Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Alessandra Galié. This social scientist has helped increase the visibility of many of Syria’s women farmers and given them a voice. This is the second of our interviews under the “Carrying on the fight for gender equality” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.
Empowering women to get to where they want to go
When Alessandra Galié began working with the Participatory Plant Breeding Program at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a research fellow in 2007, she wasn’t aware that she was embarking on a journey that would leave her forever changed. Through her work, she met many Syrian women who worked the land; wives and mothers who toiled without recognition or a voice. As she talked to them and listened to their stories, she began to question her own perceptions. As she witnessed them slowly becoming empowered, she became more empowered herself.
The invisible work force
The one thing that surprised this native Italian about these women farmers when she first arrived at the Center’s headquarters in Aleppo, Syria, was the fact that they played such a key role in agriculture.
“When the Participatory Plant Breeding Program started, it had a gender neutral approach,” explains Alessandra, “which worked in some countries in the region, but in Syria, only men participated in the Program. Although statistics showed that the women didn’t work in the fields, a subsequent study showed that they were actually working alongside the men – they just weren’t participating in the Program because they thought it wasn’t addressing them or because they were not told they could participate.
“Previously, scientists working for the Program would cross the best varieties of crop seeds based on the needs and preferences of the male farmers. The farmers would then grow these varieties in their own fields, using their normal agronomic management methods, after which they would select the varieties they wanted to adopt. No women were involved in the process, so we adopted a pro-active approach and began looking for strategies that would involve them and reflect their needs too.
“We found that for some market crops, the women like the men were looking for seed varieties with a big yield, whereas for other food crops the women were more interested in how the grain tasted or other qualitative traits related to post-harvesting tasks. So the men and woman began deciding together those varieties that would best meet their needs as a family.”
Assessing the social impact
From the very beginning this young social scientist’s work with the Program fed into her PhD studies, and she is now compiling the results of a four-year action-oriented social impact assessment, which will form part of her thesis: Participatory Plant Breeding in Syria: Women, Governance and Rights.
“Other than getting the woman involved in decision making about seed development, the Program also gave visibility to them,” say Alessandra as she talks about her findings. “Because they were involved in an international program and attended conferences, more and more people in their villages began talking about them. These women became more self confident and are now proud to say that they are farmers. These are some of the changes in women’s empowerment that I am looking at.”
One such conference was the International Farmers’ Conference that took place at the Center in May 2008. This event, which Alessandra helped organize, brought together more than 50 farmers and researchers from nine countries, and was one of six pilot projects of the ICT-KM Program’s Knowledge Sharing in Research initiative.
“I was interested in this conference from the beginning,” says Alessandra, “because the gender approach to knowledge sharing is very important to my research in terms of appreciating gender-differentiated knowledge in agronomic management, informing the women, sharing knowledge with them and understanding their needs.
“The women and men farmers helped set the agenda for the event, and at the outset the women told me that if they had to give a speech they would feel embarrassed, because some of them had not studied and, therefore, couldn’t give a speech in official Arabic. They requested something more informal. So we organized the conference around storytelling, because that’s a traditional knowledge sharing approach in rural Syria. Everyone really liked the stories, which gave rise to even more stories. All the participants felt involved.”
Assessing the personal impact
As Alessandra conducted exercises with the women to assess changes in their empowerment, she became more aware of her own limitations.
“The exercises revealed that despite my efforts at challenging my own understanding of empowerment, I still had some preconceived ideas when I started my fieldwork,” she says. “Although I was working to facilitate women’s access to empowering opportunities, I realized that many of them just want to be good mothers and wives. Initially, this was not what I had in mind, but I now know that empowerment is not about where you’re supposed to go, it’s about having the means to get to wherever you want to go. It’s not for me to determine their goals. Playing the traditional role is not a lesser goal, as long as it’s based on an informed decision.
“This assessment process also helped me develop strategies as to how I should conduct my personal life and my career. I now feel more resolute about the choices I’ve made.
“Still, I faced many challenges due to the nature of my work, which involved inter-disciplinary research, participatory research, qualitative research, empowerment and gender issues, all in a region where outsiders working with women is discouraged. Being a young female researcher didn’t help matters, either. It was hard to gain some credibility and legitimacy for my research.
“For example, empowerment is often perceived as a western idea, and some people thought I wanted to take the women away from their homes. I was asked why I was disturbing the family peace. Even when we were organizing the International Farmers Conference, we had to make a stand when families wanted to send their sons who weren’t involved in agriculture instead of their daughters who were.”
Alessandra credits her supervisors as being key to the success of her research and her work.
“I have two supervisors at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, who guide me a lot. One is a social gender and analysis expert (Janice Jiggins) and the other is a crop physiology expert (Paul Struik). Then there’s the two Program leaders here at ICARDA (Salvatore Ceccarelli and Stefania Grando), who are very supportive of my work. It is extremely important to have advisors and mentors that can guide you through the theory, practice, and politics of research. Having respected supervisors has also made my work more credible.”
The importance of finding balance
Alessandra, who recently completed her research fellowship at ICARDA, is now employed by the Center as a consultant specializing in social and gender analysis. In her new position, she has found a supportive environment in which to continue carrying out research.
“I would like to continue carrying out applied research as a social scientist with a specific focus on gender research,” she says, when asked about her future plans. “At some point, I would also like to be able to split my work: carry out research, say, in the morning, and work the land in the afternoon. That would be perfect. My family has a small organic farm near my home town of Ascoli in central Italy, where we also have a small bed and breakfast establishment. Working the land is extremely gratifying.”
Looks as if Syria’s women farmers have made quite an impact on Alessandra.
Just as this interview was being published on 8 March 2011 to celebrate International Women’s Day, Alessandra was informed that she would receive the Storm-van der Chijs award from Wageningen University. This is an award for promising female PhD students and is intended to stimulate the participation of women in science.
The ICT-KM Program would like to extend its congratulations to Alessandra for her hard work and dedication and wish her good luck with her future work.