Some Implications of Gender Relations
for Plant Genetic Resources Management
Patricia Howard-Borjas
Keywords:  Gender, Biodiversity, Plant breeding.
Correct citation: Howard-Borjas, P. (1999), "Some Implications of Gender Relations for Plant Genetic Resources Management." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 37, p. 2-5.

The gender division of labour has implications for the management of plant genetic resources (PGR) and, by extension, local biotechnology development. Who should be involved in and benefit from PGR management has a lot to do with gender relations. If programmes in PGR management and technology development are to succeed, gender perspectives need to be integrated to reach a major actor in agricultural production: women.

There is a gender division of labour in the management of plants and animals in all societies. Gender refers to the social definition of roles and relations between men and women, while sex refers to the biological fact of being either male or female. While sex is fixed and generally unalterable, gender relations differ over time, across regions, and according to factors such as religion, ethnicity, and class. In other words, gender roles and relations exist everywhere, but in varying conditions.
Gender relations have important implications for the management of plant genetic resources and technology development, including biotechnology. They greatly influence the selection of participants and beneficiaries of PGR management programmes. Bringing to bear a ‘gender perspective’ in PGR management means reconceptualizing the household and its internal relations and divisions, the inter-relationships between production and reproduction, and between the household and its total environment, which is often better observed from the woman’s perspective. Most scientists interested in PGR focus exclusively on crop production, and often on market-oriented crops. They fail to perceive what may be termed the ‘reproductive’ side of farm households such as the environmental, biological and social maintenance of the family or the farm itself. This is often ‘women’s work’. Additionally, scientists may often fail to consider home gardening, or the collection of wild plants as part of PGR management, since these fall into women’s ‘domestic’ domain. They may fail to talk to women at all, since men are often thought to be the only farmers. However, for female farmers the inter-relation of productive and reproductive work greatly influences their use and management of PGR.

