Development programmes must take account of gender roles that shape the small-scale livestock sector
Traditional livestock systems based on local resources and animal breeds are the major source of livelihood for 200 million rural families, and provide food and income for some 70% of the world's rural poor.
But the traditional livestock sector is under growing pressure. Booming urban demand for meat, milk and eggs is being met worldwide by intensive, large-scale production systems that squeeze traditional producers from markets, erode the genetic diversity of local livestock breeds, and favour the emergence and spread of animal diseases.
FAO's strategy aims at sustainable increases in world livestock production, which, in turn, contributes to food security, poverty alleviation and economic development. FAO calls for action to increase low-income producers' access to resources and services, such as land, water, credit, extension and veterinary care.
Gender dimensions of livestock production
Males and females of all ages participate in small-scale animal production. Men usually own and manage large animals, such as cattle and buffalo, while women are almost always responsible for poultry and small ruminants, such as goats. In fact, their livestock is often one of the few sources of income over which women have complete control.
But gender roles change. A study in Tanzania found that women do perform "men's tasks" during labour shortages. The reverse rarely occurs, except when there is potential to gain control over assets - for example, when milk production becomes more profitable.
Although all household members are involved in livestock production, gender discrimination denies women access to resources, rights and services. Secure land tenure, for example, is crucial to productivity increases: farmers who own land are more likely to make long-term investments and try new production technologies. In most rural societies, however, women can only access land through their male relatives. Insecurity of title often extends to the animals themselves. In Namibia, it is still common (despite legislation to prevent it) for a husband's family to take livestock from a woman at her husband's death.
Male livestock keepers also have far better access to training and technology. Extension programmes are usually oriented towards men's livestock, and extensionists lack the incentive and communication skills needed to work with often illiterate women. Among households affected by HIV/AIDS in Uganda, the death of the male head of the household can leave women and children without the financial resources or extension services needed to care for the cattle.
Interventions to control animal diseases should also take account of gender roles. Men's income may be more at risk from outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, which has decimated cattle herds in many countries. But as the primary managers of poultry, women and children face greater health and economic risks from avian influenza.
The negative impact of gender discrimination on productivity is more obvious in the livestock sector than in most other areas of agriculture. But the potential benefits of gender equality have made the sector a privileged entry point for gender mainstreaming.
Low-cost investments in poultry and small animal production - which is easily managed and has a quick rate of growth and return - can provide women with new income generating activities. Because poor rural women spend most of their income on buying food and paying school fees, that can do more to improve family welfare than expanding men's cattle herds.
FAO's targets 2008-2013
To mainstream gender equity in its programmes for sustainable livestock production, FAO has set itself the following targets to 2013:
Policies and programmes
Develop gender-sensitive tools and approaches that enable livestock experts to mainstream gender issues in the planning and implementation of livestock policies and programmes.
Analyse gender-related "hot-spots" in dairy, poultry, confined and grazing production systems.
Prepare and use checklists to ensure that gender issues are incorporated and addressed in livestock sector studies.