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Recognizing the African woman farmer

A farmer on the slopes of Mt Kenya, in the district of Embu, prepares her maize plot for planting CIMMYT
Boys learning new ideas of masculinity around campfires in rural Africa and “sisterhoods” formed to provide a common voice to women are starting to change attitudes about African women farmers, say the authors of a forthcoming book about gender and agriculture. But it will take many more such efforts to support women food producers, who make up 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. In some countries, that number rises to 70 to 80 percent.

Despite being a major presence in agriculture, women “usually produce less than male farmers because of their limited access to land, credit and other production inputs," said Melinda Sundell, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. Sundell is co-author of the book Transforming Gender Relations in Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: Promising Approaches, which was discussed at a side event today at World Water Week in Stockholm.

"A study in Kenya found that tools owned by female farmers were worth 18 percent as much as tools owned by male farmers,” she added. "Women’s lack of assets impacts directly on human development outcomes. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that countries in which women lack any right to own land have on average 60 percent more malnourished children.”

Policies supporting women farmers are “vital to help create the enabling environment” needed for women food producers to thrive, but "changing attitudes is paramount if policy is to become a reality on the ground,” explained Cathy Farnworth, another of the book’s co-authors.

Although people are aware of the key role women play as farmers, their “’empowerment’ is often seen as a win-lose game - men lose out and women gain. Nowhere is this more clear with land, where typically men govern women’s access rights to land," Farnworth told IRIN via email.

Grassroots advocacy

''All too often, men think that work on gender means that they will lose out, and historically it is true that programmes focusing on women only have ignored men’s real needs''
But years of grassroots lobbying and advocacy are paying off. Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) Kenya, a network of women’s self-help groups and community organizations, helped create a formal base for women’s voices to be heard during the constitutional debates that led to the new constitution in 2010.

That year, Kenya enacted "one of the most exciting and progressive constitutions on the continent with regard to ensuring women have equal rights to own, control and manage land," said Farnworth.

“Women networks in Kenya were instrumental to this outcome - but it is going to be a real challenge to convince men and traditional leadership/gatekeepers in the rural areas that women are equally entitled to inherit land from fathers."

Transforming gender relations

Transforming gender relations will be essential to this process. "All too often, men think that work on gender means that they will lose out, and historically it is true that programmes focusing on women only have ignored men’s real needs,” Farnworth said.

Instead, efforts to effect change must target both women and men within households. “These work to transform how decisions taken regarding how to run the farm, and how to allocate money earned, and who benefits. The results have been really very impressive because women and men see the gains to cooperation so quickly - it can take only months to change patterns of behaviour that have existed for generations."

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Change also depends on the involvement of men at all levels, she said. "This is true particularly in the case of adapting technologies and integrating into market value chains. Our findings show that promoting methodologies that encourage cooperation between women and men farmers reap productivity dividends as women and men share resources across the farm and maximize the efficiency of their decision-making.”

Role models

The authors also spoke to traditional leaders in Zambia's patrilineal communities who were trying to get women involved in key decision-making bodies.

"We talked to the Zambia Men’s Network, which is working to transform male behaviour towards women through organizing campfires where men gather in villages to talk through violence against women, and also work to support women for leadership positions. The Men’s Network is also working with boys in schools and boys’ campfires," added Farnworth. The initiative aims to develop male role models who will work on gender equity issues.

And Ghana’s former Minister of Women’s and Children’s Affairs, Alima Mahama, provided the book with case study about her work in gender-responsive budgeting - government planning and programming that advances gender equality. Her efforts have encouraged government departments to plan and spend according to the needs of women, men, boys and girls.

"She managed to get gender-responsive budgeting adopted by four ministries, including the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Education and Health,” said Farnworth.

Programmes like these are critical, not only for women but for their broader communities as well. “We have seen a common theme throughout the different case study experiences - namely, that improving gender equity can contribute directly to increasing agricultural productivity,” said Sundell.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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