Pastoralist women and food security: resourcefulness on the margins?

“Here, we have an unique opportunity to be fed on the role of pastoralist women in achieving food security and sustainable development”

With those words, Junko Sazaki, Director of FAO’s Social Policies and Rural Institutions Division, launched the side event on “Women’s empowerment for better resilience in pastoral communities” on Day 4 of the 44th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) at FAO in Rome. This event was organized in a partnership between numerous national and international organizations committed to pastoralists in general and pastoralist women in particular.

Pastoralism is an important livelihood worldwide. More than 200 million people derive their income and socio-cultural wellbeing from mobile livestock keeping. The various panelists (all women) confirmed that pastoralist women make an enormous contribution to food security and sustainable development. Ann Waters-Bayer of the Coalition of European Lobbies for Eastern African Pastoralism (CELEP) noted five major functions of pastoralist women: natural resource managers, livestock producers, income generators, family managers, and care and social cohesion providers.

Despite these important roles, the women face several challenges.

Firstly, their access to resources is more limited than in the past. Climate and environmental changes drastically affect the availability of natural resources. In this context of scarcity, the expropriation of land by external actors adds to the difficulties of pastoralist women. According to Sadia Ahmed, from the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), “Pastoral land is what attracts more covetousness in the world. Everyone wants to have his share in the pastoral lands that are continually encroached upon. Farmers, city dwellers, officials and foreign investors all want to have their share in pastoral lands”. Marite Alvarez from the Pastoramericas Regional Network reported similar trends in Argentina, where large-scale land acquisition negatively impacts pastoralist women, who are losing access to resources in a context where men’s rural exodus increases food production burdens and other responsibilities of women.

Secondly, some of the resources that belonged to pastoralist women are falling more and more into the hands of men, who seek to take control over them. Maty Ba Diao, Coordinator of the Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project (PRAPS), pointed out that, when dairying infrastructure is “modernised”, men invade into a sector of the pastoral economy that traditionally belongs to women. Such dynamics are favored when development interventions ignore the role of pastoralist women and fail to empower them to maintain control of the dairy sector.

Thirdly, growing insecurity – with its corollaries of theft, rape and violence in pastoral areas – seriously affects women. The mobility of the old days for marketing dairy products and handicrafts has become more dangerous. Pastoralist women who used to move freely, wearing high-value jewelery (their personal “bank account”), no longer dare to do this. As the Deputy Representative of Burkina Faso in Rome revealed, there were even cases where criminals forcibly removed the valuable earrings of pastoralist women, tearing their earlobes.

In this difficult context, pastoralist women have not resigned; instead, they are enterprising and innovative. They are increasingly practicing small-scale crop farming or market gardening to help meet their families’ needs. They also invest more in livestock, especially small ruminants. Many of them diversify their sources of income by practicing a wide range of economic activities that give them power within their households and communities. Through their growing access to education, pastoralist women are developing advocacy and lobbying strategies with the support of various donors, and sometimes even join city councils, as reported by Sadia Ahmed during the discussion. In this way, they participate more actively in decision-making concerning themselves and the pastoralist community.

Although this resourcefulness was highlighted during the discussion, the panelists did not place much emphasis on how pastoralist women collaborate with their men day by day to negotiate and exercise power. Few details were given about the innovations of pastoralist women, who are likely to develop strategies in harmony with men in their households to improve their living conditions. Pastoralist women are probably not awaiting the arrival of development aid to move forward. Even when external support was provided, very little attention was paid to how women take advantage of the opportunities available to them to negotiate a better position and to evolve in the pastoralist society, generally considered as “male-dominated”. In the discussion, pastoralist women were sometimes portrayed as mere automatons submitting to the dictates of development projects, of which they reproduce the teachings and the principles in a mechanical way.

In my view, the reflections must go further, seeking and highlighting what pastoralist women are doing to improve their living conditions, and how they interpret and translate external interventions into their daily lives. It would have been good to identify the forms of struggle and innovation by pastoralist women and how external actors in a partnership could accompany them in moving forward. The childcare initiated by pastoralist women in Somaliland to enable some of the women to concentrate on training sessions is an original example, shared by Sadia Ahmed, which needs to be promoted. The women’s own recognition of their marginalization and what they can do about it can be a springboard for the flowering of their talents and the development of innovations and initiatives through which they take greater advantage of various opportunities.

Pastoralist women could benefit more from development interventions if these were more oriented to the women’s priorities and needs. Joint learning processes and participatory innovation development, as promoted by the Prolinnova network, could yield better results. The most important message is that, although the situation of pastoralist women worldwide is not very positive, they do not resign, feel sorry for themselves or wait for outside support to bring solutions to all their problems. If external actors would give specific support to the initiatives of pastoralist women, these could derive more benefits for themselves and their communities.

It is encouraging that some development programs and national policies are already taking this into account. Susan Kaaria of FAO’s Social Policies and Rural Institutions Division presented the program “Accelerating Progress towards the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women”, which uses a holistic approach to empower hundreds of Afar women in Ethiopia. Ana-Regina Segura from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) highlighted the pro-mobility and gender-sensitive public policies for herders in Spain, which also secure women’s livelihoods and rights of access to resources. These examples could be instructive also for other pastoral contexts.


Blogpost by (Georges Djohy), #CFS44 Social Reporter – ([email protected])

Photo Credit: (Elaine Reinke and Silvia Sperandini/IFAD,

This post is part of the live coverage during the 44th Session of the Committee on World Food Security. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

23/10/2017 10:56


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