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II. Women's contributions to agricultural production and food security: Current status and perspectives

II. Women's contributions to agricultural production and food security: Current status and perspectives

Women as Food Producers

Women produce more than 50 percent of the food grown worldwide, according to FAO estimates (FAO, 1995a). While there is still insufficient gender disaggregated data to give exact figures on women's contributions to agricultural production everywhere in the world, disaggregation of data is increasing. This data, together with field studies, participatory rural appraisal and gender analyses, make it possible to draw a number of conclusions about the extent and nature of women's multiple roles in agricultural production and food security. If anything, women's contributions to farming, forestry and fishing may be underestimated, as many surveys and censuses count only paid labour. Women are active in both the cash and subsistence agricultural sectors and much of their work in producing food for the household and community consumption, as important as it is for food security, is not counted in statistics.

The roles that women play in agriculture vary from region to region and country to country. Men and women often have complementary roles, sharing or dividing tasks in crop production, livestock raising, fishing and in care and use of the forests. In other cases, women and men have distinctly different tasks and responsibilities for certain crops and livestock, fish and forests. Where large-scale cash cropping has been introduced, the tendency remains for men to become involved in this sector, especially when it is highly mechanized, with women becoming increasingly responsible for household food production and small-scale cash cropping with low levels of technology. Women also supply a significant proportion of the agricultural labour on plantations.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women contribute 60 to 80 percent of the labour in both food production for household consumption and for sale. A survey of national sectoral reports for Benin, Burkina Faso, the Congo, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe found that women's contributions to household food production range from 30 percent in Sudan to 80 percent in the Congo, while the proportion of women in the economically active labour force in agriculture ranges from 48 percent in Burkina Faso to 73 percent in the Congo (FAO, 1994).

While there are significant variations by country, overall women in Africa play a major part in sowing, weeding, application of fertilizers and pesticides, harvesting, threshing, food processing, transportation and marketing. Men are mainly responsible for clearing and preparation of the fields and ploughing and participate to a greater or lesser degree in the other agricultural tasks along with women. Likewise, women in some countries, such as Tanzania, participate fairly equally with men in site clearance and land preparation. In many countries, men are responsible for the large livestock and women for the smaller animals, such as poultry, sheep and goats. Women are also often responsible for feeding and milking all livestock. In fishing, men are generally responsible for off-shore fishing while women are responsible for on-shore tasks such as net making and repair, fish processing and fishing in rivers. In forestry, women are often responsible for seedlings and almost always for gathering food, fodder and fuelwood. In some countries, as in Sudan, men and women have responsibility for different types of trees.

In Asia, women account for approximately 50 percent of food production overall in the region, with considerable variation from country to country. For example, women compose 47 percent of the agricultural labour force in the Philippines, 35 percent in Malaysia, 54 percent in Indonesia and over 60 percent in Thailand. In Southeast Asia, women play a major role in rice production, particularly in sowing, transplanting, harvesting and processing (Karl, 1996).

Men and women in Asia often play complementary roles with a division of labour similar to those found in Africa. In Nepal, fodder collection for buffalo is exclusively a women's job. Women also ready them for ploughing, tend to cattle and other livestock transplant seedlings, participate in harvesting and threshing and play a major role in horticulture. In Pakistan, women carry out 60 to 80 percent of the cleaning, feeding and milking of cattle. In both South and Southeast Asia, women supply a significant amount of the labour on plantations, producing tea, rubber, and fruit.

In the Pacific, women's participation in agriculture varies considerably. In Papua New Guinea where the population is overwhelmingly rural (87 %), women comprise 71 percent of the agricultural labour force. Women are engaged in food production, mainly in subsistence crops but also work on coffee plantations. In Fiji, women account for 38 percent of agricultural labour. Data from other countries of the Pacific give a low percentage of women in the agricultural labour force, but studies show that data gathering methods have not captured women's labour in household food production and unpaid labour on family farms. Throughout the Pacific, women play prominent roles in food marketing and in fisheries.

In Europe, agriculture accounts for a relatively small percentage of employment for both men and women. In the European Union, the percentage of the economically active population (EAP) in agriculture ranged from 2.3 percent in the United Kingdom to 21.9 percent in Greece in 1992. Of these percentages, women accounted for a low of 10.4 percent in Ireland and a high of 44.5 percent in Greece in 1990. Likewise, in the CEEC, agriculture also employs a lower percentage of the EAP than do industry and the service sectors. The percentage of women in the agricultural labour force ranged from 4 percent in Slovenia to 57 percent in Albania. In line with general trends in agriculture in both Western Europe and the CEEC, a growing number of women are leaving farming and those who are staying are tending to become more professional.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the rural population has been decreasing over the past few decades as has the proportion of workers employed in agriculture. Whereas 55 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture in 1950, only 25 percent worked in agriculture in 1990. Women's contributions to agricultural production in the region are underestimated in official data collection and censuses in the region, as women are mainly engaged in subsistence farming, particularly horticulture, poultry and raising small livestock for domestic consumption.

In the Near East, as in other regions, women's contributions to agricultural production have been underestimated, due to the fact that their labour is mainly unpaid work in subsistence food production. Recent studies have shown that women's contributions are significant when unpaid and seasonal labour is taken into account: in Turkey women account for 55.3 percent of unpaid agricultural labour; in Morocco, 53.2 percent; in Egypt, 50.7 percent; in Lebanon 40.7 percent; in Sudan, 34.7 percent; in Iraq, 30.7 percent, and in Mauritania, 28 percent.

Women are responsible for the more time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks of crop and livestock production: sowing, application of fertilizer, weeding, harvesting, transporting, threshing, winnowing, cleaning, sorting, grading and bagging. These tasks are carried out manually or with simple tools.

