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Module I: The population parameters of rural development

Module I: The population parameters of rural development

(Topouzis/du Guerny, SDWP, November 1995)

Gender in rural development and population issues

Rural development is the process of sustained growth of the rural economy and improvement of well-being of rural men, women and children.1 Genders a plays a central role in this process, as does population.

(1 Women are Farmers Too)

a(Gender refers to socially and culturally defined roles and attributes attached to each sex, as well as to the relations between the sexes. Gender approaches emphasize: a) the social construction of male and female roles (as opposed to their biological distinctions); b) the gaps between women and men in all spheres of life; and c) the relations between men and women. "Gender places people at the, center, women and men. With its emphasis on how society constructs opportunities and life chances, it allows for differentiation among women and men, for example, by age or income." See Kathleen Staudt, "Technical Assistance and Women: From Mainstreaming Toward Institutional Accountability," June 1994, p. 4.)

Within a farm household, all household members -- men, women and children -- have a gender- and age specific role to play (farming, trading, wage labour, etc.) and combine efforts to generate food and income for the family's survival. Until recently, however, the contributions of women and children within the farm household remained invisible. Equally invisible were women's limited access to productive resources, and particularly land, and the gender-specific constraints they encountered. As a result, the gender implications for agricultural and rural development policies and programmes were frequently overlooked, thus compromising their success and sustainability.

Work done in one hectare farm in one year in the Indian Himalayan

Source: Vir Singh, "Hills of Hardship", 1987, cited in Most farmers in India are Women, FAO, 1991, p.4.

That rural women play a major role in agricultural production, food security and rural development, and that in many countries, they are the mainstay of agricultural sectors is now recognized worldwide. Whether reference is made to sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean where women produce 60-80% of basic foodstuffs, or to Asia, where they perform over 50% of the labour in rice cultivation, or to the Pacific or Latin America, where their home gardens represent some of the most complex agricultural systems known, women have a major responsibility for, and knowledge of, food systems and agriculture. Rural women the world over are also responsible for rearing small livestock and handling large livestock not raised on free ranges (which is the domain of men), for gathering food, fodder and fuelwood and for drawing water. They often provide most of the labour for, and make decisions on, a wide range of post-harvest operations, including storage, handling and marketing, and for off-farm food processing either in micro-enterprises or as wage workers in agro-industries. To this should be added their community roles as well as their childbearing, childcare and domestic roles.

In many parts of the world, women's contributions even exceed those of men. To give but one example, in the Indian Himalayas (see Figure 1), it was found that a pair of bullocks worked for 1,064 hours, a man for 1,212 hours and a woman for 3,485 hours a year on a one hectare farm. In effect, this means that a year of farm work by a woman is equivalent to that of one man and two bullocks! In this case, women's work, which includes weeding, irrigation, transporting organic manure and transferring it to the field, seed sowing, harvesting and threshing, amounted to more than male and farm animal work combined.2

Despite women's important contributions to rural and socio-economic development, gender bias and blindness persist at all levels: farmers today are still generally perceived as "male" by policy-makers and agricultural service deliverers alike and women are mere assistants to their husbands.3 In this equation, the male farmer is also the head of household, the decision-marked and thus the target group of agricultural policies, programmes and services. As a result, rural women have often been the last to benefit, or have been negatively affected, by economic growth and development.

Poverty, food insecurity and environmental degradation have a disproportionate impact on rural women, not only due to their inferior socio-economic, legal and political status, but also due to their critical roles as both producers and household managers. Rural women are also normally worst hit by generally low and sometimes worsening health and nutrition conditions and by growing labour shortages due to male out-migration.4 Growing population pressure on increasingly degraded land, male out-migration, and socio-economic changes are transforming the traditional pattern of intra-household rights and obligations and the very role of women in agriculture. At the same time, levels of time and human energy inputs required in women's farm- and home-based productive and reproductive chores are increasing, giving rise to what the United Nations has termed "the feminization of agriculture."

