Literature Review


Nomadic Women and the Use of Rangelands



Randa Gritli


















Introduction: The Nomadic pastoralists: who are they and where are they?


Nomadic Women

Their status and property rights

The role of Nomadic Women in pastoral and agropastoral management: gender division of labour


The socio-economical relevance of Nomadic Women

Their contribution in livestock production

Other socio-economic relevance


Threats for Nomadic Women

Natural resources and environmental degradation


Sedentarization: how sedentarization affects Nomadic Women?


Income-generating opportunities for Nomadic Women and suggestions


Conclusion: The need to include women as active participants in development projects: why?


Annotated bibliography


Introduction: The Nomadic pastoralists: Who are they and where are they?


"Nomadism is a rational adaptation of human life to the environment and became a way of life. In most of the areas in which it is practised, it is the only way to survive in marginal, semi-arid environments, and the majority of pastoralists have a deep respect and knowledge of their environment". (Richard Hogg, Disasters, Volume 16, No.2. 1992).

Hogg's definition is a salient point since an ancient rhetoric-which appears to come up again and again- claims nomadism as responsible for environmental degradation. In fact, it is undeniable that ruminant livestock is husbanded to convert grass and browse into useful products such as meat, milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, blood, manure, hair, wool, hides, and to provide herders with transport and traction. Research demonstrates that most of these nomadic peoples are in sustainable relationships with their habitats through a series of adaptive strategies including spatial mobility and broad though controlled access to rangeland and water, herd diversification, prudent offtake rates, and exchange relationships with sedentary peoples (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992).

We can assert that the sub-Saharan Africa region, the North africa, the Middle East and Central Asia include the largest number of pastoral nomads. As Stanford (1983:2) indicated


"The arid and semi-arid areas of the earth...cover some 50 million Km2 or 35 per cent of the earth's land surface area...with a total human population of 500-600 million people. Of these total some 30-40 million are believed to have "animal based"economies, and the majority of these are pastoralists. Within the 30-40 million, 50-60 per cent are found in Africa, 25-30 per cent in Asia, 15 per cent in all America, and less than 1 per cent in Australia... In terms of the number of pastoralists, the most important single countries are (in rough order of numbers) Sudan, USA, Somalia, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, India and China, each with about 1 million or more pastoralists including men, women, and children." Stanford (1983:2)


The declining resource base which results of an increasing human and livestock production and the intervention of external factors (governments - who don't look with favour on pastoral nomads-, development agencies, disasters-human and natural), proved to be by far the biggest problem that are facing the nomadic societies today.


  1. Nomadic Women

The early studies of pastoralism largely ignore women's economic activities and social status, even though there have been some improvements in more recent literature, especially by anthropologists (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992). It is a fact that there is a lack of information about the nomadic house-hold organization and their social organization, their gender division of labour and lamentably there is an underestimation of the role that Nomadic Women play in livestock production and management of labour. Unquestionably, women in pastoral societies have a critical role in the socio-economic and cultural activities, and the management and conservation of natural resources and environmental amenities of the household and communities. Such importance could also be true in nations development strategies.


Within each livestock management unit, rights over animals and their products are differentiated by sex and age, with older men generally privileged in the ownership and disposal of animals through sale and slaughter. Men's de jure ownership rights over animals are guaranteed by a near universal gender-discriminatory set of inheritance rules rooted in androcentric kinship systems (Dahl 1987).

These discriminatory inheritance laws, however, do not imply women's total exclusion from animal ownership and are felt in different ways according to the different existing nomadic pastoral groups. These discriminating elements depend, rightly so, on different religious, social and cultural factors.

In such pastoral societies as the Tuareg women's livestock ownership rights are specially recognized:


"Twareg women accumulate livestock through important gifts from both parents and other relatives after birth (alkhalal) which form the basis of their own herds. Women may receive outright gifts of livestock from consanguine kin throughout their lives, and in all marriages after the first, it is usually the wife herself who accepts the brideprice (taggalt). As a result of these gifts and pre-mortem inheritance practices Twareg women may become quite wealthy in livestock, and it is not uncommon for a woman to be wealthier than her husband..."(Oxby, 1988:278-279).

Dupire (1962) explains that in the case of the WoDaaBe of West Africa, women receive cattle from their families either as gifts or through inheritance. The cattle belong to the women in that they control the milk, keep the animals in case of divorce, and bequeath them to their children. But it is the fathers and husbands who manage the stock and even sell them should need arise.