Women's Other Contributions to Food Security

In addition to their crucial roles in food production, women contribute to food security in other significant ways, as described below.

As those who preserve biodiversity: The preservation of biodiversity and plant genetic resources is now widely recognized as essential to food security. Because women are responsible for supplying their families with food and care, they often have special knowledge of the value and diverse use of plants for nutrition, health and income. Consequently, they are frequently the preservers of traditional knowledge of indigenous plants. Moreover, women often experiment with and adapt indigenous species and thus become experts in plant genetic resources (Karl, 1996; gunning and Hill, 1996).

As those who process and prepare food: While women produce more than 50 percent of the food worldwide, they also perform the overwhelming majority of the work in food processing in developing countries. Food processing contributes to food security through reducing food losses, contributing to diversity of diet and supplying important vitamins and minerals. In addition to the time-consuming tasks of grinding and pounding the staple grains, smoking fish and meats, women process and preserve the fruit and vegetable produce from their home gardens and from the forests. Moreover, women are almost universally responsible for preparing food for their households and thus for the nutritional well-being of its members.

As those who care for the basic needs of the households: women perform virtually all the tasks required for household food security and ensuring good nutrition and healthy lives. These tasks include gathering fuel and fetching water, cleaning, cooking, child rearing, and caring for the sick.

As wage earners: women are often responsible for providing food for their families, if not by production than by earning the income to purchase it. Both rural and urban women in waged labour dedicate a substantial portion of their income to the purchase of food for their families. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that rural men and women often have different responsibilities for providing for the basic needs of their households, with women responsible for supplying food. Development planners have discovered that the increase of household income through the employment of men in cash crop production does not necessarily increase household income available for the purchase of food (Karl, 1996). On the other hand, when women have direct control over income, they tend to spend it on the well-being of the family, particularly on improving the nutritional security of the more vulnerable members.

The "Feminization" of Agriculture

A phenomenon found in many regions and countries today is the trend towards the so-called "feminization of agriculture", or the growing dominance of women in agricultural production and the concomitant decrease of men in the sector. This trend makes it more imperative than ever to take action to enhance women's ability to carry out their tasks in agricultural production and their other contributions to food security. This development goes hand in hand with the increasing number of female-headed households around the world. A major cause of both these developments is male-out migration from rural areas to towns and cities in their countries or abroad and/or the abandonment of farming by men for more lucrative occupations.

In Africa, where women have traditionally performed the majority of work in food production, agriculture is becoming increasingly a predominantly female sector. Economic policies favouring the development of industry, and the neglect of the agricultural sector, particularly domestic food production, have led to an exodus of rural people to the urban or mining areas, to seek income-earning opportunities in mines; large export-oriented commercial farms, fishing enterprises and other businesses.

Overall, male outmigration has been greater than that of women. In Malawi, the female rural population decreased by 5.4 percent between 1970 and 1990, while the male rural population decreased by 21.8 percent. In Zaire, the decrease over the same period was 4.5 percent for women and 14.9 percent for men. There are exceptions, however, as in Senegal and Uganda where the decrease in the female rural population was slightly higher than that of the male rural population. On the whole, however, women have been left to carry out agricultural work on their own, changing the traditional pattern of farm labour and division of tasks between men and women. In Africa women now constitute the majority of smallholder farmers, provide most of the labour and manage farms on a daily basis (Saito, 1994).

This growing trend has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of female-headed households in sub-Saharan Africa, averaging 31 percent of the total rural households by the mid-1980s. The percentage varies greatly among countries, however, ranging from 10 percent in Niger (early 1990s), to 46 percent in Botswana and 72 percent for Lesotho (late 1980s).

Table 3. Percentage of female headed households in sub-Saharan







late 1980s



late 1980s



early 1990s

Average Sub-Saharan Africa


Mid 1980s

In Asia and the Pacific, the phenomen of the feminization of agriculture is harder to trace, due to insufficient data. Asia has a relatively low percentage of female-headed households: only 9 percent overall in the mid-1980s and 14 percent when India and China are excluded. In the Pacific, the development of the plantation and timber economy is leading to an increasing burden on women in food production for household consumption. Few plantations hire women and some are not obliged to provide housing for families, leaving women increasingly alone to care for the family farms and community fields.

In Europe various trends are at work. Farming is declining and with it an overall decrease in the number of both men and women active in agricultural employment. On the other hand, male migration and/or employment in off-farm activities is leaving more and more women in charge of the farms. There is also a trend, particularly in Western Europe, of women farmers becoming increasingly educated and professional. This is leading to the demand for greater support services for women farmers, and to a greater consciousness of the need for environmentally-sound and sustainable agricultural development.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the percentage of female-headed households in rural areas is increasing significantly, due to male migration, armed conflicts, abandonment and single motherhood. While official statistics from governments put the percentage of female-headed households at 17 percent in the region as a whole, a study carried out by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in 1994 indicated that this percentage was much higher in many countries: Costa Rica, 34 percent; El Salvador, 48 percent; Guatemala, 43 percent; Honduras, 29 percent; Nicaragua, 31 percent; Colombia, 29.1 percent; Ecuador, 37.1 percent; Peru, 43.3 percent; and Venezuela, 55 percent.

In the Near East, the feminization of agriculture appears to be less pronounced than in other regions. Overall the percentage of female-headed households is small, although their number is increasing as a result of temporary and permanent migration of men from rural to urban areas. In Egypt, Morocco, Cyprus, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, female-headed households account for 16 percent or less of the total. Only in Sudan and Pakistan does the percentage of female-headed households exceed 20 percent. Consequently, in the Near East women's contributions to agriculture are frequently overlooked because most of their work is unpaid labour on family farms, headed by men.

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