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New ODI study shows how gender norms are holding back agriculture in Uganda

An ODI study published today highlights that beyond land and labour, ideas about women’s role in agriculture are limiting farming productivity in Uganda.

LONDON, 17 May - While women make up most of the farming labour force in sub-Saharan Africa, the current gender gap in productive resources means their harvests yield around 20-30% less than men’s.

New ODI research, Young women in the agricultural sector in Uganda: lessons from the Youth Forward Initiative, shows that gender norms play a crucial role in restricting women’s access to farming assets and agribusiness value-chains – highlighting that agriculture is held back by social values and perceptions of ‘women’s role’ as much as by structural disadvantage.

In Uganda, an estimated 77% of females are engaged in agricultural work compared to 67% of men, yet women’s contribution is usually under-estimated and under-appreciated. While it is well-known that legal and economic exclusion is a significant barrier for female-led agricultural enterprises, ODI's research shows that gendered norms – along with stereotypes about the different capabilities of males and females – negatively impact young women’s engagement with farming. The study, supported by the Mastercard Foundation through the Youth Forward Learning Partnership, focuses on evidence from youth participants (aged 15-24) who took part in a multi-year programme which supported economically disadvantaged young people to build a livelihood in farming.

Carmen Leon-Himmelstine, Senior Research Officer for ODI’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion programme, led the research and commented on the findings:

“The evidence from the Youth Forward Initiative shows that wider social norms and a diverse set of expectations around gender are the foundations to the limited opportunities women face in agriculture. Norms around ownership of land and patrilineal practices of land inheritance in the locations of our study have significant implications for women’s livelihoods, as well as norms around what is considered suitable agricultural work for men and women.

“Of course, harmful gender norms around unpaid care and domestic work also impacts young women’s ability to engage in farming. As they are perceived as responsible for almost all household chores, this places a double burden on them and reduces their capacity to engage in productive agricultural activities. Interestingly, interviews also showed that restrictive ideas about women’s mobility, the right to earn and spend money, as well as make decisions in the household, hindered their ability to invest in and grow their businesses.”

Carried out across four rural districts from the Northern and Karamoja regions of Uganda, the research exposed another commonly held belief holding women back in agriculture: that women were merely seen as ‘helpers’ and were inherently unsuited to more profitable activities or higher-value and larger-scale crop farming (as compared to their male counterparts). For example, women’s roles were considered to include tasks carried out by hand such as soil preparation, weeding, tending to livestock, and cleaning equipment or animal shelters. By contrast, men were responsible for land clearing and soil preparation when utilising animals or machinery, as well as fertiliser application and vaccination of livestock.

Norms around financial autonomy, which discriminate against women’s freedom to manage money, further exacerbated the gendered productivity gap. Low access to credit and capital was therefore a central component to the difficulties women faced in scaling up their agricultural enterprises. Unable to secure bank loans or provide collateral, women struggled to purchase essential inputs (i.e. land, fertiliser, livestock, machinery) to increase their productivity. Quoted in the report, men also maintained that women were unsuited to controlling assets, and if women made money they could become ‘uncontrollable and disobedient’. Therefore, understanding the harmful role of social and cultural attitudes in communities can help governments address gender norms to harness the potential of female farmers and promote wider industrialisation of the sector.

Sanyu Phiona, social policy analyst and co-author of the research based in Uganda, reflected on the challenges:

“Closing the gender gap is about changing minds as much as about transforming educational opportunities or offering training and childcare options for women. Without attending to existing challenges that women face due to gendered social norms, scaling-up female-led agriculture and productivity will remain limited in scope. It’s clear that for Uganda, delivering sector-wide industrialisation will not be possible if the majority of those engaged in farming are ignored.

“Youth are beginning to see agriculture as a viable business venture, but advertising agriculture and making it sexy is just not enough. The research shows that without changing the attitudes and gender norms holding women back in rural communities, the wider benefits of participation in agribusiness across the value chain will remain almost exclusively male.”

However, positive findings from the study did show how women were able to challenge harmful gender norms in their communities. Through the Youth Forward Initiative, women’s participation in groups and in Village Savings and Loans Associations generated shifts in well-being, confidence and self-worth, increasing their ability to exercise voice and individual agency. As one female participant from Dokolo put it: “I used to fear starting a business or participating in a business. I was shy, but when I joined [the programme] I gained confidence and I can just buy things and sell without fear.”

To harness the potential of female agribusiness, the report argues that governments must specifically and proactively target women in their agricultural policies and programmes and to introduce approaches that directly challenge existing gender norms. Tackling current gender-blind spots in youth programmes will facilitate women’s access to productive assets, skills-training, and value-chains. Ultimately, by closing this “gender gap”, initiatives can produce significant gains for young women by improving their position in their households and society, while also fostering agriculture’s productivity and Uganda’s wider development.

ENDS