Plant breeding for gender equality

How a plant breeding program empowered women in Syria

By Lucy Goodchild van Hilten - December 6, 2017  10 mins

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

Women’s empowerment through seed improvement and seed governance: Evidence from participatory barley breeding in pre-war Syria

Alessandra Galiè, Janice Jiggins, Paul C. Struik, Stefania Grando, Salvatore Ceccarelli
NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, Volume 81, June 2017, Pages 1-8

Ask a woman and a man what characteristics they look for in the crops they grow on their farm in the Middle East, and you’re likely to get different answers: the woman might want it to make elastic dough for bread, while the man might be looking for strength and height so the crop can be harvested with machines. Involving women in breeding the crop varieties they can choose from can have a big impact on empowering those women and helping them take control of their futures.

A plant breeding program in Syria showed just how big this impact could be. In an Atlas award-winning study in NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, Dr. Alessandra Galiè, currently working at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya followed 12 women from 10 households between 2006 and 2011 to see how taking part in the program would change their empowerment. This study also involved Dr. Grando and Dr. Ceccarelli from the ICARDA barley improvement program and Dr. Struik and Dr. Jiggins from Wageningen University.

“The program had been running for a while, and the idea was really to move it from involving only men to encouraging women to participate and making it a gender-responsive program,” Dr. Galiè explained. “In most countries, particularly in the Middle East, it is much easier to reach men with a new program than it is to reach women. But both women and men are involved in growing and using these crops, so it is important that we understand the needs, preferences and opportunities of both women and men that handle these seeds.”

The barley improvement program of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), coordinated a Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program in Syria, which involved the farmers in plant breeding to design and develop barley varieties that best meet their needs. They developed those varieties together and the farmers tested them on the ground until they reached the best results.

Together with the PPB team, Dr. Galiè organized exchange visits so the women taking part in the program in Syria could meet those involved in Jordan and exchange experiences. It soon became clear that many women had not become involved in the program previously because their husbands made all the decisions about the farm, even in cases when the women owned the land. They discussed what empowerment meant to the women, and what would be meaningful changes that they would see as milestones indicating progress in their empowerment. There was a significant change over the five-year study.

“It was actually quite amazing, it showed how comfortable and confident the women were becoming over time,” Dr. Galiè said. “At the very beginning, they would talk very little and be extremely shy. And then, by talking together in front of other women, and slowly, also men, they became much more confident. Both the women’s and my own understanding of empowerment changed so much because of discourse and interaction, and the way the discussion became richer and more interesting over the years.”

In one exercise, the women had to draw their picture of an ideal life and compare it to a picture of the life they expect to have in the future. Some of the ideal futures they wanted had a lot to do with being a good mother and a good wife. Dr. Galiè asked why, and one young woman explained: “You have that exposure to a lot of models of life, of lifestyles that a woman can have. Here in the village, we don't get that exposure. We can't even conceive of ourselves in different roles. And even now that we have been interacting with you and we know that there is something else there, it's best that we don't dream too much because we are never able to adopt this lifestyle.”

The study could help similar programs empower women around the world. “Responsive agricultural research for development is extremely important, because it does offer opportunities for change,” explained Dr. Galiè. “The program has more to offer if it responds to the need of women and men. And breeding programs can actually have an impact on the empowerment of women.”

A conversation with Dr. Alessandra Galiè

Women and men in the Middle East look for different characteristics in the crops they grow: men want them to be tall for the machines to harvest easily, but women want softer varieties that won’t hurt their hands when they harvest manually. Traditionally, men have made the decisions about what varieties to grow, but involving women in breeding programs could give them more control over their futures. We talked to author Alessandra Galiè to find out how incorporating gender into a plant breeding program empowered women in Syria, giving them food security.

In this podcast Dr. Alessandra Galiè talks about how a plant breeding program empowered women in Syria – and how the results could help change the lives of women farmers. Listen now

Could you give an example of gender differences in crop selection?