Rural women's socio-economic status and productive and reproductive roles have a significant impact not only on agriculture and rural development but also on population dynamics, on fertility/mortality (through their role in health and nutrition), and on the environment. This was highlighted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992) and the International Conference on Population and Development (1994). Rural fertility in particular, which is higher than urban fertility across developing regions, has been found to be closely linked to women's lower socio-economic status. Thus, it is probable that having a large number of children continues to be a major asset and source of immediate and long-term economic and social security for rural women.5 In developing regions, this is reflected in the high value placed on child labour and in the absence of labour-saving home and farm technologies and of social safety nets6.

Policy and programme costs of neglecting gender

The effects of the disproportionate impact of poverty, food insecurity and environmental degradation on rural women are systemic and have far-reaching implications for all initiatives aimed at raising levels of nutrition and standards of living; improving production and distribution of food and agricultural products; enhancing the living conditions of rural populations; checking population growth; and improving reproductive health.

The cost of ignoring gender has been amply demonstrated in recent research on the economic contributions of rural women and is becoming increasingly more explicit as concepts and definitions of economic activity become more gender balanced. A recent World Bank study in sub-Saharan Africa strongly suggests that potential agricultural output is substantially reduced owing to women's disadvantaged access to resources, inputs and support services (land, labour, technology, extension and credit).7 It is further pointed out that "the effectiveness of policy interventions and agricultural support services hinges critically on a solid understanding of who is doing what with what at the household level, and of the dynamics of rural intra-household decision-making."8

Ignoring gender considerations largely explains why new technologies and development initiatives often produce unsatisfactory results, both in terms of degree and in terms of the distribution of benefits, particularly among women. It is also partly reflected in the perpetuation of chronic development problems such as rising food insecurity among vulnerable groups in some developing countries, the feminization of agriculture and poverty, environmental degradation and high population growth. These problems are often inextricably linked and tend to reinforce one another. As part of an inter-dependent systems, changes in one variable often trigger a response in one or several others.

Thus, a critical area which needs to be addressed is the limited appreciation of gender and other relationships within and between rural households, of the access to resources that different household members have at their disposal, of the constraints under which different household members operate, and of the complexity of the farming systems they practice. All these factors, in turn, impact on the demographic characteristics and strategies of a household.

Sustainable agriculture, rural development and population growth

Generalizations on cause and effect relationships between population growth, gender and environmental degradation have in recent years been found to be misleading. Such stereotypes attribute environmental degradation primarily to subsistence farmers who tend to sub-divide the available land and bring marginal lands under cultivation and grazing under population pressure; pastoralists who overgraze; and fishermen who overfish.

Recent literature, however, has increasingly questioned these stereotypes, arguing that population dynamics are much too complex to be reduced to simple relationships. The assumption that population growth is a main cause of poverty and environmental degradation has been attributed to the neglect of linkages between these problems, including the wider gender and social inequalities, unequal land tenure, power relations and political mobilization. For instance! rural women, in their efforts to satisfy their basic needs and, lacking alternative means of employment or access to capital, are frequently pushed to overexploit resources. This is largely due to gender relations and gender-specific constraints that are not being addressed, and in particular to the fact that resource access and land tenure patterns tend to favour men (see Module ill, as do the availability and quality of the means of production.

Thus, tenurial relations, land alienation, the expansion of commercial farming, and certain public policies, all of which have systemic effects on gender relations, can have more of an impact on environmental degration than does population growth per se. In other words, "it is not principally the sheer numbers of people that determine environmental health, but rather how those people act within particular socio-economic and ecological contexts."9 For instance, in Tanzania's Rufiji district, it was recently found that unchecked deforestation was taking place in the delta region as a result of market forces, deficient definition of land tenure rights and social disruption caused by compulsory resettlement in villages.10

By extension, "reducing the rates of population growth requires much more than the distribution of contraceptives and family- planning services," argues the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). "It also requires food security, good education and health services, better security for the aged, more opportunities for women and improved social and economic conditions for vulnerable low-income groups."11 In other words, reducing population growth is not solely a 'population' issue but also a 'gender,' 'land tenure,' 'environmental' and 'agricultural' issue which needs to be addressed in a holistic and systematic manner.

