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12 September 2019

Do multifunctional landscapes really benefit women?

Rural Women’s Cooperative generates income and improves community life in Guinea

Photo: Joe Saade (UN Women) / Flickr

Land use diversification is often promoted as solution to the pressures of increasing global demand for land and food. Moreover, the proponents of multifunctional landscapes often claim the approach is highly beneficial for women. But is it always? And if yes, what do these benefits entail?

It is fair to say that when carefully designed and managed, multifunctional landscapes such as agroforestry, homegardens or integrated cropping systems, can respond to climate change mitigation and adaptation while enhancing food security. However, it doesn’t mean that the products and services they provide benefit everyone equally in terms of rights, access and power over decision making.

Lisa Westholm (SLU) and Madelene Ostwald (Chalmers), both members of the Focali research network, sat out to find what the scientific literature has to say about the dynamics between gender relations, food security and access to resources in multifunctional landscapes. The results of their exploration, conducted as part of the AgriFoSe2030 program, are presented in a recent review paper published in the Agroforestry Systems journal.

”We realized that there is not much data specifically on women in these systems. From the first scanning of the literature, we didn’t ‘drown’ in the material we found on this matter,” says Madelene Ostwald.

Gender can be described as social roles and identities associated with what it means to be a man or a woman in a given socio-economic context. We produce gender roles and assign them meaning in relation to each other, so they should be analyzed accordingly. But, when it comes to food production and multifunctional landscapes, the research focus is not usually disaggregated by gender. And because in most of these contexts gender norms and power relations are often tilted in favor of the men, focusing on women can therefore help painting a more complete picture.

The review of 104 scientific articles dealing with food production and food security in multifunctional land use systems across Africa, Asia and Latin America found that this body of scientific literature rarely focuses on women’s opportunities to enhance food security. Furthermore, the review showed that products controlled by women in a multifunctional landscape’ setting are often considered as secondary with low market value, and therefore may be ignored in decision-making or by policy makers.

Multifunctional systems generate various outputs, making it possible to produce for several value chains. So, there should be enough opportunities for both men and women. This way, women could take control over some of the outputs and earn a better income.

“Given the many outputs, multifunctional systems open up more opportunities for women. And studies also show that women sometimes work with other kinds of capital than money, like trading eggs for milk, for example,” says Ostwald.

However, according to Madelene Ostwald, the literature has plenty of evidence that if something has a price-tag, like wood for example, it’s controlled by the men. Several examples show that even though men are not traditionally responsible for collecting wood for household use, they tend to take over all or parts of the value chain when wood is commercialized.

Women collecting firewood in Darfur.

Photo: UUSC, Rights in Humanitarian Crises program / Flickr

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) such as fruits, nuts and fiber are often seen as “female” products. What’s considered female differs between regions and countries, but women tend to generate a larger share of their income from these products than men. That is why it’s often suggested that increasing the value of NTFPs could lead to higher incomes and empowerment for women. However, several studies indicate that when the “female” products gain value, they become attractive for those with more power, with risks of adverse effects for women. So, increasing their value may not be a solution to women’s empowerment after all.

”Our review raises tricky questions and reveals wicked problems. As soon as a woman gets control over something valuable, especially on the market, it disappears from her domain. That’s really daunting, and needs to be taken into account when working with value chains and market development.”

Such adverse effects are not a given, but policymakers need to take these risks seriously when formulating and implementing policies aimed at women’s empowerment.

At the same time, the everchanging nature of gender relations can work in women’s favour. Diversity of production systems in multifunctional landscapes provide opportunities to claim new roles for resources. Especially in the context of changing external circumstances, such as urbanization, a shift from pastoralism to sedentary livelihoods, or an expansion of the monetary economy.

That said, multifunctional landscapes won’t empower women unless projects and policy interventions are formulated with awareness and sensitivity to the gender dynamics and power structures in the local context. Knowledge and education can provide more opportunities for women and space for their realization, but changing structures takes time.

“This is really the billion-dollar question. Because we see these issues in Sweden as well, a country with high levels of education and income. It’s a structural problem, it is not about bad or good people. But I firmly believe that what gets measured gets managed. If we don’t have the empirical evidence, we can’t point towards effective solutions. I think researchers have a huge role in overcoming this challenge.”

We want inclusive development for all. But for that to happen, the gender glasses need to stay on at all times, from formulating research questions to building policies and implementing development strategies. Otherwise, well-intended projects may risk reversing the progress on our goals.

Reporting by Linda Hansson and Ekaterina Bessonova. Researchers Lisa Westholm and Madelene Ostwald are members of the Focali research network, and this study was conducted under the AgriFoSe2030 program and its theme on multifunctional landscapes. See their research-profiles at and read more about the AgriFoSe2030 theme 2 here.