When and where Islam is practised, women's rights of ownership are recognized by the Shari'a (Lois Beck), although Muslim law grants daughters only half the inheritance rights enjoyed by sons. Unfortunately, these inheritance laws, despite's the religious validation are not always respected. This is the case, for example, among the Sudanese Arabs where male agnates retain custody over women's animals.

However, women are able to nullify these discriminating laws by their ability to acquire animals in exchange for dairy goods, handicrafts, cooked food, and such services as midwifery, collecting wood and herbage. Michael (1990) states that among the Baggara, women's cash contribution to household budgets from milk marketing account for up to two-thirds of the total annual household incomes. These incomes are controlled by women, and often go toward the purchase of new stock and animal feed.

Even where women have inherited or otherwise acquired stock, they enjoy less freedom in the disposal of animals than do men. Adult men's typical role as head of the household legitimizes their decision-making with regard to disposal of all household stock although their wives are customarily consulted before such actions as selling or slaughtering are taken.

Nevertheless, these ideologies and structure that disfavour women's equal ownership rights over animals, by restricting the alienation of a woman's stock, may in the long run contribute to the security of elder widows who depend on their sons for support.

This inclination of pastoral societies in being androcentric is also reflected in women's absence from formal political institutions. Decisions regarding herd mobility, conflict resolution, and diplomatic relations with neighbouring groups and the state are made and represented by older men. Besides, women can enjoy high social status and exercise a considerable measure of autonomy and decision-making power, a result of their participation in daily productive and reproductive activities. Gender-discriminatory property relations and political representation may further be challenged through such institutions as trousseau, fecundity, agnatic support, sexual rejection and public humiliations of husbands, refusal to do house chores, divorce rights, and reproductive control. Women exercise, in fact, considerable informal political influence in their communities and households with regards to men's economic activities, marriage of their offspring, inheritance, transhumance routes, and the like. (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992).

Almost nowhere are pastoral women described as being owners of land or even of influencing how land might be used. There is a serious lack of information about the relationship between pastoral women and land.

The division of pastoral labour responsibilities is organized by sex and age. Thus, few exceptions exist and they depend mostly on traditional and religious factors. The adherence to Islam is a significant limiting factor since the code of honour and shame restrict contact between sexes even though, shari'a is commonly misunderstood in disfavour of women.

The pastoral gender division of labour only barely assigns to women major herding responsibilities over large stock, within the prominent exception of Twareg women in Algeria, Niger, and Mali, who may own camels and who may engage in herding activities of small and large ruminants away from their domestic plain (Worley 1991). On the other hand, there are many reports of women herding sheep and goats, whose shorter grazing range does not call for women's prolonged separation from their homesteads.

Men's work has generally been associated with herd management and women's work with the children and house. As a result the extent of women's involvement with livestock has most of the time been under-estimated. In fact, the balance of work is such that women frequently spend more time than their husbands in animal care. (Talle, 1988:11).

Women are closely involved in caring for young and sick livestock as well as for animals kept near the homestead. Their involvement in activities related to birthing and caring for the newly born animals is fundamental to the pastoral economy. As "milk managers" they are responsible for milking, processing milk products and marketing of dairy products. Women's contributions to child care and the daily reproductive needs of the household support their claims to milk. While such pastoral food products as butter, yoghurt, ghee and cheese are usually prepared and distributed by women, and women are customarily associated with milking, in some societies milking is not done by women or they are restricted to milking only certain kinds of stock. Among the Beja of Sudan, women are not permitted to milk camels, and another example, in high mountain communities of northern Pakistan, only men milk yaks and goats, and only women milk cows. Regardless of their direct participation in milking, women, by virtue of their mothering and domestic responsibilities, usually decide how to allocate milk between human and animal needs (Adan, 1988), but it is not always so easy to manage since gender-specific perceptions of milk, rooted in men's and women's relation to animals, dairy products, and meat, may lead to marital conflicts and interpretative disputes over women's milk rights. Men prefer to allocate milk to young animals and this, of course depends on their jural rights to own and dispose of livestock. On the other hand, as mothers, women's interest is primarily focused on their children. Women's role in the distribution of milk grants them high status by the virtue of their control over the future welfare of their children, over hospitality, and over growth of the household's herd. Women's milk rights also grant them decision-making power over food processing and distribution within and beyond their communities.

