What does women’s empowerment mean?

According to Agnes Quisumbing, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, when women are included in an activity, they have been reached. When women experience an increase in well being, they have benefited. It is only when women have the ability to make strategic life choices and to put those choices into action that they are empowered.

For two days, Quisumbing and nearly 200 students, faculty, researchers, and practitioners from around the world gathered at Virginia Tech to raise critical issues in gender and international development. Organizers say it’s the first conference of its kind aimed toward students and early-career professionals.

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“One of the difficulties of this field is that many of the countries in which we work do not have definitions of empowerment,” Quisumbing said in a keynote speech on gender equity in agricultural development.

Participants representing 11 countries, 17 academic institutions, and several development organizations joined in open discussions, networking opportunities, breakout sessions, and poster presentations that documented research and experiences on such topics as land rights, livestock ownership, and discrimination.

A second keynote speaker addressed the importance of titles to land. Carmen Diana Deere, distinguished professor emerita of Latin American studies and food and resource economics at the University of Florida, stressed that women’s land ownership is tied to women’s bargaining power in such areas as health care. “One of the things we must spend more time researching is the discrimination that discourages women from involvement in any activity.”

Krista Jacobs, senior gender adviser in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Food Security, stressed the vital role of gender in food security programs.

“You’re not going to have food security, inclusive agricultural growth, or good nutrition without gender equality and women,” Jacobs said. “Knowing that women are 40 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, we need women as well as men to be actively participating, resourced, making decisions, informed, and leaders in agriculture.”

Jacobs added, “The conference acknowledges that all of us are still learning and engaging, as it brought together many disciplines, from agronomy to genetics and environment. It speaks volumes to Virginia Tech’s conceptualization of what development looks like and what women’s roles are in international development.”

Maria Elisa Christie, director of Women and Gender in International Development in the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, said, “Gender inclusivity is often measured by the number of women participating, or it is not taken into consideration at all. This conference was designed to change the way we think about gender, inclusiveness, and participation — to go beyond the research and theory and explore how our work impacts real people in their daily lives around the world.”

Seven people are seated on a platform facing an audience, that is not pictured. A giant screen is illuminated behind the speakers on the left side of the picture.
Faculty, practitioners, and researchers share their experiences and career paths during the career panel.

Both budding and seasoned professionals in international development took part in a career panel that featured experienced researchers and professionals in development. “Through the conference, we are birthing a new generation of researchers and practitioners who wil­­l integrate gender research into their work,” Christie said.

Habiba Abdelaal, a student from Ohio University, said, “After leaving this conference, I feel like I have new connections, knowledge of more fieldwork, and awareness of what’s really happening in the world of development.” More than half of the participants were students from universities, including 34 from Virginia Tech.

More than 60 poster presenters also shared research, such as a project to improve drying of fruits and vegetables for female farmers in Nepal, the impacts of mobile phones in patriarchal societies, and challenges faced by female village chicken producers in Kenya.

The conference was organized by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. The center also houses the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management and other international development projects at Virginia Tech.  

Story and video by April Raphiou

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