One interesting finding of the study is that, even when women and men were doing the same activities, gender would still affect their performance. Older women and men were allowed to sell seed, but not younger women. Men would be able to sell the seed far away from the community, while the older women were only allowed to sell the seed to other women within their community. That really affected the traits they were looking for: the men were looking for traits that based on the requests of urban consumers, while the women were basing their preferences on the requests of the women from the same village.

What did empowerment mean to the women? How did you measure that?

We sat with them at the very beginning of the project. We first organized an exchange visit between the women from Jordan, where the program was more successful in involving women, and the women and men from Syria. We sat down and we discussed with them why they had not been involved previously. They said, ‘the fields are usually in our husbands' names, so they decide what to do with the fields. And even if we owned the fields, it's still our husbands who decide how to use them.’

Decision making seems to be a very important indicator of empowerment for them. Some of the women had never heard of the program, so access to information became very important. Other women said, ‘in this village we do a lot of farm work but nobody calls us farmers. We are helping our husbands, despite that fact that we do most of the work.’ Recognition of the women as farmers became, again, an important indicator of the way we measure empowerment.

Over the course of your five years in Syria, did you see the change in these women?

Yes, it was actually quite amazing. We identified indicators of empowerment, and then I identified the tools I thought would help us track change in these specific indicators. It showed how comfortable and confident the women were becoming over time. At the very beginning, they would talk very little and be extremely shy.

And then, by talking together, in front of other women, and slowly, also talking in front of men, I think they became much more confident. You really saw how they were getting ownership of the whole process and how they were excited about talking about that. Also, their roles as farmers, rather than helpers on the farm, and knowledge became more accepted both by the women and their communities. Some women started supporting their household through the sale of the PPB seed and as a consequence, they had more decision making power in household matters.

It sounds like the research itself had an impact almost as much as the program.

That was actually one of the questions that we asked: how much was it the research itself that had an impact on empowerment? Clearly the research did have a role. The older women were explaining how you are supposed to behave as a woman in their community, and how the younger women were exposed to that discourse over time. The research was contributing to changes in empowerment by opening up the discussion, looking at different horizons and different lifestyles, but it was also a platform where women were reinforcing the gender stereotypes, where the young women were exposed to the gender norms.

What impact is the current situation having?

It's very hard to know. I'm still in touch with one specific community I was working with because one person from the community is living in Turkey now. Two years into the conflict, they were still relying on the seeds from the program to grow their varieties. The women at that point could access the seeds and eat, even though there was such a shortage of bread and food in general. I thought that was amazing.

What should be changed about what's being done? And how could the approach be scaled up to help more people?

Empowerment is not a linear progression. We were looking, for example, at human capital, and the first year we met the women scored themselves extremely high because they thought that they had all the possible knowledge about agriculture. The following year there was an international conference and after the conference, the women scored their human capital much lower. When we discussed why, they said, ‘because we got exposed to the wide world, and we understand now that there is so much that one could know about agriculture.’ Rather than being an indication of a decrease in empowerment the lower score was a necessary step to empowerment – they became much more self-aware.

In that sense, it's important that we don't come up with blueprints for empowerment. It really needs to be understood in the local context, what is meaningful for the women or the men in the communities, and how things change. I think it's very important to combine the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of empowerment.

The study also warned that unless the legislation regulating access to genetic material at international and national levels also supported women’s control over seed, efforts to enhance women’s empowerment like the ones promoted by PPB could be undermined.

Related resources

About NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences

NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences is the quarterly journal of the Royal Netherlands Society for Agricultural Sciences. NJAS publishes research on complex and persistent problems in agricultural production, food and nutrition security and natural resource management, focusing on research that is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. It also supports “creative researchers and out-of-the-box thinking in the domains of agriculture, food and environment.”

Elsevier Atlas

Science impacts everyone's world. With over 2,500 journals publishing articles from across science, technology and health, our mission is to share some of the stories that matter. Each month Atlas showcases research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. We hope that bringing wider attention to this research will go some way to ensuring its successful implementation.

With so many worthy articles published the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded "The Atlas" each month comes down to an Advisory Board. The winning research is presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and much more on the Atlas website.

We aim to showcase some of the articles that can make a real difference and hope you'll find this to be a valuable resource.

Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

After a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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