Women also perform all domestic tasks including food preparation and collecting firewood and water. They are responsible for child rearing and usually for food provision. Nomadic women also dismantle and rebuild their houses when the herd is moved to new pastures. Weaving mats and cloth for domestic use in clothing, furnishing and making tents is often the duty of women, who may exchange some of their woven goods for cash. Men's responsibilities as herd managers include moving, feeding and watering the herds, castration, vaccination and slaughter, building enclosures and digging wells. Senior men are responsible for planning and decision making with regard to livestock, while junior men and boys perform most of the physical labour and herding.

Each culture evaluates gender-specific activities, and these evaluations are not necessarily congruent with actual gender contributions to the pastoral production system. Men can and do carry out feminine tasks of cooking and caring for children, the elderly and sick animals, and women can and do assume male tasks, especially when men are absent on labour migration. Tamang men in Tibet are reported to be willing to undertake all activities associated with women with the exception of pounding grain (Panter-Brick, 1986). In Yemen, Muslim Bedouin women may, in their husbands', brothers', sons', and fathers' absence, undertake the "men's work" of ploughing, harvesting qat, and tending livestock (Adra, 1983).

Despite overall similarities, variations occur in different cultural and economic contexts. For example, where social convention constrains women's mobility, as among Tuareg, it is men rather than women who go to market and make household purchases (Oxby, 1978:284). In contrast, women have greater freedom of movement and are more involved in the sale of milk products (Talle, 1988).

  1. The socio-economical relevance of Nomadic Women

A pastoral production system rarely focuses on a single product, but makes use rather of both "continuing" (calves, lambs, and kids; milk, butter and cheese; transport and traction; manure; hair and wool; and occasionally blood) and "final" (meat; hides and skins) products. (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992).

It is clear that in pastoral societies, women play a critical role in the socioeconomic activities, moreover, as it has been already mentioned in this paper, there is a general serious and unpleasant lack of consideration and under-estimation of the role that women play in livestock production and in management of labour.

Where milk production generates a surplus above household and herd consumption requirements, women may benefit by taking it to local markets and to small town processing centres. Barbara Michael (1990), reporting on production and marketing of milk and dairy products in the Sudan, states that Baggara women participate in all stages of this economic activity, and that their incomes constitute two-thirds of total annual household budget. The incomes generated are controlled by women, and often go toward the purchase of new stock or animal feed. Women's marketing links to various private and state cheese factories are facilitated by government pick-up posts and by a chain of middle women who sell the milk to retail sellers. Similarly, reporting from Somalia, Little (1989) documents the central role played by women in the camel milk trade both in large urban areas and small settlements. Pastoral women serving consumer's needs in small encampments may also engage in milk transaction in urban areas, where markets are dominated primarily by older local women traders who act as intermediaries between producers and consumers. The desegregated nature of the milk market, the relative durability of soured milk, and the low initial capital investment facilitate the participation of distant pastoralist women in milk marketing, which allows them a degree of cash autonomy (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992).

The literature is exceptionally unforthcoming on the roles of women in the marketing of wool, hides and skins, yet these are often highly significant outputs of pastoral and agropastoral production systems. For example China is the World's fourth largest producer of wool clip and 71 percent of which is in pastoral areas. Because their relative imperishability as compared with meat and milk facilitates movement across vast distances, and because they undergo a series of processing transformations with increased value added to each step before reaching the ultimate consumer, wool, hair, hides and skins tend to involve powerful, national and international interests. The thousands and millions of poor pastoral producers who compete to provide the basic materials for conversion to carpets, shoes, and suiting enjoy precious little income leverage.

In West Africa, herded sheep do not produce wool, although the hides of sheep, goats, and cattle are tanned and used locally. In East Africa, where herding households tend to slaughter their own livestock, there is a greater household involvement in hide and skin marketing which is an important source of income for women.

Moreover, there are other critical socio-economic importance of women in trees and forage production, as well as other natural and wildlife production systems. Gathering wild foods (berries, fruit, plants and roots) are important resources also for medicinal and other purposes and not only for nutritional income. Unfortunately, literature is lacking on this topic and lamentably it is the same on the relationship between women and the processing and marketing of hides, skins, hair, and wool. Few solid data and analyses are available on these two major topics. 

  1. Threats for Nomadic Women

The multiplicity of women's tasks involves them in a close interaction with and dependence on the natural environment in a number of ways, in collecting wood and water, and foraging for both animal and human consumption. There are therefore, particular repercussions for women -especially poor women- as a result of diminished availability of rangeland resources. (Pointing 1995).