Population versus food trends and their implications

According to the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, in 1995 the rural population comprises about 55% of the total population -- 3,132 million rural inhabitants against 2,585 million urban residents. Africa and Asia are the least urbanized continents. Worldwide, the rural population is projected to peak around 2015. Africa's rural population is projected to continue to increase thereafter. Asia's rural population will increase until 2010 after which it will begin declining. Latin America's rural population is already on the decline. By the year 2025, there will be about 3,230 million rural people, or 39% of the total population, with no continent exhibiting a majority rural population. According to United Nations data, 50% of the projected increase in urban population will come from rural-to-urban migration.12 In the less developed regions, over 1.1 billion of the urban population in 2025 would be migrants.

In terms of food trends, contrary to the widely held assumption that the world food situation is steadily improving, for many developing countries, population growth is exceeding the rate of increase in food production. In addition, meeting future food needs becomes an even greater challenge as the impact of the, Green Revolution levels off, unused agricultural land becomes increasingly scarce, and environmental sustainability concerns become more important.13 In the last 10 years, food production per capita declined in 76% of the countries in Africa, 64% of the countries in Latin America, and 48% of those in Asia. Food yield per hectare must increase by 40% over the next 20 years to maintain the present level of food availability.14

The 1992 International Conference on Nutrition estimated that 780 million people in developing countries do not have access to enough food to meet their basic daily nutritional needs. Most of these fall into three categories: a) children under 5 years of age, especially girls; b) women of childbearing age, b especially those that are pregnant and/or breast feeding; and c) low-income households, a large percentage of which are female-headed. In general terms, it has been found that rural female household members often get less food than males both absolutely and in terms of nutritional requirements.

(b Childbearing age is generally defined as 15 to 49 years of age.)


Urban, rural and percent rural by major UN area and region 1995-2010-2025 i/ii/






(1) Urban Popul iii

(2) Rural Popul

(3) % rural Popul

(1) Urban Popul

(2) Rural Popul

(3) % rural Popul

(1) Urban Popul

(2) Rural Popul

(3) % rural Popul

World Total


































































Latin America & Caribbean










Source: Adapted from the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects: the 1994 Revision - Annex Tables, in Jacques du Guerny, Note on the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects: Some Highlights and Remarks, FAO, March 1995.

i/ Oceania has been omitted because it is too small for this scale.

ii/Regions are UN regions.

iii/ Population in millions The numbers have been rounded to the nearest unit).

The above-mentioned demographic and food trends will pose fresh challenges to national governments and to development agencies alike. Some of these challenges hinge on linkages between gender, population and agricultural issues which will be addressed in modules Il-V. To give but some examples:

1. In many developing countries, the backbone of national food security is the small scale farmer. c Eighty percent of the developing world's agricultural output -- i.e. crops and livestock -- is generated by small-scale men and women farmers. Subsistence farmers also play an important role in other productive activities, such as fish farming, agro-forestry, management and extraction of forest and wildlife products, and part time off-farm occupations.

(c The definition of small scale farmers has been the subject of much debate and still remains fuzzy. According to FAO, "they constitute the bulk of the world's farmers, operate in a context of increasing local population pressure, have a very small resource base generating a chronically low standard of living either involving absolute poverty or verging on it, rely to a greater or lesser degree on subsistence production, and tend to be on the margin rather than in the mainstream of society in terms of political influence and the provision of health, education and other services.- See Farm Management Research for Small Farmer Development. FAO, 1993, p. 1.)

One of the principal constraints facing subsistence farmers, and particularly women farmers, is access to productive resources, including land, labour and capital. Module 11: Gender, Fertility/Mortality and Land Tenure examines the main constraints to men's and women's access to land, to security of tenure and to sustainability, indicating how these constraints may impact on fertility and mortality.

