smallholders in the Central Province of PNG.

[i] Socioeconomic agricultural research in Papua New Guinea, ACIAR Proceedings 141, Lae, PNG, 5-6 June, 2013 pp 67-115.


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  • Mustafa Nangraj 06/02/2018 1:14pm (2 years ago)

    Dear Barbara.
    It is true that female role in development of agriculture and boosting livelihood opportunities for rural population in developing countries is important but they are living in very hard situation. They are not on the priority of the policies as desired. In these countries actually updated academic social research work is not done as desired to find out the ways to empower females and give actual role to the females. Congratulations to you for this article to highlight females

  • ARNAB CHAKRABORTY 31/03/2017 11:14pm (3 years ago)

    Very well written and very much contextual. It is very true that for times of immemorial past women were denied the social status and the identity which they very well deserve. We are trying to do similar kind of things in the tribal hinterlands of West Bengal

  • Barbara Chambers 10/03/2017 2:28pm (3 years ago)

    I have been asked to convey by readers that the pale gray font is apparently almost impossible to read on a mobile phone. Thanks

  • babar 09/03/2017 5:12pm (3 years ago)

    Very good analysis.

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