Degradation of pasture land increases the amount of time that has to be spent caring for young, sick and feeble livestock which are kept at the homestead. It is women who are responsible for collecting water and fodder for these animals. Moreover degradation of the pasture lands contributes to the deterioration of both animals and fodder supply, a combination which considerably increases the burden of work on women. Any deterioration in the quality of grazing is rapidly translated into a reduction in milk products. Thus, pasture degradation has a particular impact on women by further reducing the milk supply which is so critical to household provisioning and to women's income.

Wood shortage is another aspect of resource reduction which has particular repercussions for women. Women are responsible for collecting firewood and often for house-building. These have become increasingly time-consuming and tiring tasks as longer distances must be walked to find and gather sufficient firewood and construction material.

Land privatization and environmental degradation also result in restricted availability of wild foods such as berries, fruit, plants, and roots.

Nomadic women face additional problems, as a deterioration of the rangeland necessitates more frequent moves to find new pasture. House-moving is the women's responsibility, and more frequent moves means that this activity becomes much more time consuming (Dahl, 1979: 64).

The evidence thus indicates that environmental degradation contributes significantly to women's work loads while reducing their capacity to meet their household provisioning obligations. It suggests that the extra time many women have to spend in subsistence activities such as gathering wood, water, and fodder reduces the amount of time available for other economic activities. For poor women, or those with limited access to resources, the impact is likely to be even greater.

Although possibilities for expanding the arena of pastoral commercialization often appear attractive to development planners, there may also be substantial costs, especially those associated with greater social differentiation. While some producers clearly profit from sales, others, perhaps the majority, may find themselves further ratcheted into poverty or forced out of livestock rearing altogether.

The shift from subsistence dairying to commercial meat operations fundamentally affects the pastoral community in general and pastoral women in particular. A successful beef -or mutton- producing operation requires a high survival of male stock; both heifer and bull calves must receive adequate supplies of milk. For a pastoral community, raising bull calves on milk is a luxury to be enjoyed only after human hunger is satisfied, and during the frequent periods of low milk production male stock beyond herd reproductive requirements may be allowed to starve. That is, in the hierarchy of milk consumers, pastoral children in a subsistence dairy operation take precedence over animals:


"The resolution seems to be a compromise on calf/child needs by favouring the female calves...and by eliminating a high percentage of male calves. Meadows estimates that 40% of male calves disappear before the age of 12 months throughout northeastern Kenya and Masai rangeland, compared with only a 5% mortality for female calves." (Dyson-Hudson, 1991: 236).

Shifting from subsistence dairying to commercial meat production tends to reduce the size of the pastoral population: ..."commercialization can lead to displacement of labour from poorer, subsistence-oriented pastoral households... This loss of a work force of course further reduces the productivity capacity of poorer households..." (Sikana and Kerven, 1991:24).

A more immediate consequence of the shift out of dairying is its adverse effect on women's normal authority over the management of household milk supplies -how much is allocated to animals, children or other members of the household, guests, and for marketing- which is compromised by the need to feed milk to male calves. In commercial beef production, in which the male calf becomes a surrogate consumer of milk for the ultimate urban or foreign purchaser of its meat, women lose both the revenue from milk sales and the status attendant on making decisions relating to the family's food supply and household hospitality (Kerven, 1987). Moreover, while women may contribute heavily in the labour-intensive task of caring for the calves, their male relatives control income from sales to ranchers and feedlot operators. Excluded from the male-run animal marketing network, women may even lose control over their own livestock as men will first sell off animals that belong to their wives.

Reductions in milk availability force changes in the pastoral diet and in the amount of time women spend on food processing. Although herders always include some non-pastoral foods in their diets, a meat-oriented production system implies an increase in obtaining food from the market. Grain, vegetable oil, tea, and other consumables become now components of the diet, and these are obtained for cash (Bahhady, 1981; Pouillon, 1990). Pastoral women continue to be responsible for feeding their households, but the erosion of milk and dairy marketing increases their dependence on men to provide them with needed cash. As cereals become more prominent in the diet, women must spend more time in transforming the unhusked grain into meal and in obtaining more fuelwood for cooking, which increases land degradation and impoverishment.

There are some indications that the dietary shift away from dairy produce negatively impacts on the health of both women and children (Loutan and Lamotte, 1984; S. Prior, 1989; Teitelbaum, 1980).

