Overcoming gender barriers helps families in Ethiopia

Research shows positive changes for women and men, increased household income
A young girl looks out over a landscape in rural Ethiopia. Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Ensuring women have fair and equal access to land and resource benefits through Gender Transformative Approaches (GTAs) can yield real benefits such as greater income that impacts the entire family, according to new findings by Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF) scientists.

Research conducted in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Ethiopia emphasized the value of collective action to target deeply-rooted and structural barriers within the system. This is essential to achieve significant change that strengthens women’s land and resource rights – in stark contrast with methods that focus on individual transformation, which tend towards ‘fixing women’ rather than addressing systemic issues and ‘fixing the system’.

The new findings in Ethiopia show that barriers dividing what is considered women’s work versus men’s work remain very high at the community level and above, even as GTAs have succeeded within families and amongst friends.

Overcoming traditional gender barriers at household levels can lead to positive changes for men and women – including better family incomes – but transformations at higher levels, such as community management of water and irrigation in Ethiopia, demands deeper change, said CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Stibniati Atmadja in her presentation to the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) conference in June 2023.

“We see how GTAs can make a huge difference in families, but these must be scaled up to have real impact in a wider context,” said Atmadja. Her team, working in collaboration with IFAD and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, examined whether irrigation infrastructure as a common property resource was managed equitably, and whether household-based GTA approaches could influence community-level processes.

The work in Ethiopia began by looking into whether greater cooperation could be achieved between men and women at the household level in communities involved in the Participatory Small-scale Irrigation Development Programme (PASIDP) II. Implemented by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and financed by IFAD, the program involves 108,750 poor rural households in four regions of Ethiopia: Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, and Central Ethiopia.

Families in three of those regions – Amhara, Oromia, and Central Ethiopia – with small-scale irrigation schemes under PASIDP II agreed to participate in a household-based GTA called the gender model family (GMF) approach. It helps couples transform their families into a positive example of gender equity at home, and explore what can be achieved as a result.

Focus group discussion with community members to understand gender norms, in Central Ethiopia. Photo by Bersabeh Hailu/CIFOR-ICRAF

Positive transformations were reported: in the villages studied, men and women started from a philosophy of ‘husbands decide, women follow’. Women had full workloads at home that men wouldn’t alleviate, due to social stigma. Husbands made decisions without their wives, a tradition linked to bad investments, domestic conflicts, and lack of trust at home.

GMF-trained couples learned to instead discuss their problems, agree on solutions, and share household and farming chores. After one or two years in the GMF process, all couples reported less conflict and violence, and more love and respect. Increased productivity and income was also demonstrated in purchases such as latrines, livestock, and furniture.

For the couples’ friends, family, and neighbours, the most noticeable effect was the reduced conflict and increased love and collaboration, interviews showed. Said one participant to researchers: “There is no such thing as men’s or women’s work. We collaborate.”

Research team, Participatory Small-scale Irrigation Development Programme (PASIDP) II staff, and participants in Gender Model Family (GMF), in a focus group discussion to understand gender norms in Central Ethiopia. The banner in the background congratulates the couple that owns the house for graduating from the GMF training. Photo by Stibniati Atmadja/CIFOR-ICRAF

CIFOR-ICRAF researcher Stibniati Atmadja sits with traditional leaders from the Kambata Community after they led a group blessing for the research team. Photo by Teshome Beyene/CIFOR-ICRAF

Interview with Gender Model Family participant in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. Photo by Teshome Beyene/CIFOR-ICRAF

“That’s the most striking finding that I see – not only the women benefit, but the men also express that they’re very happy with the result,” said Atmadja.

However, GMF successes at home didn’t change attitudes with regard to small-scale irrigation schemes managed through community Irrigation Water User Associations (IWUAs) under PASIDP II. There, decision-making, responsibilities, and influence remained male-dominated. Women were still assigned ‘low influence’ or ‘no influence’ responsibilities, while men were assigned ‘high influence’ responsibilities, such as decisions concerning communal lands.

Research concluding that targeted training, shared activities and responsibilities across genders, and greater awareness of the benefits for men and women from collaboration are needed at the community level and above. Simply mandating a quota for women on management boards is a good first step, but not sufficient to ensure they will be heard.

“If women come into a traditionally male-dominated space where their full participation isn’t accepted, and the men are not seeing it as a benefit, it may not work,” said Atmadja. “Contrast that with the GMF results, where the men and women benefit from this improved collaboration,” she said.

Women participate in a focus group in Oromia to discuss a wide range of issues such as their community’s attitude towards women, land tenure, and their dietary diversity, with researcher Mahlet Negasa (right). Photo by Teshome Beyene/CIFOR-ICRAF

The Ethiopian research results could improve the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of household based GTAs and GMF approaches and contribute to the thin literature linking GTAs and irrigation infrastructure development in Africa, said Yaregal Zelalem, a gender and nutrition specialist at PASIDP II in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture.

“We can see how the GMF approach contributes to the sustainable use of common resources such as irrigable land and water,” said Zelalem. But success in scaling up these approaches, he added, will require a sizeable investment of financial resources, time, and labour.


This research is part of work on Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender-Transformative [SC2] approaches. In 2020, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) invited a consortium of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to work with selected IFAD projects to promote and strengthen women’s land rights through the integration of gender transformative approaches (GTAs) in rural development interventions by improving policies, tools and practices. cifor.org/wlr

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Topic(s) :   Food security Gender