Women and PGR management
Most women in rural societies worldwide are often primarily responsible for ensuring household food security, health and family continuity. Women’s role in this process varies in different contexts. Generally, they are responsible for ensuring sufficient food and medicine all year round; they are engaged in the production of livestock, minor crops and often also major crops; storing and processing seeds, tubers and grains; preparing food and ensuring adequate nutrition for all household members.
In Sub-Saharan Africa women are directly responsible for major crop production, where it is estimated that they perform up to 80 per cent of all labour input. In parts of Asia women on average contribute about 50 per cent of the labour for major crops. In various regions, women typically manage certain crops , examples being pearl millet and groundnuts in Ethiopia; cassava in Cameroon, sweet potato in the Philippines, and swampland rice in Gambia. Often cash crops, especially those destined for export, are under men’s control, since cultural patterns usually privilege male control over monetary income. Women’s crops are often destined for home consumption or for local markets, as supplemental sources of monetary income.
As crop producers, women consider factors that plant geneticists are coming to realize as critical to marginal farmers’ management of PGR. Often women are primarily responsible for tasks related to seed management even for the seeds of ‘men’s crops’ including seed selection, storage and exchange. Informal seed exchange systems are often female domains, and include mechanisms such as the dowry (for example, brides in Eritrea are expected to bring a diversity of sorghum varieties to the groom’s household), gift-giving and kinship obligations, as well as market and barter transactions. Women’s varietal preferences are strongly based on their use value in matters such as seasonal food security, culinary tradition and dietary diversity. Women’s varietal preferences are also influenced by factors such as seed provisioning, plant storage, and processing, and conditions such as technology, water, fuel and labour availability. In certain parts of the Andes, women recognize more than 50 potato varieties, some of which are produced for traditional dishes, or to be freeze-dried for long-term storage. In some areas in Asia, women select certain local varieties of rice because they take longer to digest, thus giving a feeling of ‘fullness’ that allows workers to stay for longer periods in the fields. In many areas where fuel wood is scarce, it has been frequently demonstrated that women prefer varieties that have a shorter cooking time. In Mexico, women prefer maize varieties that produce coloured husks which is considered aesthetically pleasing to use as food wrappers. In Cameroon, women choose cassava varieties that meet the processing requirements of their equipment for making ‘water fufu’. These varieties are also adapted to the poorer-quality soils to which women have access. Even where women are only indirectly involved in crop production, their preferences and selection criteria in terms of culinary, processing and storage characteristic may still influence the decisions of male farmers. The Centro Internacional de Agricultural Tropical (CIAT) learned that plant breeders must consult women as well as men if breeders want to develop or improve bean varieties that will be acceptable to South American farmers and their wives.
In the final analysis, the local people generally select or conserve the varieties that have the greatest market or use value. PGR have multiple uses. The same plant may present properties that are useful for food, medicine, fodder, handicrafts, construction, fuel, soil management, environmental monitoring, disease and pest control, aesthetics, and rituals. In terms of use value, women have a more diversified perspective on PGR, and are much more motivated by local market and use values. They often view the production-consumption process in its entirety, from planting through to digestion; women view PGR simultaneously as producers, consumers, processors, cooks, healers, artisans, animal caretakers, and commercial agents.
Some explain the cross-cultural predominance of women’s labour and decision-making in terms of the relation between post-harvest and domestic work. These tasks are often seen as part of ‘domestic work’, partly because domestic work intertwines with productive or market-oriented work. For example, the same person usually selects and separates grains and tubers according to immediate or future consumption or sale, and for seeds for the next planting season. Others suggest a deeper, more cosmological explanation. In Peru, Zimmerer points out that in many societies "Social custom forbids men to enter the storehouse or handle seed...In Quechua....all of the plants that are useful to humans are venerated under the names of Mother: Mama sara (maize), Mama acxo (potato), Mama oca (cocoa), etc.". Tapia and de la Torre report that "The belief in this relation between women and seeds is coherent with the tradition of Andean thinking in terms of a dual concept of reality...defined by the principles of masculine and feminine...‘seed’ also refers to...semen...(so that there is a relation) between the ‘seed’ that the male deposits in the womb and the seed that is sewn in the field, collected, and later deposited in the home."
Furthermore, in the domestication of wild plants and adaptation of new varieties, women’s knowledge and labour often predominate. In virtually all agro-ecological settings in developing countries, people use wild or semi-domesticated PGR for a number of purposes. In anthropological studies of hunting and gathering societies, the gender division of labour is so well recognized that the phrases ‘man the hunter’ and ‘woman the gatherer’ have become standard fare, to the point of stereotyping, and are not always useful or true. Women’s gathering activities are now often shown to provide the majority of foodstuffs in these societies. However, it is not only in hunting and gathering societies where wild plants, or their human-managed cousins, the ‘semi-domesticates’, are highly important to local populations, and represent the majority of PGR. Even in high-productivity Asian rice systems, women often make use of PGR growing along irrigation canals, although this has been much reduced due to the use of herbicides and insecticides. They also maintain agro-ecologically and biologically complex home garden systems. In Northern Thailand, Leimar Price demonstrated that women both selectively manage wild plants in their native habitats, and progressively domesticate plants on border fields, within fields such as inter-crops, and particularly in women’s fields and in home gardens. Feldstein and Collinson reported that in Rwanda women test and adapt modern and/or improved varieties in a complex and dynamic process: "The (plant breeders’) team discovered that a farmer would try new varieties in pure stands, not mixed with other beans, and plant them in the kitchen garden near the house, which has more fertile soil and where she can keep an eye on them. She scatters the seed rather than planting in rows. Once a farmer has tested the variety pure, she tries it on a couple of other fields in mixtures with other bean varieties, to see where it grows best."