The labour, knowledge, and management capacity for productive activities within a farm household is usually provided by both male and female family members. Since rural households are both production and consumption units, the decision-making process is far from simple. It is further complicated by dynamic relationships among individuals of differing age, sex, and kin status within the household; by relationships between different households; and by often complex rights and obligations of households to the larger community of which they are part.15 The gender division of labour in farming systems and its implications for fertility and mortality are examined in detail in Module III: Gender, Fertility/Mortality and Farming Systems.

2. Migration movements in developing countries are likely to trigger changes in both farming and land tenure systems (see Module IV: Gender, Migration, Farming Systems and Land Tenure). At the same time, the food needs and demands of urban areas will be expanding on a massive scale, placing great pressure on food producers in rural areas, many of whom are women. The growing burden of rural women's responsibilities in sustaining their families has yet to be systematically addressed in agricultural policies (including food security, pricing, extension, agricultural credit and agricultural research policies). What will the long-term implications of out-migration for food production, food security and sustainability be?

To some extent, current demographic and socio-economic trends, however problematic or alarming, are presently being accepted at face value. Massive rural-to urban migration, for instance, as projected by the United Nations for the next few decades, is being tolerated as an inevitable process, despite its potentially severe repercussions on urban. as well as rural areas. In fact, there has been little consideration of whether and how rural development policies and programmes could check this trend.

So far, the response has been to invest most available resources into urban areas and urban development, thus exacerbating the urban-rural disequilibrium and fuelling further massive rural-to-urban migration. Urban bias is further compounded by sectoral, vertical approaches to development, which limit both their scope and efficacy. They may also inadvertently be contributing to the polarization of existing urban-rural dichotomies. The cost of considering urban and rural development, conceptually as well as programmatically, as two separate issues rather than as interacting components of a system could have far-reaching implications for development efforts as a wholes.16 The significance of the urban-rural continuum is discussed in detail in Module IV: Gender, Migration, Farming Systems and Land Tenure.

3. The incidence of the feminization of agriculture and poverty is expected to rise in the coming decades. What will be the short and long-term implications for subsistence agriculture? The feminization of agriculture in many countries in Africa, the Near East, Latin America and the Caribbean (see Box 2), which often goes hand in hand with female pauperization, could transform cropping patterns and farming systems in general, with potentially serious implications for food security, sustainability and demographic behaviour (see Module lIl: Gender, Fertility/Mortality and Farming Systems). Studies in some African countries indicate that the loss of male labour can lead to shifts in production toward less nutritious crops or to declines in yields and outputs. In Ghana, for instance, the lack of male labour for clearing thick bush and women's inability to undertake this operation with simple hand tools has led to longer cropping rotations on land that should have been followed after one to three years. As a result, land fertility and yields declined soil erosion have increased.17

In the 1980s, a major shift took place in smallhoder agriculture in many sub-Saharan African countries as a result of male rural to urban migration (itself result of the search for off-farm employment in urban centres and the decreasing size of family landholding) as a consequence of very rapid population growth an the fragmentation of landholdings among sons. Thus, smallhoder agriculture has been transformed into "feminised" agriculture, in entire district or provinces of many countries, In some district or provinces of many countries. In some district of Eastern and Central Province in Kenya, for example up to 90% of farms are being managed by women. In some district of Zambia's Luapulu and Northern province, 50-75% of the farms are managed by women. In Lesotho, between 60-70% of all rural households are headed by women.

In the Near East, over the past 15 years, the migration of 6 million men from their countries has changed the gender division of labor arrangement In Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Sudan and Turkey. Women constitute the majority of agricultural wage labourers in Turkey (54%), Morocco (44%) and Syria 40%. In addition, female-headed households have increased to 16% of the total households in the region with 36% in Mauritania, 25% in Pakistan, and 24% in Sudan.

Source: FAO, Proposal for a Policy Framework and Regional Programme of: Action for Women in Agriculture in the Near East, FAO 1995 & Women, Agriculture and Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa, LAOS 1995.

