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3. Women farmers: Environmental managers of the world

Janet Henshall Momse

Access to resources
Women's agricultural work
Time as a resource


There is a growing debate about gender and the environment which highlights women's roles in the use and management of natural resources (Braidotti et al. 1994). This debate has stimulated much development analysis and created greater awareness of the activities of women farmers. But there are dangers in conceiving of women's roles in relation to the environment in a partial, narrow, or static way. Seeing women as isolated environmental actors, separate from men, with an innate understanding of Nature can be very misleading. Current development policy initiatives are often based on this essentialist assumption that women's relationship with the environment is special and, therefore, women are particularly interested in and capable of protection of the environment. Such a view enables policy makers to argue that projects aimed at sustaining the environment will also benefit women, and vice versa. This synergistic approach can be seen as creating both a trap and an opportunity.

At the level of rhetoric and debate, it is widely understood that women, in their productive and reproductive roles, have close links with the environment in many countries and that they are often among the first to be affected by resource degradation. However, policy makers do not always appreciate the diversity and complexity of the relationship between women and the environment, resulting in unexpected failures in development projects. For example, a tree-planting project in Ethiopia, using women as labour, was seen by the funding agency as both improving the environment by reducing soil erosion and also assisting women by providing employment and additional firewood. Local women, on the other hand, saw the tree planting as increasing their burden of work without improving their lives because men controlled the land and the trees (Berhe 1994). Thus an understanding of both property rights and the complexity of gender divisions of labour is vital to an appreciation of the link between women and the environment.

Access to resources

In most countries modernization has been accompanied by a decline in women's entitlements to land and common property resources. Women are usually very dependent on common property resources for water, firewood, compost for farmland and wild herbs, mushrooms, fruits and nuts, as it is usually their responsibility to ensure that the family is supplied with these goods (Swope 1995). When these commonly held resources become scarce and property rights are exerted because of a perceived market value, their control tends to be assumed by men, although women's role as the supplier to the family of these resources does not change (Agarwal 1989). The process of land reform has often led to land ownership in male hands, or when land is granted to a household it is registered in the man's name so that women lose their traditional rights to land. Where women do have legal rights to land ownership and inheritance, the plots of land they are able to control are generally the smallest, least accessible, and least fertile (Momsen 1988). Usufruct rights are often considered to be separate from land ownership, and furthermore the ownership of trees and land may be in different hands. If women plant trees on family land in order to find a new cash-earning product and accessible firewood, as in the case of the shea-butter tree in Uganda, men see this action as a declaration of land ownership and so uproot the trees (Rukaaka 1994). In other cases, men and women may use individual trees in different ways which are not always compatible. When resources begin to be scarce this incompatibility becomes a problem, as has occurred in the Dominican Republic, where women use palm fronds for making baskets and the fruit for pig food, while the male property owner is the only person allowed to cut the tree for timber (Rocheleau 1994).

One of the reasons for the decline in women's access to resources is that both land redistribution and subsidized agricultural inputs are in the hands of men who see women as dependents rather than individuals. Where the distribution of resources is used to reinforce the dominant position of the controller of these resources there is little incentive to offer them to women who in most societies have very little influence or status. In northern Nigeria when the distribution of government-subsidized chemical fertilizer was put in the hands of village chiefs rather than extension agents, women farmers were no longer able to obtain it (Ajakpo 1995). They had to buy fertilizer at the full market price, which few could afford. Because agricultural extension workers had been very successful in demonstrating to farmers that chemical fertilizer was vital for crop production, women who were unable to obtain this input left their fields uncultivated. Recent research in East and West Africa has shown that women can approach or equal men's productivity in subsistence farming even with a smaller resource base. In studies of farmers in Kenya and Burkina Faso, when statistically adjusted for resource differences, women farmers proved to be more productive than men (Blumberg 1995). In Kenya it was found that the influence of schooling on output was greater for women than for men for individuals with fewer than four years of education, and women benefited less than men from the predominantly male agricultural extension service (Moock 1976). A more gender aware agricultural policy might well bring very positive returns in many developing countries.

Loss of access to resources is particularly problematic for the one-quarter to one-third of rural women who are household heads, de jure or de facto, and the further 10 per cent who live in polygamous households. These women are often explicitly excluded from land reform and public-housing projects because they are seen as having too few adult workers and being too poor. The number of households in which women are the sole family support is increasing worldwide, especially in rural areas because of male out-migration. In an additional 25 per cent of households women provide more than half the total income. It is in these households economically dependent on women that the feminization of poverty is seen most clearly and pressure on the environment is most acute.

Women's agricultural work

Women work in agriculture in all parts of the world, especially in Africa (fig. 1). In many countries they are considered merely as unpaid family helpers and so are invisible in official statistics. Women's agricultural work covers production, processing, preparation, and preservation of foodstuffs and other farm products. They are also often responsible for marketing produce from the farm. Extension workers assume that each family has a single male decision maker, that economic benefits are shared equally within the household, and that only products marketed through official channels need to be studied. Field research has shown that these normative views of family structure, income distribution, and farm output need to be reconsidered.