The need for a gender perspective
If women are predominant managers of PGR, then we have to look into ways in which they specifically may be affected by or implicated in those processes that are clearly contributing to genetic erosion. This includes the diffusion of high yield varieties (HYVs), decreasing land access, and changing consumption patterns such as increased consumption of ‘exotic’ imported varieties and foodstuffs instead of local varieties. Gender relations themselves are changing, along with women’s incentives and management practices, which in turn are affecting biodiversity management. For example, in the Peruvian Andes, Zimmerer showed that the ‘feminization of agriculture’ due to male migration is leading to increasing demands on women’s labour, which affects women’s cropping systems and leads to a decrease in the varieties they manage. Women also substitute exotic varieties to save labour. When land becomes privatized or enclosed, many women lose access to the forests and fields that are their source of wild plants, as is occurring in India and Nepal. Additionally, when men turn to cash cropping or extensive livestock production, women often lose access to fallow fields where they could produce or gather traditional varieties, as is especially evident over much of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
If gender relations are so crucial to PGR conservation and development, why are they only now beginning to receive attention? In an article written for the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and the World Bank, Janice Jiggins provided some explanations, and criticized established practices:
"...very close attention is paid to the demands of commerce, trade and the food industry for specific varietal characteristics which fit particular user or consumer markets and the requirements of post-harvest technology ...in general the demands of domestic post-harvest technologies in the processing, preservation and transformation of food and of crop/stock by-products have received scant attention... the role of multiple use of biomass to supply employment, income and use values has (also) been undervalued. In addition to methodological weaknesses...insufficient attention has been paid...to the institutional barriers which inhibit the exchange of relevant experience and information between women, agricultural researchers and extension agents".
Other problems include the lack of input of social scientists (other than economists) and the continued insistence of these institutions on technology transfer rather than on the development of locally-appropriate technologies. Some efforts are currently underway to change this situation and there is evidence that shifts are occurring. Examples are the new participatory plant breeding initiatives sponsored by the CGIAR, and by the US led Cowpea Collaborative Research Programme (CRSP) in their projects in Rwanda and Malawi. However, this does not explain why many researchers and practitioners, including many who focus on farmer-based conservation and indigenous rights, continue to neglect gender relations in their work. Most of them still target only male farmers, and ignore the importance of women’s ‘domestic’ activities, home gardens, and off-farm gathering activities. Hence, they still perpetuate many of the biases pointed out by Jiggins.

Some policy implications
The failure to explicitly include gender relations in public debates and research on biodiversity has far-reaching philosophical and ethical implications, not the least of which are related to the definition of what PGR is, and how and for whom it should used and conserved. In recent years, much has been learned about the relationship between gender and PGR management, but far more has to be understood so that debates on biodiversity can be enriched and the insights can be translated into politics, policies and methodologies. There is a lack of knowledge about gender and biodiversity, and consequently about biodiversity and food and livelihood security strategies, and the relation between these and biodiversity management and conservation. Gender relations in PGR management are cross-sectoral issues that need to be taken up not only in research and practice concerned with germplasm conservation, but also with that related to food security, poverty, environment, and technology; these inter-connections must be well established through research and dealt with in many different development policy and intervention spheres.
High priority should be given to the study and analysis of the following points:

On this latter point, there is almost no literature dealing with gender and IPR.
These debates and their outcomes cannot be considered as gender neutral. Women probably constitute the largest group of farmers who have developed agro-biodiversity. However, due to gender bias they will almost certainly be the last to have their rights recognized and to benefit from related development or compensation schemes. The structural causes of the current exclusion of gender issues from international discussions on IPR and biotechnology may have to do with the structural position of women. While in principle women are the main biodiversity managers, they are mainly located in subsistence sectors and hence are only indirectly affected by discussions around IPR and biotechnology that are focused primarily on commercial agriculture. However, the downstream effects of these policies may seriously affect women as small-scale farmers, as local plant breeders and conservationist, and as household managers.
Patricia Howard-Borjas

Gender Studies in Agriculture, Wageningen Agricultural University, Hollandseweg 1, 6706 KN Wageningen, the Netherlands.
Phone (+31) 317 483932; Fax (+31) 317 483990;
E-mail Patricia.Howard-Borjas@ALG.VSL.WAU.NL

Leimar Price, L. (1993), Women’s Wild Plant Food Entitlements in Thailand’s Agricultural Northeast. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Jiggins, J. (1986), "Gender-related Impacts and the Work of the International Agricultural Research Centres." CGIAR Study Paper No. 17. Washington DC, USA: World Bank.

Sperling, L. and Berkowitz, P. (1994), Partners in Selection. Bean breeders and women bean experts in Rwanda. Washington DC, USA: CGIAR.

Tapia, M.E. and de la Torre, A. (1993), La Mujer Campesina y las Semillas Andinas. Rome, Italy: UNICEF/FAO.

Zimmerer, K.S. (1991), Seeds of Peasant Subsistence: Agrarian structure, crop ecology and Quechua agriculture in reference to the loss of biological biodiversity in the southern Peruvian Andes. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

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