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Engendering food systems for improved nutrition

TCI-TARINA and the International
Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) co-hosted a special session, titled
“Engendering Food Systems for Improved Nutrition,” at the Agricultural Economics
Research Association’s 24th Annual Conference on December 16th,
2016. The primary objective of this event was to initiate a discussion about linkages
between gender, agriculture, and nutrition.

The session included panel
speakers from various national and international research institutes and  focused on two overarching themes – (1) crop
diversification and technological choices for engendering agriculture, and (2) behavior
change among women for improved nutrition. Papers presented at the session
covered a range of topics, including women’s labor and time-use in agriculture,
crop choices by women in welfare programs like the Public Distribution System
(PDS), and the role of extension services and self-help groups (SHGs) in enhancing
women’s income and nutrition. Key findings presented during the session are
summarized in detail below.

image

Panel speakers (from left to right): R. Padmaja, Senior Scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics; Dimple Tresa Abraham, Research Associate at the Center for Women Development Studies; Krishna Srinath, Retired Director of the Center Institute of Women in Agriculture; Prabhu Pingali, Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University & Director of TCI; Surabhi Mittal, Senior Economist & Coordinator of the TCI-TARINA Center of Excellence; Mamata Pradhan, Doctoral Candidate at the University of East Anglia; Premlata Singh, Head of Extension at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. (Photo credit: Maureen Valentine)

Women’s decision-making,
labor, and time-use in agriculture

Studies have shown a growing trend of feminization in Indian
agriculture. This is primarily driven by increased out-migration of men seeking
employment opportunities elsewhere, while women are left to take care of farms.
Despite their growing role in agriculture, women still are not usually
recognized as farmers and their involvement in decision-making on various
agricultural activities is very limited. Lack of access to information, new
technology, credit facilities, and proper training often hinders women’s
decision-making capacity. 

The amount of time that women devote to labor-intensive agricultural
activities and work outside the home can have serious implications for their own
nutritional status as well as the nutritional status of their children and
family members. Thus, enhancing women’s access to low-cost mechanization is
essential to reduce their drudgery and time spent in the field. However, evidence
suggests that even when mechanization is introduced, women’s drudgery or their total
time allocated to farm activities is not reduced. This is largely due to the
fact that mechanized activities are typically taken up by men, leaving the more
arduous manual tasks to their female counterparts.

Women’s empowerment and behavior change
for improved nutrition outcomes

Empirical
evidence shows that household consumption patterns, and mainly that of women in
the household, change during times of crisis and uncertainty. Women tend to
prioritize the elderly and children before themselves during food shortages caused
by household income variability, seasonality of food availability, or other
factors. Thus, it is important to enhance the affordability of nutritious foods
by increasing their year-round availability and by raising the purchasing power
of households.

Improving women’s access to income as well as their control
over land, assets, and credit were highlighted as critical pathways to enhancing
food and nutrition security. However, information asymmetries often limit
women’s ability to harness the potential of agriculture, as they are often
deprived of the appropriate technological know-how and knowledge about inputs
and best agronomic practices. Poor attention paid to female farmers by extension
workers at the ground level, along with cultural and social barriers that
discourage women from interacting with male extension workers, contribute to
information asymmetries.

Although
higher incomes help improve household food security, increasing the quantity of
food available at the household level does not always guarantee an improvement
in nutrition, since nutrition depends more on diversity and quality of food
consumed. For this reason, enhancing women’s understanding of nutrition and why
it is important to have a nutritious and diversified diet, as well as encouraging
behavior change towards self-consumption are critical to achieving positive
nutrition outcomes. Women SHGs have been instrumental in educating and
empowering women to catalyze behavior change and to increase their income and
economic opportunities.

Overall,
the session concluded that there is an important tradeoff between women’s labor
and time-use in agriculture and family nutrition. However, labor-saving
technologies targeted toward women can help reduce both their drudgery and time
spent in the field. Additionally, women SHGs are a powerful agent of change.
And, lastly, enhancing women’s skill and knowledge through extension systems is
a prerequisite for increasing their decision-making capacity and income, which
lead to better nutrition outcomes.

To watch the full video coverage of this event, please click here.

By Surabhi Mittal

Surabhi Mittal (sm2638@cornell.edu) is the Coordinator of TCI’s TARINA Center of Excellence, based in New Delhi, India.