(2 Shifts in Smallholder Agriculture)

Despite the growing incidence of female-headed households d, their specific needs, constraints and interests are not reflected in mainstream development projects and agricultural policies as such. Official statistics in many developing countries are only beginning to record de jure and de facto households headed by women. It is important to underscore at this point that female-headed households should include not only those created through male out-migration but also through polygyny. The latter category includes autonomous households of second, third, fourth, etc. wives and their children. Co-wives often live separately from their husbands, and cultivate and manage their own land. As polygyny is prevalent in parts of Africa (according to' the World Fertility Survey, about half of marriages across sub-Saharan Africa except for Lesotho are with multiple wives18), but especially in West Africa, the inclusion of such female-headed households in farm surveys, official statistics and demographic surveys is critical to integrating their needs, interests and constraints in policies and programmes.

(d About one-third of smallholder African households are headed by women, as many as two-thirds of rural households in Lesotho, 45% of households in Kenya and one-third of households in Malawi. Cited in Roca, 1991, op. cit., p. 12.)

This would necessitate adjustments in the design and implementation of agricultural and rural development initiatives, (including targeting of female-headed households, sensitization of extension workers and farming systems specialists, and integration of gender concerns in farming systems research, farm household modelling, etc). It would also require adjustments in population policy and programmes as the intra-household and demographic dynamics of female-headed households are different from those households headed by men.

'Food security' 'Sustainability' and 'Poverty Alleviation': " Rural DeveIopment”, "Gender " or " Population " issues? The Need for a Holistic Approach

Key concepts that are routinely used in development parlance such as 'sustainability,' 'food security,' and 'poverty alleviation' are usually perceived as agricultural issues, and as such they dominate the policy agenda of developing countries. They have also been given highest priority by the international development community following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992), the International Conference on Nutrition (1992) and the Social Summit (1995)

Food security is defined by FAO as "enough nutritious and safe food being available and accessible for a healthy and active life by all people at all times". At the household level, it is defined as the capacity of a household to procure a stable and sustainable basket of adequate food. The nature of food access depends on the particular conditions prevalent in a given farming system. Food may be derived from home production, through purchase, through gathering (e.g. fishing) , or through barter arrangements, gifts or other means of transfer

(3 Definition of Food Security)

To take but one example, 'food security' issues, for FAO, pertain to the availability of foodstuffs, the risk entailed in food production and in the markets for food, and family purchasing power (see food security definition in Box).19 Food security, however, is also a 'population' issue: at the macro level, neo-Malthusian theory essentially continues to attribute food insecurity to high population growth. At the micro level, rural women tend to have as many children as necessary to secure enough labour to produce food for their families.

That food security is also a 'gender' issue is hardly surprising: Women in al} regions of the developing world play a predominant role in household food security through agricultural and food production. Despite the attention focused on food security in recent years, however, the significant contributions of women farmers are still not reflected in agricultural policies and programmes. e Evidence also suggests that even when developing countries recognize that women farmers play a key role in increasing agricultural productivity and achieving food security, supportive measures have been too weak and too slow.

(e This is partly due to the fact that food security at the national level is often achieved by predominantly male commercial farmers (i.e. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawil. The fact that women grow alternative food crops to the main staple (maize or rice), such as cassava, sorghum and millet, which in some areas constitutes the basic staple food, by selling food surpluses in local markets, and by spending a great proportion of their income on buying the food they need has been largely neglected. Constantine Safilios-Rothschild, "Agricultural Policies and Women Producers," op. cit., p. 57.)

What the above arguments show is that food security is clearly a "rural development," "gender" and "population" issue. The same applies for concepts such as 'sustainability', 'poverty alleviation' and a host of other frequently used development concepts.

The shortcomings of sectoral, vertical approaches to development programmes hardly need mentioning. In the case of population programmed, initially, demographic concerns focused on population education (in order to influence rural women to have smaller families by teaching them how population factors, such as family size, affect their income, food supplies, and the health and education of their families). The strategy was to attach specific population components to rural development projects in which women participated. This was, in fact, tantamount to further vertical, sectoral interventions which had very limited effectiveness. Next, population initiatives concentrated primarily on reproductive health and family planning, without due consideration to the socio-economic and institutional environment of rural populations within which these operate (i.e. the farm household and the land tenure systems, etc.)

