“Why don’t they listen? If they planted this instead, they could sell it and make a profit.
The farmers are planting the wrong thing!” “The seeds are spaced wrong; they are too close together.”
“If they only mulched their field, there would not be so much evaporation.”
Farmers can always think of 100 ways a field could be improved. Even someone like me, who has a vegetable garden full of healthy weeds, can offer a village farmer suggestions for possible improvement.
And, in fact, that is part of our work at World Renew. The people we serve rely on what they can grow to live and their margin for error is slim. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about two-thirds of the developing world’s 3 billion rural people work land plots smaller than 2 hectares.
As climate challenges and soil depletion threaten productivity, these farmers’ small plots can’t produce enough to feed their families. So we introduce improved seeds with high germination rates; we teach farmers how to use organic compost to improve their soil; we suggest crops that need less time to mature and so remain robust after shorter rains; we offer better storage bags so farmers don’t lose crops to pests and mold.
These offerings aren’t wrong and they’re not unwelcome. But they aren’t enough.
Factors unrelated to agriculture impact families’ food security in surprising ways and part of our work is to understand and address those factors. In Malawi, cultural norms regarding gender roles dictate that women are in charge of the kitchen and men make decisions about money and what to grow. A woman does not decide what should be purchased to cook, but she is the one in charge of preparing the food.
So when we and our local partners offer nutrition training designed to combat malnourishment in children, men do not attend. Women attend because this is their domain. But while women may learn what they should feed their children or what they should eat, they can’t adopt these practices without their husband’s approval. They may want to prepare certain meals, but their partner may not agree to spending more money on food and even see his wife as greedy for requesting those foods.
Additionally, men here make decisions about how to spend the profits from their harvests. Because he is not thinking about the food the family will eat, a husband will spend the money on what he has prioritized to be important. If he decides to use the money on alcohol, a woman will not object because this is how it has always been. Women are often left to seek out casual labor in order to purchase food to cook.
These gender norms also hinder women’s access to information and training about new farming techniques. Trainings are seen as a man’s sphere and a woman is thought to be less able to understand trainings—and, even if she did, a woman would still need her husband’s permission to implement what she has learned. A husband who has not had the same training may not agree to strange, new ideas.
These gender norms can keep a family poor and struggling. Both men and women may not even see how these norms are harming their family. Women accept these standards because their parents and grandparents lived by them too.
As we work with our partners to implement projects that will hopefully help families to be healthier and food secure, we realize that we also need to help households identify for themselves how gender norms impact that effort. Once they identify these norms and their effects, men and women can begin to address them in their homes and their communities.
Entrenched beliefs around gender even impact our work with partner staff who may come to their work with these beliefs themselves, and so we ask them to evaluate their beliefs around gender as they hold similar conversations in the villages.
Please pray for us and our partners as we facilitate these sensitive conversations that can be seen as the imposition of western values.
May God be stirring all of our hearts and helping us all to see male and female as he sees them.