Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA7

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Reaching Out to Third World Women


Patrick Livingston
Extension 4-H Youth Area Agent
Cooperative Extension Service
Michigan State University-Cheboygan

Barbara A. Holt
Associate Professor
School of Vocational Education
Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge

    The problem with Nepal is our women - they are weak (Nepalese government farm manager, male, 1976).

    Men are the greatest obstacle to receptivity - and to any other progress in programs for women (international development consultant, female, speaking of Nepal, 1986).

As the quotes above illustrate, there may be disagreement about the roles that women play, but there's no question of the growing awareness of the importance of women in contributing to rural development in nations around the world.

Some poorer areas of the world are responding incredibly slowly to the need for improvement in food production at a point in history where maintaining the status quo will endanger the lives of a considerable portion of the world's population. Providing better access for women to the tools of agricultural development may be the deciding factor.

Can Extension Help?

This challenge was addressed in the 1984 Extension Committee on Organization and Policy position paper, New Directions: The International Mission of the Cooperative Extension Service - A Statement of Policy. One of the basic concerns in the paper was that

    ...Extension leadership, with its experience in technology transfer and its long history of community organization and farmer involvement, should participate more actively in international agricultural development programs.1

One of the enduring strengths of Extension in the United States has been its ability to structure complementary educational experiences not only for farmers, but also for every member of farm and rural families, including women. Programs designed to enable each family member to apply decision-making, management, leadership, and other life skills toward the mutual benefit of family and community account for Extension's broad-based popularity in rural America. As other countries prepare to pay more attention to women's contributions to agriculture, they may want to study the roots that established a vital Extension in this country.

Should Extension Become Involved?

This is a question many of us have heard from our clientele. Although the answer can be complicated, it can be stated simply. Our country is part of an interdependent web linking all countries of the world. A missing or weakened strand affects the overall efficiency of the production effort and jeopardizes the stability of the web itself. The same case can be made for integrating women into the development process at all stages. Rural progress will be most difficult to achieve without their input.

The United States Extension Service, as one of the most successful development programs in the entire world, has a great deal to contribute to efforts in other countries. However, in the area of international growth, Extension is only one of a multitude, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, the United Nations, and a myriad of others.

For Extension to determine the role it can best perform in this environment, a situation analysis is needed. It's essential for leaders becoming involved in overseas aspects of Extension to understand what has worked and why before embarking on what could become a most important voyage. As an example, let's focus on a specific program in Nepal where involving women has made a difference.

Nepal Program

The kingdom of Nepal is sandwiched between the two most populous nations of the earth, India and China. The country, although seemingly tiny, ranges from sea level to the Himalayan mountains and hosts dozens of ethnic and tribal groups among its 14 million people. Nepal also is known as one of the poorest of the poor countries of the earth.

A World Bank study concluded that:

    Nepal has reached a critical state in its development. The country is caught in a vicious circle of poverty and, as difficult as it is to break the circle, the next five to ten years may represent Nepal's last chance to do so without having to become completely dependent upon the goodwill of aid donors.2

Perhaps the only ray of hope offered by the report was in a single paragraph that stated:

    Debilitating health and nutrition deficiencies are one of the worst facets of life in Nepal and badly affect productivity and learning ability. The education of females assumes special importance in this regard, as it's the most effective means of introducing such practices into the households.3

The Nepal government identified as a priority in the sixth five-year plan (1979-1984) the introduction of women's small scale-production enterprises in agriculture, cottage industries, and services.4 A Women's Development Section (WDS) was created as a cell of the Ministry of Local Development. This WDS cell, funded through the United Nations (UNICEF), served as the catalyst for a unique program entitled, "Production Credit for Rural Women." The program was designed to increase the income of poor, rural women by involving them in small-scale production activities.

The design for this program at the local level wasn't too different from those developed to meet local program needs here, but because this was Nepal and not Anytown, U.S.A., a number of specific barriers had to be surmounted, primarily the lack of receptivity of patriarchal village governments to women field staff working in their midst.

The success of this program is partly due to its leader, who has been described as

    ...a woman who has been firm and strong in response to pressure; humane in response to personal needs; creative in response to problems and committed to project goals.5

With such a leader come good followers (village-level workers equally committed), a component that we in Extension long have recognized as a prime ingredient for successful programming.

The program also benefited from wise planning that targeted only five of the country's 74 districts for a pilot phase to work out the details of management. The problem of providing credit without collateral for the women who had scarce resources had been worked out through an established Small Farm Development Program,6 that was geared to the needs and repayment abilities of small farmers. The female "small farmer" has shown herself to be a much safer financial risk than her male partner, with repayment rates consistently higher.7

By giving high priority to projects targeting women, by providing access to credit, by opening up new sources of income in traditionally male occupations, and with committed leadership, the women of Nepal have started on the road to fuller participation in the national development process.

Significance to Nepal

So what is the significance of all this to the people of Nepal? First, it provided a means for socially disinherited farm families to view themselves with fresh eyes. Women who participated in the credit program now are taking part in community development activities and assuming a more prominent role in all aspects of community life. One Women's Development officer said:

When I came here less than four years ago I could not find a single woman who wanted to join a small farmer group. Today there are eleven groups in Budhanilkantha with over a hundred members. These days the women are beginning to come to me.8

Significance to America

What does this mean to the average American? In the policy paper quoted above, a second concern addressed the belief that

...more active international involvement should lead to an increase in domestic educational programs which will assist U.S. farmers and others to understand the international dimensions of our agricultural commerce with other nations.9

Every effort that succeeds in helping the people of Nepal toward self-sufficiency increases the potential for U.S./Nepal trade and thereby stabilizes the global web. The average American can benefit spiritually in the knowledge that starvation is less likely to affect a stable society. More realistically, he or she can relate to the fact that our tax dollars won't be spent in the effort to support Nepal's economy.


Over the past two decades, we've witnessed in several areas the impact of global events on our everyday lives. The changing dynamics of this world no longer afford us the illusion of pretense that "none of that concerns me." While many of us find it difficult to venture beyond the borders of our country, much remains to be done to prepare our clientele for the changes the world will encounter now and in the future.

Our responsibility to our clientele demands that we understand the meaning of global interdependence and communicate that understanding to help maintain a strong local community through a stable, productive world. Making rural women around the world an integral part of these development efforts will go a long way toward realizing this goal.


1. Lowell Watts, New Directions: The International Mission of the Cooperative Extension Service - A Statement of Policy (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1984), pp. 4-5.

2. H. Yukon, Nepal: Development, Performance and Prospects (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1979), p. v.

3. Ibid.

4. M. Acharaya and L. Bennett, Status of Women in Nepal (Kathmandu, Nepal: United States Agency for International Development, 1979).

5. N. Axinn, Personal correspondence, 1986.

6. M. Giri and S. Cameron, "Give Us More Credit, Power for the Future: Women in the 1980s," UNICEF News (No. 122, 1985), p. 20.

7. Ibid., p. 23

8. Ibid.

9. Watts, New Directions.