Africa: Women Scientists Face Tough Choices

Rufaro Madakadze, a horticultural scientist with the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA)
12 March 2012
guest column

Rufaro Madakadze, a horticultural scientist with the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA), was visiting a student recently in northern Ethiopia to discuss her acceptance into an elite crop-breeding program in South Africa. The student was one of a privileged few, and the only woman, who had been accepted by a program set up by AGRA to train the next generation of African farm scientists at African universities. And so Rufaro, who heads up the education and training work at AGRA, was shocked when the young, aspiring scientist told her she would not be able to attend.

Her husband, she said, would not allow it. She had a choice: divorce or abandon hope of a degree.

All too often, these are the choices that talented, young African women looking for careers in science are forced to make. Programs focused on empowering women in any sector, particularly in agriculture, must take into account these trade-offs and be flexible enough to ensure the needs of women are served.

Although women are the bulk of the farm workforce, it is men who are the researchers leading farm innovation, men who are the government officials making farm policy, and men who are the extension workers advising farmers. This gender imbalance perpetuates the inequality of women farmers.

This week hundreds of experts, World Food Prize laureates, ministers, farmers, gender experts, leading scientists, community leaders and innovators are meeting in New Delhi for the first ever Global Conference on Women in Agriculture, sponsored by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) as part of their Gender in Agriculture Partnership (GAP) program.

The conference aims to address the underlying causes of the gender gap in agriculture and find ways to increase support for efforts that are already working on the ground. The meeting comes at a time when donors, governments and development groups are looking to foster a "culture of gender equality" which will cater to the needs of aspiring young women scientists who have to balance the demands of children and family with the rigors of their course work.

"Three-day trainings and certificates and other short-term interventions look good on paper but they ... do not produce leaders," says Madakadze. "Real change requires a transformation in the way programs are structured."

African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) is a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. The program has 250 African women agricultural scientists from 11 countries in its fellowship. They will benefit from a two-year program focused on mentoring partnerships, science skills and leadership development.

The stakes are high.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report estimates that opening up access for women farmers to extension services, credit, fertilizer, improved seed and other farming requirements could increase total agriculture output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent--or approximately 100 to 150 million people. Improving gender balance in farming starts with the science behind farming.

And what of the young Ethiopian woman student? Ultimately, she divorced her husband. She's now finishing her degree in South Africa, and she's re-married.

Jeff Haskins is director of the Nairobi office of Burness Communications.

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