Unequal access to natural resources

More than any other group, female-headed households in Ethiopia’s Southern Tigray region – one of the poorest in the world – have little access to tree and plant resources, which are vital for their livelihoods.

© FAO/G. Napolitano

27 June 2006, Rome – “Female-headed households, which constitute nearly 30 percent of this region’s population, are among the most destitute,” said Patricia Howard, a research professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

In a study recently presented at FAO headquarters following four months of field research in Southern Tigray, Howard underlines “the striking correlation between extreme poverty and female-headed households.” The study was conducted in conjunction with an FAO project on improving food security and nutrition funded by Belgium.

“Being a member of a female-headed household in highland Ethiopia means having a 35 percent chance of being destitute, compared with only an 8 percent chance if one belongs to a male-headed household,” according to the study.

“Female household heads are far more likely to be landless and, when they do have access to land, 70 percent must sharecrop it out – losing around half of the yield in the process – since they cannot access enough labour and livestock to farm it themselves.”

They also lack access to plant resources. In a region severely affected by soil erosion, deforestation and overgrazing, such access has been eroding due not only to cultural bias that leads to gender inequality in access to assets but also to inadequate measures that enclose common grazing lands and woodlots, restrict their use, and encourage planting of single species, according to the study.

The study also deplores cultural factors detrimental to women, such as high divorce rates – in Tigray the average marriage lasts only 7.5 years – which lead to the diminution and fragmentation of farms.

“Setting up a new household, divorcing one spouse in order to marry another with more land, and having children with more than one woman all presented other means especially for men to gain access to additional land,” according to the study, which reveals that the average number of children that a Tigrinian woman will have in her lifetime is around 6.8.

Noting that poor female-headed households are currently supported by food aid and food-for-work programmes, the study notes that despite formal equality between men and women “their specific needs are otherwise barely addressed while, at the same time, they remain socially and economically excluded.”

“Development dynamics in the highlands appear not just to marginalize but to continually generate these extremely poor households as though they were a structural feature of particular economic policies, like under-employment or inflation.”

Development interventions should be geared towards female-headed households’ realities. Income-generating activities, home gardens and fuelwood initiatives are badly needed, according to the study.

The FAO food security project

In this context, the FAO project, with support from the Belgium Survival Fund, has since 2001 implemented a series of initiatives targeting food security and nutrition problems through interventions in agriculture, health, education, water and sanitation.

Female-headed households account for 80 percent of all malnutrition cases in the project area, covering disadvantaged rural zones of Northern Shoa and Southern Tigray.

“The objective is to strengthen their access to assets such as land, water resources, skills, and technology -- and also to improve their health, their diet and, ultimately, their social status,” explains FAO expert Karel Callens.

Among the most successful initiatives, Callens mentions the production of fruits and vegetables, “a novelty in communities where less than 6 percent of households grew vegetables.” Also the production of cash crops like garlic and spices “proved to be a viable income-generating activity, especially for landless households and smallholders without oxen.”

Other initiatives included the planting of degraded communal grazing land with fuelwood trees and the introduction of energy-saving stoves.

Belgium has committed around US$3.6 million for the same project for the 2006-2008 period.