The feminizing face of wheat farming in South Asia

In wheat systems throughout South Asia, the gender myth that “wheat is a man’s crop” is still pervasive. In order to debunk this myth, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is combatting stereotypical norms of women in agriculture through GENNOVATE, a project carried out by 11 CGIAR Research Programs. Led by CIMMYT, this global comparative research initiative strives to address the questions of how gender norms influence men, women and youth to adopt innovative practices and technologies in agriculture and natural resource management.

Surprisingly, there was little knowledge and little literature on the intersection of wheat farming and gender before 2013. What was peculiar about the narrative of women wheat farmers in South Asia was that they were described — by rural advisory services, research organizations and even farmers themselves — as if they had never set foot in a field. On the ground, however, the local reality has long been different. Women, typically from particular castes and income groups, are involved in field operations.

South Asia is experiencing a rise in innovative undertakings by women in agriculture. This change, fueled by strong male outmigration in some locations, has been promoted by equality narratives created through social movements, NGOs and education and also by women’s desire to have a voice in decision-making. “The face of agriculture in South Asia, particularly wheat farming, is feminizing,” says Cathy Rozel Farnworth. She is a social inclusion, gender and agriculture expert working with CIMMYT’s Gender Research Unit to analyze interactions between changing gender norms and agricultural innovation.

This shift was one of the findings in a series of comparative studies conducted through GENNOVATE in three research hotspots in South Asia: Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Farnworth and co-authors from the region, CIMMYT and Glasgow Caledonian University analyzed the similarities and distinctions in each country.