If commercial meat transactions tend to marginalize women, would not commercial milk transactions enhance women's status and control, since the marketing of surplus milk and dairy products is normally within the women's domain? In fact, what seems to be a source of status and economic autonomy in subsistence herding may be co-opted by development policies that favour capital intensive dairy operations using powdered or concentrated milk imports from Western countries. Absence of infrastructure and preservation technology has so far prevented most women's direct access to urban consumers.

Woman's increased burden and struggle as well as the hardship they face in their daily activities and responsibilities to provide for her family is the result of sedentarization and the impoverishment of pastoralists.

Sedentarization implies collecting wood to build houses. Actually, as sedentary women tend to build larger and more numerous houses than nomadic women, more wood and more work is required for the building and repair of their homes. Women have often to travel great distances to find wood suitable for house-building.

While sedentarization has been taking place, women's involvement in crop production has increased, while their mobility, and therefore access to markets where they traditionally traded their dairy goods, has declined. Dairy marketing is now done by male heads of the households and through middlemen, which deprives women of their traditional rights over milk animals and participation in sales decisions. Again, commercialization and consequent sedentarization has reinforced gender hierarchies and made women more dependent on men for cash. Women especially showed reluctance toward the implementation of a sedentarization scheme that would ignore and undermine their economically derived political status. Thus, sedentarization and agricultural activities correlate with a decline in pastoral women's rights and status.


  1. Income Generating opportunities for Nomadic Women and suggestions

Among the suggestions which would contribute to the strategies aimed at improving the position of Nomadic Women, the most important could be through income generating activities. Processing and selling livestock products, trees and forage products, and wildlife products, which are available in rangelands, could be a good source of income for Nomadic Women. Since this source of income is compromised by the already threatened situation of rangelands' degradation it is also important if not fundamental, to collaborate with these women in order to safeguarding these lands.

  1. Increase of livestock and livestock products:

- small livestock

- livestock products (wool, hides and skins, meat products)

- milk products (cheese, butter, ghee, sour milk)

- handicrafts (carpets, suiting, artisan work...)

  1. Trees and Forages:

a) Gathering

- medical plants

- forage and fodder

- fruits, nuts and berries

- gums, resins and tannins

b) Making instruments

- bows and arrows

- instruments for the household

- carvings

- musical instruments

3. Wildlife and related products

Here are a few suggestions that should be considered as indicators to help Nomadic Women to have a better quality of live and to improve their declining situation:



  1. Conclusion: The need to include women as active participants in development projects: why?

It is not difficult then, to respond to the question of why women have to be included in development projects, since women, as briefly shown, play a critical role in pastoral societies.

The importance to understand the basic needs of nomadic women and to understand how we can concretely help these women, and what we can do for them -although respecting their habits, traditions and mentality- is crucial.

Moreover, the need to understand the changing roles of these women and their full participation in the development projects is of great importance.

There has been until today a lamentably ignorance of the socio-economic roles of women in pastoral societies and in the projects, women were treated as if they were irrelevant. "...Development planner's ignorance of the economic roles of women in pastoral societies -indeed ignorance of pastoral socioeconomy and political ecology in general- contributed to the relatively poor performance of "livestock projects in the region..." (Horowitz, Jowkar 1992).

Women's participation and involvement in the many phases of projects and the urgent necessity to include them as active participants is the key to assure the successfulness of the project itself.

Development projects should be more sensitively attuned to incorporate pastoralist women into the preparation and management of projects and the definition of project objectives and a

gender-based pastoral management system should become the basis for development strategies.

The importance of a good cooperation and consideration of the human -and gender- aspect is therefore essential.


  1. Annotated Bibliography

The literature on women in pastoral societies is relatively limited when compared to the vast body of research on women in agriculture. The recent nature of this newly emerging literature on pastoral women, and the relatively few persons who have undertaken it, leaves many questions only partially answered, and of course much in-depth field research remains to be done. Although this body of literature is not exhaustive, it is however an excellent base to start with.

This section presents the bibliographic citations on Nomadic Women. Each entry includes bibliographic details and an abstract of contents. Details have been preserved where useful to illustrate or exemplify a specific issue. The entries are arranged alphabetically by author surname, and chronologically by the year for the works by the same author. Whenever more than one author have collaborated to the publication, they are listed under the name that appears first.

Degree of relevance is indicated with stars -from one to four- and depends on the importance of the author, the pertinence with the subject, and how recent is the book or article; of course the most relevant authors, are indicated with four stars.