Rural women carry family burdens

In social and economic terms, the HIV/AIDS epidemic hits women hardest, increasing the vulnerability of poor rural women in particular.

Women generally shoulder the burden of caring for the sick and dying. This effort diverts their energies from agricultural production, childcare and work that would provide income. The result is household food insecurity and declining nutrition and health, along with the withdrawal of girls from school to provide extra labour at home -- which has ominous implications for the future.

  • In Ugandan districts studied, more households are headed by AIDS widows than widowers.

Some cultural practices contribute to the spread of AIDS -- such as the custom that obliges a man to marry his brother's widow. And in several societies, women who become widows lose their rights to land and property. In some cases this leads them to engage in commercial sex as their only means of subsistence.


One widow's story
Angelina, 42, lives in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, where 26 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. When her husband died of AIDS she was left with seven young children.

"I used to stay with the children, but now it is a problem," she says. "I have to work in the fields." Her yields of cotton, maize and groundnuts have fallen, due to late planting, a smaller area planted and insufficient management of her fields. "Last year I had more money to hire labour so the crops got weeded more often," she says. "This year I had to do it myself." In addition, she had to sell an ox to buy cotton seeds and food and to pay for her children's school fees.

Angelina is now benefiting from the Zambezi Valley Organic Cotton Project, which was initiated to help women farmers earn extra income. Like Angelina, many of the women are widows. The project also helps them save money. "When growing organic cotton, you don't have to use money on chemicals", she says.


Widows with dependent children are also more likely to become entrenched in poverty. When people fall sick, family assets and savings are quickly depleted, leaving the surviving family members without means of support.

The effects of HIV/AIDS are felt not only at the household level but throughout society. The decline in women's contributions to agriculture, as a result of their own illness or that of family members, reduces agricultural productivity and household food security. This is especially devastating given women's key role in the agricultural work force and in the production of most subsistence food crops.

In addition, biological and social factors make women and girls more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. In many places HIV infection in young women has been found to be 3-5 times higher than among young men.


HIV/AIDS and nutrition: helping families and communities to cope (click here for the PDF version)
Population and gender in rural societies from the perspective of FAO's Population Programme