Can Neglected and Underutilized Species Provide a Pathway to Women’s Empowerment?
Neglected and Underutilized Species (NUS), also known as ‘minor’ or ‘orphan’ crops, are often celebrated for their potential to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, narratives about women and NUS are often overly simplistic. We revisit four commonly held assumptions about women and NUS to paint a more nuanced picture based on a review of available research on the topic.
Global diets are dominated by a small range of staple crops, but there are thousands of NUS that are more nutritious, require fewer inputs and are more adaptable to climate change than their mainstream counterparts. Conservation and cultivation of these NUS — also known as ‘minor’ or ‘orphan’ crops — could greatly help promote food and nutrition security in the era of climate change. Many NUS are indigenous crops, which are part of more traditional agricultural systems and carry cultural significance. Importantly, NUS are also celebrated for their potential to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Yet, evidence on whether or how that happens is mixed, and as diverse as the localities where these crops are found. Below, we revisit four commonly held assumptions about women and NUS, and paint a more nuanced picture based on a review of available research on the topic.
1. NUS are women’s crops.
NUS are predominantly grown by smallholder farmers in communities with deep-seated gender roles and norms about who has the right to control and benefit (or not) from NUS cultivation and sale. Most NUS are closely associated with women (and thus considered women’s crops), but not all NUS and not always. Many agricultural tasks related to NUS, and even certain species, fall under the purview of men too. Due to socially prescribed gender roles, women are often more involved in subsistence agriculture than men, which generally includes more NUS and biodiversity than cash crop cultivation. Exceptions and regional particularities abound, however. Many men also cultivate NUS, especially when there is a market for them. In fact, men have often taken over NUS crops that were traditionally under women’s care and control once they became commercialized, presenting a major risk from a gender equality perspective.
2. Women are more knowledgeable about NUS.
NUS are often grown or collected for household consumption. In many settings, women thus hold knowledge about a greater variety of NUS species and their processing due to their central roles in food provisioning. However, that is not always the case. In many contexts, men and women both hold knowledge about NUS, but relating to different plants, processes, and uses (e.g. home consumption and cooking for women and storage and sale for men). What is more, men and women are diverse groups in and of themselves, and there are important variations in NUS-related knowledge within groups of men and groups of women. For example, older women in South Africa could name 33 NUS species, whereas younger women could name 5; conversely, in Northern Thailand, younger women were more knowledgeable about the species in their region because the NUS named by older women had largely disappeared.
3. NUS support women’s economic empowerment.
NUS can provide important income-earning opportunities for women. Since most NUS are naturally adapted to the environments in which they are found, their cultivation requires fewer inputs and there tends to be low barriers to entry for growing them. This can make NUS especially attractive to women, who generally have fewer agricultural resources than men. Selling surplus NUS can be an important source of income, especially for rural women with few other income-earning opportunities. Even when women’s incomes from NUS are very small, money from NUS can be significant for women if they are able to control this income themselves. However, women’s incomes from NUS tend to be considerably lower than their male counterparts’, even when working with the same crops or in the same node of the value chain. Moreover, many of the varieties that women sell (e.g., leafy greens) have a very short shelf life, which hinders their trade and negatively impacts women’s bargaining power.
4. Cultivation of NUS improves women’s livelihoods.
NUS cultivation can potentially be a valuable entry point for increasing women’s incomes as well as food and nutrition security. Yet, it can also involve trade-offs. Most notably, NUS cultivation is associated with gendered labor burdens and time deficits, which disproportionately fall to women. Many NUS require labor-intensive processing considered to be part of women’s unpaid domestic duties, such as hulling minor millets in India and de-saponifying quinoa in Bolivia. NUS-related labor thus adds to rural women’s already heavy responsibilities. As a result, in some cases, women have strategically chosen to abandon labor-intensive NUS to pursue other crops or income-earning opportunities that require less drudgery.
Reorienting the NUS Narrative to Better Support Women’s Empowerment
NUS can be an entry point for gender equality and empowerment — but this depends on whether the conditions are right for women to equitably benefit from the opportunities that NUS can offer. While these common narratives around NUS and gender hold some validity, the whole picture is often much messier and complicated by overlapping and sometimes contradictory gender roles, decision-making, benefits, trade-offs, and power relations. The potential of NUS as a vehicle for women’s empowerment hinges on addressing the interests, needs and priorities of rural women in all their diversity, being attentive to women’s labor burdens and drudgery, ensuring that all genders are adequately paid for their labor, and mitigating against the risk of male takeover when NUS increase in economic value.
Many measures can help increase the benefits that NUS bring to women. For example, adapted NUS processing technologies can greatly reduce drudgery and free up women’s time for other pursuits. Supporting women’s collectives can increase women’s bargaining power in NUS markets, capacity-building and resources, including for growing, processing, storing, and value addition, which can improve the marketability and returns to women from NUS.
Finally, research and development narratives about women and NUS need to mature to reflect the complex and nuanced nature of the systems and societies that embed them in all their diversity. This isn’t to say that the optimism of current narratives is misguided. Rather, this is a call to pair this optimism with nuanced and realistic strategies created by and for rural women.