Extension services, also called rural advisory services, refer to the different activities which provide the information, guidance and services that farmers and other rural actors need to develop their knowledge, skills and practices and improve their livelihoods (GFRAS 2012). Extension services play a critical role in agricultural development for food and nutrition security and for improving productivity and livelihoods (FAO 2014). Yet, the failure of such services to adequately serve women farmers is widely documented (World Bank, FAO & IFAD, 2009; World Bank, 2012; Meinzen-Dick et al. 2011; Manfre et al. 2013). An oft-cited statistic is that women’s low access to productive resources and services such as extension reduces their productivity by 20 to 30 percent compared to men’s productivity (FAO 2011).
The gender gap in relation to extension services has several dimensions. First, although the presence of female extension agents is important for eliciting the participation of women farmers, women only make up 10 to 20 per cent of African extension staff (Manfre et al. 2013). Then, women farmers have much less access than their male counterparts to extension services; the proportion of women who have contact with extension staff is 40 to 90 percent lower than the proportion of men who have this contact (Meinzen-Dick et al. 2011). It is also important to recognize and address the double role that extension providers often have as gatekeepers to agricultural innovations and quality planting material by brokering not only knowledge but also access to subsidized farm inputs.
Thus, the effect of the gender gap in extension services also has implications for the unequal access to key resources. In addition, little attention is given to the role that extension services can play in helping women enhance their decision-making ability, improve their social capital, increase their ownership of assets and gain greater control over the use of income from agriculture, thereby support their empowerment. Christoplos (2010) observes that the gender gap in extension services is symptomatic of gender biases in the wider policy environment and societal norms. Overcoming these biases in relation to extension services requires careful attention to the advisory methods and approaches used, to who can access them and under which circumstances, and to the norms and institutions that stand in the way of equitable service provision.