The University of Maryland developed its Women in Agriculture Program as a response to what AREC faculty and affiliates identified as a critical gap in international extension efforts.
Women play a key role in food security around the world. They are integrally involved in family agriculture, food acquisition, and the preparation of meals. Although roles vary, the contributions of women in growing, preparing, and selling food are vital to the strength and health of their families and nations.
Nonetheless, women have lower literacy rates than men, fewer educational and training opportunities, and carry a greater burden of family care:
- Among the 774 million adults (15 years and older) who still cannot read or write, two-thirds of them (493 million) are women.
- Although the overall illiteracy rates worldwide are decreasing, the proportion of illiterate women has not changed. Achieving universal literacy remains a significant challenge, particularly in Africa, and South-Central and Western Asia
- Women spend at least twice as much time as men on domestic work, and when all work – paid and unpaid – is considered, women work longer hours than men do.
With proper training and support, women can produce food for the family and sell surplus food for income, thus improving food security and nutrition.
WIA encourages women to develop and strengthen their own social networks, to improve their access to information services and important agricultural and market information. These relationships begin with families and communities and are extended through Farm Field School networks.
Additionally, WIA seeks to strengthen extension services available to women by:
- Increasing the number of women becoming extension professionals. The first step in improving female access to extension services is opening the field up to women. WIA does this by partnering with academic institutions, female cooperatives, government agencies, and other local and international groups, to create channels for women to work in the agriculture sector. WIA has been involved in the creation of an internship program for recent female university and vocational school graduates. These opportunities prepare them for future employment and increase their marketability as an agriculture professional.
- Supplementing their education with technical training and hands-on experience. WIA aims to increase both the quantity and quality of professional female extension agents entering the field. In addition to internship programs, many of WIA's activities center around supervising and guiding extension agents as they grow in the field. This is done by shadowing their extension visits, following up with the women they work with, and providing on-going trainings on horticulture, livestock management, "farming as business," market chain analyses, and other key topics.
- Creating spaces to connect extension agents and smallholder female farmers. Through our partnerships with local institutions, such as public universities and government ministries, WIA has set up a variety of demonstration gardens, which include everything from beekeeping, to low-cost crop irrigation, and integrated poultry and fish production.
The WIA program fundamentally believes that improving extension services for women is a long-term investment in any given country's agriculture sector, at home and abroad. National development is not possible without the inclusion of women in key sectors, namely agriculture and nutrition.