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2 Findings of the field experiences, lessons learned and recommendations

The findings presented in this section are based on some 50 field experiences (in Africa and Asia) dealing with gender and drylands that were identified through a search on the Internet. The main aim of all field activities taken into account in the analysis was to exploit drylands’potential while conserving and regenerating the natural resource base and ensuring the participation of local women and men in project activities.

The selection criteria for field experiences to be included in the analysis were:

This section also outlines the lessons learned regarding specific issues such as sustainability, awareness raising, income generation, etc., as well as recommendations to ensure gender-responsive development and management of drylands.

Key findings

The gender-based roles, relations, concerns and obstacles that rural women and men face in drylands development are also found in non-dryland areas of the developing world, so the findings reported here (even though based on African and Asian case studies) are relevant to a wide range of situations. Gender discrimination in drylands (as in many other areas of the developing world) is a result of an unequal social, cultural and economic structure and limited political and organizational influence, which translate into marginalisation, poverty, food insecurity and limited access to resources.

The findings have been classified in the following three main categories: (i) drylands, desertification and poverty; ii) gender roles in drylands; (iii) gender roles in biodiversity and land conservation. [The countries into brackets refer to the case studies presented in section 3].

Drylands, desertification and poverty

Worldwide, one billion people in 110 nations earn directly their livelihoods in drylands. Nearly all of these people, and the drylands on which they depend, are at constant risk from land degradation/desertification, which can be the result of climate change or natural phenomena but is more likely to arise from human activity.

Desertification and poverty are closely and directly linked to each other. While desertification can lead to famine, malnutrition, under-nourishment, epidemics, economic and social instability and migrations, these can, in turn, cause or increase desertification. In addition, poverty contributes to land degradation in drylands by inducing poor women and men to exploit the natural resource base in an unsustainable manner. Degradation then lowers productivity and incomes, thereby increasing poverty and further exacerbating pressure on the natural resource base. [China; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Mauritania; Niger; South Africa]

The survival strategies adopted to combat desertification include the overexploitation of accessible natural resources and migration from rural to urban areas or to other countries, which usually involves men leaving for seasonal or longer-term work elsewhere. [China; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Niger; Sudan]. The analysis of field experiences shows the link between population growth and land degradation in dryland areas. The advancement of women and gender equality are likely to help reduce fertility rates, thereby having an indirect affect on the sustainable development of drylands. [China, Sudan]

Gender roles in drylands

In Africa and Asia it was found that there is a lack of reliable sex- and age-disaggregated statistics on roles in dryland management activities. In general, men are responsible for decision-making and the planning of farming activities, while women have little authority and have to seek their husbands’permission before they commit family resources or make decisions.

Nonetheless, rural women in dryland areas play a key role in natural resource management and achieving food security. They often grow, process, manage and market food and other natural resources. They are generally responsible for small livestock, vegetable gardens and collecting fuel, fodder and water, as well as carrying out their traditional reproductive roles.

Women’s traditional roles (e.g. collecting water, growing food, etc.) are particularly crucial in drylands in terms of natural resource management and food security. Men have usual ly been responsible for decision-making and planning of farming activities, but in some areas, they increasingly leave the degraded areas to look for jobs in urban areas, leaving women to assume new roles and responsibilities on the farm. (The data differs in Latin America). In such a changing context, it is fundamental to be aware of the obstacles hin dering full participation of disadvantaged groups, including women.

However, despite their multiple roles in dryland management, women’s access to and control over natural resources (such as land) and agricultural support services (including credit, extension services, etc.) are often restricted. [Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Kenya]. This limited access to agricultural resources and services is caused by a series of interrelated social, economic and cultural factors that force rural women into a subordinate role and hamper their productivity, as well as limiting their participation in decision-making processes and development initiatives. In some cases, customary practices and laws that limit women’s rights to land prevail over legislation that guarantees those rights. Particularly pressing to the issue of dryland management is the fact that insecure land tenure reduces women’s and men’s incentives to maintain soil quality because they have no permanent rights to the land. Without secure land rights, farmers have little or no access to credit, rural organizations and other agricultural inputs and services. [Burkina Faso; Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh]

