What gender means in the matrilineal society? Farmer Business School in the East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, India

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The phrases “women’s empowerment” and “reducing the gender gaps” have become a central component of agricultural development since the 2000s, yet they are uncomfortable for many men and some women, including ourselves. It is too simplistic to replace the concepts of gender by the term “women”, as men and women have different roles, interests, capacities and opportunities. It is widely recognized that understanding those differences would lead to more effective approaches to agricultural research and development.

FBS group in Nongwah village

FoodSTART+ has its own overall gender strategy, but we develop tailored gender-sensitive approaches for each project site by reflecting on its cultural context. Today, we introduce the case of the East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, North-East India. Khasi society is matrilineal. Matrilineal differs from matriarchy in the sense that women do not have a dominant position in the household. Rather, they have more or less equal decision-making authority as the men. Khasi farmers grow potatoes as a major income source as well as for home consumption. Now that the Meghalaya set a policy to become an organic agricultural state, FoodSTART+ is supporting this endeavor by establishing demonstrations on organic potato production practices and testing bio-agents against major pests and diseases in three villages. At the same time, Farmer Business Schools (FBS) are being piloted in the same villages. FBS takes a bottom-up approach, helping farmers develop agricultural innovations to link their produce to markets. After a number of training sessions about marketing and business, all three FBS groups decided to brand their naturally grown potatoes and seek new premium markets. Converting from conventional to organic farming and selling their produce involve social, as well as economic and ecological, challenges and opportunities. Social challenges include gender-based constraints in this new ‘organic’ potato value-chain. We look at them by asking questions such as: do organic practices require additional labour and time input for specific gender and social groups?; is any bargaining power required for negotiating with traders influenced by the gender and social positions of farmers?; and how do you reach a consensus among the farmers for successful collective actions?

FBS group in Mwangap village

What social challenges and opportunities do the FBS groups have, and how should we address these? Each group had a discussion and three examples are presented here. First, organic farming requires more than double the amount of manure of conventional systems, meaning that the labour needed for producing and carrying manure will also increase. It is men who carry manure and therefore either men’s labour burden is likely to increase, or men who work as hired labourers may have more employment opportunities. Some poor households with limited male labourers may find difficult to switch to organic potatoes. On the other hand, organic farming creates an opportunity for women. First, in the conventional practices, some households do not spray fungicides because their husbands are working off-farm in the particular period of time when spraying is required. If what they spray is organic, women of childbearing and childrearing age can do the spraying without health concerns, although a smaller spraying container is needed so that women can easily manage it. Second, in the process of selling organic potatoes, men and women play key roles at different points of the value chain. For example, if the FBS groups sell organic seed potatoes to the government, senior men from the village need to do the liaising, as government officials are all men. However, if the FBS groups seek to sell their produce directly in the city, female farmers need to investigate potential opportunities by talking with female urban consumers, as, in the Khasi context, it is the women who are in charge of food purchasing and cooking. Third, organic potato farming requires a consensus and collective action not only among the FBS members but also with neighboring villagers. One FBS group is planning to rent land to expand the plot of organic production to see how it works over the longer term. Another group has the option of making a clear boundary between organic and inorganic production during the transition period. The process of converting to organic farming can be very sensible, and it is interesting to observe that women and men speak out and express their interests more or less equally during the discussions. However, we must continue to monitor the process of decision-making to ensure that specific social groups, especially poor men and women, will not be harmed or excluded.

FBS group in Wahlynkien village

It is clear that the process of agricultural innovation cannot be gender-neutral, and by recognizing the needs, constraints and opportunities for specific gender and social groups, FoodSTART+ seeks to provide more effective support to both men and women. Based on the above group discussions, checklists and recommendations for FBS facilitators in East Khasi Hills were developed and will be used during FBS implementation.

Written by:

Nozomi Kawarazuka, Gender Advisor for CIP-FoodSTART+
Adelbert Kharlyngdoh, Field facilitator for CIP-FoodSTART+ Meghalaya
Naibalaaihun Marbaniang, Meghalaya Basin Development Agency, Ecosystem Service Department
Carol Lyngdoh, Meghalaya Basin Development Agency, Marketing Department