Empowering Women Farmers: The Case of Participatory Plant Breeding in Ten Syrian Households
Galie, Alessandra, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
Empowerment of women has become a frequently cited goal of development. In agricultural development, empowerment is considered essential in order for farmers to safeguard their livelihood interests and seed-based agro-biodiversity. (1) Empowerment is also considered to enable small farmers from marginal areas to participate in research as more equal partners alongside scientists, thereby increasing the effectiveness of agricultural research. (2) Empowerment of the most marginal farmers, and rural women in particular, is considered important to provide these most vulnerable groups with the means to voice their needs and desires and to take action so that they can influence rural and agricultural development for the improvement of nutrition and food security. (3) Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen demonstrates in his book Poverty and Famines how hunger stems from disempowerment, marginalization, and poverty. (4)
Research on the empowerment of women farmers in Syria is important because of its intrinsic interest in a region where there is a relative paucity of research literature on any aspect of women in agriculture, and particularly because of its potential to improve the relevance and efficacy of development work. (5) This article presents the findings of an assessment of changes in the empowerment of twelve farm women from three rural villages in Syria. The assessment is based in the context of a Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) program coordinated by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).
Scientists regard PPB as an innovative technological process and an institutional mechanism for enhancing rural livelihoods by providing the means and a process for improving plant varieties. By collaborating with the most marginalized and poor farmers, PPB addresses their agro-ecological, geographical and sociocultural needs. (6) PPB also has been recognized as an approach that can support farmers' empowerment. "Increased self-esteem" and "enhanced knowledge" are some of the specific benefits mentioned by farmers involved in PPB projects. (7)
A PPB program was initiated in Syria at ICARDA in 1996. It adopted a gender-neutral approach to the involvement of interested farmers. It was open, in principle, to the participation of both male and female farmers but it did not assess gender-based needs and constraints. However, after ten years of activities it was found that only male farmers had become involved. In 2006 a diagnostic study was carried out to understand the reasons for the absence of women farmers from the PPB program. (8) At the same time the women expressed a strong interest in participating in the program. Thereafter the researcher (a young, newly married Italian woman) was appointed as a member of the PPB team and tasked to develop, together with the interested women farmers, a proactive approach to address the barriers to their involvement. Seven women farmers from Lahetha and Souran have since been involved in growing PPB trials, evaluating their performance, selecting varieties, and naming them. They have also been involved in other activities organized by the program, such as conferences and meetings. From 2007 an assessment was undertaken by the researcher that evaluated the impact of the PPB program on the empowerment of the newly involved women farmers over a period of four years (2007-10).
This article reports the findings of this assessment and addresses the question: can participation in the PPB program enhance women's empowerment, and if so, how? The challenges encountered in the research give rise to a number of reflections on the meaning of empowerment and how this concept can be measured and understood by researchers, as well as by the women and men concerned in this case.
THE RESEARCH AREA
Syria is characterized by a wide range of agro-ecological conditions, with rainfall that varies from 1,500 mm in the west to less than 100 mm in the southeast. …