In the case of agricultural and rural development programmed, vertical approaches often resulted in such programmes working independently of population programmes and, sometimes, even of women-in-development projects. Agricultural and rural development programmes rarely build-in demographic variables within a gender perspective. Gender, a critical link that often brings rural development and population issues together, has not been duly reflected in policies and programmes to date. For this reason, important linkages between gender, population and agriculture/rural development have remained invisible and thus absent from the agenda of policy-makers (see Module V: Gender, Population, Land Tenure and Farming Systems: Main Policy Issues).

A systems approach to gender, population and rural development issues could help to put into sharp focus existing linkages and their potentially significant implications for policy and programme planning. Agricultural programmes have gender and population dimensions which can jeopardize the very success and sustainability of development programmes, if these are not addressed. Similarly, population programmes have gender and agricultural dimensions which impact indirectly on demographic variables. At present, however, population programmes do not sufficiently address the dynamics of the productive capacity of rural women, and their interface with demographic determinants such as fertility, mortality and migration.

In conclusion, vertical and gender-blind approaches to rural development have limited our understanding of the linkages between gender, population and agriculture/rural development and the dynamic relationships that result from the interface of these linkages. This has compromised the effectiveness of development interventions. In fact, to some extent, vertical approaches to development have inadvertently marginalized gender and population issues, created a dichotomy between rural and urban development, and reduced population to the very narrow parameters of family planning and reproductive health. A host of seemingly unimportant linkages between gender, rural development and population thus remain obscure. The five modules in this series will focus on two institutional linkages between gender, population and agriculture and rural development: farming systems and land tenure.


1. Geoffrey McNicoll and Mead Cain (eds.), Rural Development and Population: Institutions and Policy, a supplement to the Population and Development Review, vol. 15, 1989, p. 3.

2. This example does not include off-farm activities of men and women. Cited in In India. Most Farmers are Women, FAO, June 1991, pp. 4-5.

3. Constantina Safilios-Rothschild, "Agricultural Policies and Women Producers," in Aderanti Adepoju and Christine Oppong eds., Gender. Work and Population in Sub-Saharan Africa, London, 1994, p. 56.

4. Zoran Roca, "Women, Population and Environment in Agricultural and Rural Development: Policy Challenges and Responses," FAO, 1994, p. 3.

5. Zoran Roca, "Women, Population and Environment in Agricultural and Rural Development: Policy Challenges and Responses," FAO, 1994, p. 3.

6. Condition de la femme et population le cas de l'Afrique francophone, United Nations, 1992, p. 36.

7. Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank Discussion Paper #230, 1994.

8. ibid.

9. UNRISD. The Environment and Rural Development: Towards Ecologically and Socially Sustainable Development in Rural Areas, Draft paper prepared for the 23rd Meeting of the ACC sub-committee on Rural Development, Paris, 31 May-2 June 1995, p. 28.

10. ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 30.

12. World Urbanization Prospects. 1994 Revision, UN Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, 1994.

13. Farming Systems Development: A Participatory Approach to Helping Small-Scale Farmers, FAO, AGSP, 1994, p. 1.

14. Ibid.. pp. 1 -2.

15. "Sustainable Development of Rural Households: An FAO Special Action Programmed Draft paper, 1994.

16. Jacques du Guerny, Note on the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects: the 1994 revision: Some Highlights and Remarks, FAO, March 1995.

17. Gender Issues in Rural Food Security in Developing Countries, FAO, Women in Agricultural Development Paper, 1990, p. 7.

18. Cited in Zoran Roca, Women and Population in Agricultural and Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa,- op. cit.. p. 5

19. Cited in Farm and Community Information Use for Agricultural Programmes and Policies, FAO, AGSP, 1994, p.19.

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