1 December 2003, Rome - The steady advance of HIV/AIDS is devastating rural households in Africa, plunging families into poverty and hunger, FAO said on World AIDS Day.

Recent research carried out by FAO in selected rural communities in Sub-Sahara Africa heavily affected by HIV/AIDS, shows the complex effects of the pandemic on rural communities and their livelihoods, ranging from a deepening of household debt levels, to forcing children out of school and changing farming techniques and diet.

"HIV/AIDS strikes indiscriminately, but the poorest rural communities and households are always hit hardest," said Sissel Ekaas, Director of FAO's Gender and Population Division.

Women losing everything

"For women who have lost a husband to the disease, it can mean losing everything else as well - property or assets, such as land, farm equipment or livestock, effectively undermining their capacity to earn an income and grow food to feed themselves, their children and the orphans they are often caring for," she said.

During the period 1985-2000, some 7 million agricultural workers have died from AIDS in the 25 most-affected countries, according to UN figures and another 16 million could die from the disease by 2020.

The most-affected African countries in particular, could lose up to 26 percent of their agricultural labour force.

FAO undertook quantitative and qualitative research in three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, covering nearly 2000 households.

The study, funded by the Government of Norway, highlights the need for protecting property rights in the context of the increasing number of female and youth-headed households.

Protecting property rights

Women who have lost a husband to AIDS face the dual burden of funeral costs and the risk of losing their assets.

Following the death of a spouse, up to 44 percent of households headed by widows lost cattle, which represent both a store of wealth and a sign of status, and 41 percent lost farm equipment to the husband's family, according to one of the case studies.

The study also identified the widening inequality caused by HIV/AIDS, which prevents resource-poor groups from participating in development initiatives.

It was found that, under the national agriculture policies that promote the commercialisation of agriculture, non-affected households are increasing the cultivation of export-oriented crops, whereas households affected by HIV/AIDS are not able to respond to this initiative and reduce the area under cultivation for all crops.

Lacking Land

The most vulnerable are female-headed households affected by HIV/AIDS who cultivate only half as much land as households headed by males.

Often women-headed households lose their land altogether, either being forced to sell it or having it taken from them by relatives.

The study also examined the uneven distribution of wealth between male and female headed households with AIDS orphans. The AIDS epidemic is leaving vast numbers of orphaned children.

The study showed that female and grandmother headed households are caring for a greater number of AIDS orphans but with fewer resources.

To cope, many households sell off their assets or withdraw their grandchildren from school as they cannot afford to continue to pay the fees.

Additional research, funded by Development Cooperation Ireland, found that female-headed households and grandmothers with orphans participate little in Community Based Organisations in general, and in the farmer cooperatives in particular, due to insufficient time and poor targeting by service providers.
Only 6% of the female headed household with orphans participate in farmer cooperatives compared to 31% of male headed households with orphans.
Stephanie Holmes
Information Officer
(+39) 06 570 56350