E&M would love to help you find your path by providing inspiration, information, and incentives. That’s why we feature people who work in areas that are not frequently talked about, in our series on undiscovered professions. This time, Lara Roeven tells us about her work as a research assistant in Mexico, where she is part of a team of researchers who analyze the ways in which gender norms and agency influence the ability of men, women, and youth to learn about, access, and adopt innovations in agriculture and natural resource management. 

In 2018, I moved to Mexico City to study urbanization and urban geography at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I had written my bachelor thesis at the University of Amsterdam on the right to housing of immigrants without legal status in European cities and wanted to better understand the way in which social inequality manifests itself in cities. I was 20 years old and Amsterdam was the largest city I had ever lived in, which left me with nothing to compare a city as enormous and complex as Mexico City to. Being in Mexico, I was confronted with the fact that studying social inequality in the urban requires a strong understanding of social inequality in the rural. While the country’s rural population only constitutes 22% of the total population, it represents around two-thirds of the country’s extremely poor (IFAD). After my exchange program ended, I was lucky to find that an agricultural research institution was looking for a research assistant to work in its Gender and Social Inclusion Research Unit.

On the day of my interview, I took a bus from Mexico City’s central bus station. The interview was going to take place in a city called Texcoco, located 25 km northeast of the city. The bus took the federal highway Peñón-Texcoco, which connects the city to its metropolitan area. Here, Mexico City’s dizzying urbanity very quickly transformed into a unique rural scenery. I turned 21 years old during Christmas and in January I started working for an international non-profit research institution called the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known for its Spanish acronym: CIMMYT), that studies maize and wheat science for improved livelihoods. Since then, I have been setting my alarm at 6 AM daily to travel an hour and a half from Mexico City to Texcoco, to only return to my apartment in the city in the evening.

When I started working at CIMMYT, I met people from many different disciplines who are all working to find ways to contribute to food security and improve farmers’ livelihoods. Speaking with soil scientists, geographers, agronomists, sociologists, and economists allowed me to acquire an interdisciplinary perspective on the topic. I learned that food security and sustainability are complex issues that require an interdisciplinary approach.

Currently, I am part of a team of researchers who analyze the ways in which gender norms and agency influence the ability of men, women, and youth to learn about, access and adopt innovations in agriculture and natural resource management. Most of the time, I conduct data analyses and write literature reviews for the international research project called GENNOVATE. This project emphasizes that gender norms shape and are shaped by agricultural innovations and aims to better understand and reduce gender-based barriers to these innovations. I have contributed to research on Mexico, Ethiopia, Tanzania, India, and Afghanistan.

Central to the project’s study objectives and approach is the idea that gender equality and food security go hand in hand. In The State of Food and Agriculture Report (2011), the FAO states that if there would be no gender differences in accessing productive resources, yields could increase by 20 to 30 percent and 100 to 150 million people could get out of a situation of hunger.

Especially today, studying gender and social inclusion in agriculture is crucial. Many pressing issues that affect agriculture cannot be interpreted, let alone be solved, without studying social inequality in agriculture and natural resource management. Climate change and its resulting extreme weather events affect different people and communities in different ways. Given agriculture’s strong dependency on weather conditions, climate change could seriously threaten food security at large. As a result of deep-seated power structures, women are known to be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men. Rural women are less likely to own agricultural land. On top of that, they do not always have access to technical assistance and agricultural extension services. As women in rural areas are frequently the ones who are responsible for ensuring food security at the household level, they play an important role in addressing climate change and taking up adaptation strategies.

Through my work I also realized that agricultural innovations are not neutral: they can both help reduce social inequality and fuel its exacerbation. The migration of rural men to cities in Mexico and the United States with the goal of obtaining better-paid jobs has often resulted in women having to carry the double burden of performing household activities and taking care of the farm. Women who, as a result of men’s out-migration, head their households on their own, are not always able to meet the required amount of labor support to successfully implement an agricultural innovation. If households led by women stay behind while other households innovate, social inequality might only get larger. These findings give an incentive to, for example, conduct research on and develop labor-saving technologies that reduce the amount of farm work that women do and that can be accessed by poor women.

Hence, gender and social inclusion dynamics are a lot more complicated than we might think. This is what makes this research so interesting, as it is important to study how the issues of women and marginalized groups manifest themselves in different areas, and what researchers, policy-makers and development practitioners who work on the ground level can do to address these. I am thrilled to keep on contributing, bit by bit, to the knowledge production on food security and social and environmental justice around the world.

Cover photo by Bruno Cervera from Pexels


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