Drylands degradation can lead to changes in gender roles. Such factors as migration, population pressure, education and market forces have resulted in women taking more responsibility. In response to change, for instance when they are left behind in the migration process, women readily assume most of men’s traditional roles - in addition to their existing agricultural, domestic and reproductive roles. This extra work and responsibility leads women to demand more equal access to land and fertility control. Consequently, control over resources may change, or women may become increasingly involved in decision-making. Many field experiences illustrate how women and men have taken on new roles to combat desertification (Heyzer, 1995), such as through reforestation and land reclamation activities. [China; Kenya; Mauritania; Niger]

Environmental change (as observed in Africa and Asia) frequently has a differentiated impact on men and women and leads to changes in gender roles, with women assuming more work and responsibility. The magnitude of these changes varies geographically and culturally.

Given that women and men have different roles in dryland management, the impact of desertification affects them in different ways, and the field experiences suggest that environmental change has a far greater impact on women as cases studies in Africa and Asia show. For example, deforestation and desertification increase the amount of time that rural dwellers have to spend gathering fuelwood and fodder and fetching water. This is one of the most widely cited examples of the impact of land degradation on women, as many societies traditionally see these as women’s tasks. At the same time as women are assuming more tasks and responsibilities, desertification is leading to loss of efficiency in such tasks as cooking (owing to diminishing fuelwood sources) and farming activities (as increased labour is needed to combat desertification). [India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Kenya; Mauritania; South Africa]

The field experiences suggest that an interesting social and economic transition is under way. An increasing number of households in drylands are relying less on agricultural activities for income and more on off-farm employment (as well as on remittances from migrant labour). This is enabling households to meet their food security needs in an environment of declining land productivity and, at the same time, it reduces the pressure on drylands natural resources.

Smallholders, particularly women, often face difficulties in obtaining credit. This is a direct consequence of their lacking ownership to land and to their low involvement in development projects and membership in rural organizations.

Numerous projects promoted income-generating activities for women as a vital source of household food security. These projects provided women with management and organizational skills and empowered them through increased revenues and self-esteem. As a result, women are participating more in decision-making processes and project activities at the community level. [Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; China; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Mauritania; Morocco; South Africa; Sudan]

While men are overwhelmingly represented in traditional farmers’organizations and are the recipients of most extension initiatives, many field experiences found that establishing and supporting women’s groups helps women to improve their own livelihoods. Through these groups, women are able to deal with their problems, voice their concerns and increase their confidence. In particular, groups help women to tackle the extreme conditions that derive from drylands degradation, including reforestation and irrigation activities. Women’s groups can also overcome barriers to income-generating activities (linkages to markets, credit, etc.). [Burkina Faso; Kenya; Mali; Mauritania; Sudan]

Gender roles in biodiversity and land conservation

There is increased recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge, as well as women’s and men’s roles as innovators regarding biodiversity conservation and farming techniques. Field experiences stressed the need to build on such knowledge and to ensure the participation of local women and men (as innovators and end users) in order to improve tools and techniques aimed at combating desertification. In addition, many projects sought to create incentives for investment in land improvement and for the adoption of technology that conserves land, water and energy. For instance, the economic incentives to produce butter from the karite tree in Burkina Faso or oil from the argan tree in Morocco have improved land conservation practices. [Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; India - Tamil Nadu; Sudan].

Many projects (Africa, Asia) tended to focus on women’s traditional roles and did not have a true gender approach that looked both at women and men and that included rural women in mainstream development activities. Instead, they were women-specific, looking only at women as victims of desertification or as resource managers, without considering their relations with men. Both women and men should be viewed as the agents and beneficiaries of change.

The field experiences stress that women’s participation in project activities is generally low unless they are targeted specifically. Historically, there has been a male bias in development programme research, planning and implementation activities, which ignores women’s role in dryland development and the challenges that they face. Moreover, women generally do not participate in the decision-making processes in the community. However, it should also be noted that an overemphasis of women’s roles can be equally detrimental. Many of the projects analysed for this document focused on women’s roles as resource managers whose indigenous knowledge is critical for land and biodiversity conservation, while completely overlooking the important roles and indigenous knowledge of men. [Burkina Faso; Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; China; India - Tamil Nadu; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Kenya; Mauritania]

Involving rural communities, especially the “voiceless”, in resource management and in decisions regarding environmentally sound practices and techniques aimed at combating desertification (such as rainwater harvesting, insect control, post-harvest storage, etc.) is a powerful way to mitigate the conditions and the impact of land degradation.