The historic neglect by agricultural research and extension of home gardens as significant production sites is a particular aspect of the commodity focus which has contributed to the underestimation of women's agricultural activities. Home gardens typically are seen as an extension of women's household duties and therefore outside the public sphere. These gardens are a haven of biodiversity, for they operate as a source of early maturing staples, a reserve for plant materials and seeds lest field crops fail, conservation sites for preferred or special varieties, testing grounds for new varieties, and security for stock or poultry needing special care. Many of the plants are grown in precise locations, such as round the edges of the plot, as for example pigeon pea, Cajanus cajan, in the West Indies, or in symbiotic combinations and so are neither particularly visible nor, in terms of proportionate volume, significant. Yet their value to household food security and income may be high in terms of their functional or seasonal contribution, for example as a source of snack foods at times of year when women are too busy to cook frequently. These gardens, and the small livestock associated with them, often supply products which women trade locally and so they are an important source of women's cash income. As field crops become more and more cash- and export-oriented these home gardens become the major source of family subsistence, more so than official statistics indicate.

Figure 1 - Agriculture Labour Force, 1980 Female Percentage (after ILO)

Time as a resource

Time is a resource which is often very scarce for women farmers. Lack of time may mean that land is left uncultivated, farm operations are not performed at the optimal moment, and conservation measures not undertaken. Deterioration of the environment in terms of loss of available sources of firewood or pollution of water supplies will mean that women have to spend longer obtaining these resources and so have less time to spend on farming (Awumbila and Momsen 1995). In general, a woman's productive activities on the farm compete for time with her reproductive activities of bearing and raising children, managing the household, and playing a role in community management. Women in most parts of the world have a longer working day than men and so lack of time can be a major cause of declining food production. They are often used as a reserve supply of labour that can be called on at periods of peak demand in the agricultural calendar. At these times their work hours may reach 18 hours per day (table 1). This excessive work burden often occurs at periods of low food supplies and so leads to physiological stress. Women in many societies are last to eat at the family table and yet they have to combine the physiological demands of pregnancy and lactation with heavy agricultural labour. It is not surprising that the health of women in their reproductive years is worse than that of men. Poor health among women feeds into the cycle of poverty by constraining subsistence production. This is further limited by the traditional demand that the first call for women's labour is on men's fields, so that tasks on women's plots are either not done or carried out too late for optimal yields.

Table 1 - Gender Division of Time Use in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka (hrs./mo.) (Source: Wickramasinghe 1993:170)

  Peak season Slack season
Male Female Male Female
Agricultural production 208 299 245 235
Household tasks 90 199 60 220
Fetching water and firewood 30 50 30 60
Social and religious duties 8 12 15 15
Total work hours 426 560 350 530
Leisure/sleep 294 160 370 190


There is no evidence that men farmers are any less aware of environmental problems than women. Gender studies of environmental perception in Thailand, Barbados, and China show that, when variations in age and education are held constant, problems such as soil erosion and deforestation are perceived in similar ways by men and women. Expecting women farmers to be the main managers of the environment not only overloads women with the responsibility of environmental protection but it also belittles the role of men. At the same time conflating women and the environment provides an excuse for aid agencies to reduce separate funding. There needs to be a better understanding of the flexibility and complexity of gender, of spatial variations in both environment and gender roles and of the time, labour, and financial pressures on poor households, predominantly female-headed households, which force farmers to ignore conservation requirements.


Agarwal, Bina. 1989. Rural women, poverty and natural resources: Sustenance, sustainability and struggle for change. Economic and Political Weekly 28 October, pp. 46-65.

Ajakpo, Julie. 1995. Gender and Agricultural Innovation in Northern Nigeria. International Geographical Union Commission on Gender Working Paper No. 30. University of California, Davis.

Awumbila, M. and J.H. Momsen. 1995. Gender and the environment: Women's time use as a measure of environmental change. Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions 5:4, 337-346.

Berhe, Tseghereda. 1994. Personal communication, May.

Blumberg, Rae L. Introduction: Engendering wealth and well-being in an era of economic transformation. In: R.L. Blumberg, Cathy A. Rakowski, Irene Tinker, and Michael Montéon (eds.), EnGENDERing Wealth & Well-Being: Empowerment for Global Change, 1-14. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

Braidotti, Rosi, Ewa Charkiewiwcz, Sabie Hausler and Saskia Wieringa. 1994. Women, the Environment and Sustainable Development: Towards a Theoretical Synthesis. Zed Books in association with INSTRAW: London.

ILO (International Labour Office). 1986. Economically Active Population Estimates, 1950-2025. ILO, Geneva.

Momsen, Janet Henshall. 1988. Gender roles in Caribbean agricultural labour. In: M. Cross and G. Heuman (eds.), Labour in the Caribbean, 141-159. Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK.

Moock, Peter R. 1976. The efficiency of women as farm managers: Kenya. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 58 (December): 831-835.

Rocheleau, Diane E. 1994. Lecture at UC Davis, May.

Rukaaka, Kamerwa. 1994. Personal communication, May.

Swope, Lindsey H. 1995. Factors Influencing Rates of Deforestation in Lijiang County, Yunnan Province, China: A Village Study. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Geography, University of California, Davis.

Wickramasinghe, A. 1993. Women's roles in rural Sri Lanka. In: J.H. Momsen and V. Kinnaird (eds.), Different Places, Different Voices, 159-175. Routledge, London.

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