As gender roles change over time and in response to changing circumstances (Rocheleau, 1995), no particular kind of knowledge can be associated with men or women as such, but with their culturally constructed and sanctioned behaviour and attributes. Men’s and women’s relationship with nature, as well as the attributes that would make them develop more sustainable practices, are culturally defined and thus evolve with cultural change. Gender roles in resource management vary from setting to setting, and over time within the same setting, especially as new environmental challenges are faced. For example, in cases where women have increased access to (and control over) resources, they seem to gain confidence, to participate more actively in decision-making and policy-making, and to deal better with the impacts of environmental change, especially in poor degraded dryland areas. New challenges, allow men and women to negotiate their extra work burden and thus attain a more balanced division of labour in a redefinition of roles. Increased access and more equal control over resources also help women and men to make up for detrimental environmental impacts (Heyzer, 1995) because male and female farmers can select from a wider range of ways to deal with degradation. In turn, women’s particular efforts to combat desertification (land reclamation, reforestation, irrigation systems) may lead to increased self-confidence as well as improved natural resource management, financial management and negotiating skills. [Burkina Faso; Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal; India - Telengana, Andhra Pradesh; Kenya; Mauritania; Morocco]

Removing gender-related barriers for greater access to resources

Access to, and control of resources, are particularly pressing to the issue of dryland management, and should be addressed through a gender perspective to examine how and why men and women have different rights and benefits in the following areas, as seen in figure 1.

Insecure LAND TENURE reduces people’s incentives to make long-term investments in land rehabilitation and maintain soil quality because they have no long-term or permanent rights to the land. Women usually have even less access to land (and control) than men. Customary practices and laws that limit women’s right to land may prevail over legislation that guarantees their right (FAO/IFAD/ILC, 2003)

Providing CREDIT through traditional mutual assistance groups, is one of the best ways of encouraging rural women and men to take an interest in environmentally sound activities. Smallholders, particularly women, often face difficulties in obtaining credit due to lack of collateral. There is a need to develop informal sector enterprises and alternative livelihood possibilities through making credit available to small farmers, especially to women.

Women’s access to AGRICULTURAL SUPPORT SERVICES (extension services, inputs, etc.) is often restricted despite their multiple roles in dryland management. Women’s groups have, however, proven capable of tackling extreme livelihood conditions deriving from dryland degradation, including through reforestation and irrigation activities.

AWARENESS RAISING AND EDUCATION concerning desertification can lead to changes in attitudes and longer term social change. In fact, understanding the value of protecting one resource (tree species, water source, fodder crop or skill), encourages men and women to see the value of sustaining and protecting the environment in general. In the meantime, however, specifically targeted strategies to empower women are necessary.

Smallholders in drylands face the difficulty of turning surplus products into cash income because of their lack of transport and access to MARKETS; access to market information such as consumption patterns and price fluctuations; and to marketing opportunities and techniques. Women face particular constraints as marketing infrastructure and organizations are rarely geared towards small-scale production or to crops grown by women farmers.

Projects that provide women with management and organizational skills help them to participate in DECISION-MAKING PROCESSES and project activities.

TIME is a precious resource. Freeing up rural people from heavy workloads, such as the search for water and fuel wood, is crucial if they are to spend more time on the gardens, fields and conservation agriculture. Women living in drylands are particularly concerned as they usually have to walk longer distances to collect water and fuel wood and take on more farming responsibilities in the absence of men.

What lessons can we draw from the case studies?

The 50 case studies in Africa and Asia were notable for their absence of an overall gender approach, focusing mostly on women. Nevertheless, our examination showed that it is important to:


In order to encourage a gender-responsive and sustainable development of drylands, four key-priorities for immediate gender-responsive action are presented, to be undertaken and coordinated at international and national levels. These priotities should be associated with the more specific recommendations illustrated below.

The following recommendations emerge from an analysis of the field experiences. Possible actions in the drylands should consider the following:

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