What does the International Year of Family Farming mean for women?

Rural families and the organisation of farming

The functioning of households and families can be, and has been, taken for granted when devising policies. Reference might be made to households and families, and possibly simply to ‘farmers’. But what is hidden from view is what these domestic institutions actually look like.  Their composition, how they behave, even why and how they might perform the roles listed in FAO’s description, and especially the aspirations and expectations of the individual family/ household members – and how they see farming and related activities fitting into their lives as a whole – remain obscure.

However, as Razavi (2009), and Prügl et al (2013) argue, in order for family farming policies to be effective it is essential to tease out what goes on inside these domestic structures – who contributes what to sustain them, how resources are allocated and shocks dealt with, and how they respond to the whole raft of policies that affect their lives, from agriculture to education, health and social welfare.

Inequalities (or simply differences?) in women’s and men’s – often husbands’ and wives’ – access to land, fertiliser, seeds and credit have been at the centre of gender discourse (focused especially on women), about the organisation of family farming since the 1970s. While the apparent inequities in tenure arrangements are seen by some to create overall economic inefficiencies, others focus on the disadvantages for women. They might argue that these gender inequities or differences are in themselves the source of inefficiencies, since women lack the incentives to invest in their individual – separate – agricultural enterprise(s).

In contrast to this view, and relevant to the issues being raised here, a much smaller group of feminists argue that these differences may be part of a larger and joint set of interests, even if these are inequitably distributed (Jackson 2003; Whitehead and Kabeer 2001). For example, the fact that men’s crops might receive more labour and fertiliser inputs could be part of a whole set of arrangements that privilege household heads yet may pay off, not just for themselves but for all household members, over time.

It might also be pointed out that the focus on farming obscures the impacts of wider reciprocity between women and men, on who is doing what at any given moment. This is especially likely to be the case where agricultural production is only one part, possibly even one small part, of what rural households and families in 2014 are doing to sustain their individual and household/family livelihoods.

The complexity of family relations, and the possible exchanges between individual family members are provided in a project case study report by Patricia Ladipo published in the early 1990s (Ladipo 1991). The exchanges detailed by Ladipo definitely cross the boundaries between types of goods/needs and timeframes (p.47), and demonstrate the necessity of cooperation between spouses (and others) if the welfare of all household members is to be maintained (p.49).

Ladipo’s analysis relates to changes linked with the introduction of yellow maize for livestock feed in 10 villages in Western Nigeria in the 1970s. The analysis points to broken links when expected tasks were not completed by one or the other actor/player: in this particular case, by women challenging male expectations of free labour for shelling a commercial yellow maize crop – a contribution that lay outside the local norms of exchange between spouses. The full short and long term implications – for the women, the men, and for the communities as a whole – of the introduction of yellow maize, which was not part of existing exchanges and related obligations, can only be appreciated from reading the full agricultural extension project history from 1972 to the mid-1990s.

The connectedness of households and families

Feminists might have been more successful in revealing the internal workings of families and households than in identifying and analysing changes in household and family forms over time as Razavi (2009). However, there is widespread agreement that the most significant shift in this rural world of families and households has been in terms of livelihood diversification and outmigration, with outmigration possibly being part of the diversification process itself, or more simply the outcome of historical processes as reported for Southern Africa. How far the ‘transgeographical’ families reported by Thebe (2014) in Zimbabwe, Thebe and Rakotje (2013) in Lesotho, and O’Laughlin (1998) in Botswana, with their specific livelihood and economic diversification strategies, challenge traditional territory-bound units of analysis such as the farm family and reflect the future for many areas, remains to be seen.

While Thebe and Rakotje are reporting on changes since the 1990s in the demand for housing in the growing settlements around urban Maseru, they argue that this and the related non-farming interests of these households is working against the general push by the donor community for small-farm agriculture as a strategy to reduce poverty at the household level. In other words, the donor push to support family farms and agricultural livelihoods is at odds with the reality of livelihood diversification within and across space.

Rural, and especially agricultural planning assumptions about unitary and bounded households, and territory- bound livelihoods, have been the subject of criticism for some time to little or no effect.

Household Typologies: Missing Men (O’Laughlin 1998) and women’s interests

Athough feminists have revealed much that goes on between senior men and women and junior men, both within households, and between households and other domestic institutions, far less is known about the behaviour of female household heads and what goes on within their households. This paucity of information (beyond their purported small size and poverty – ‘Fable or fact?’ see Sylvia Chant, 2003), and diversity, seems problematic given the reported increasing feminisation of rural Africa and this commitment to family farming.

Is it presumptuous to conclude that women, and female headed households will rely on and invest in the natural resource base? One of the lessons from the Southern Africa research would seem to be that it is indeed presumptuous. Not only do non-residents have interests in the land, but also rural residents may receive remittances from their successful migrant family members, in addition to assistance from other kin. They might equally have other interests, especially food processing and trading.

Although the FAO’s vision for the Year of Family Farming does not state that women will be the future family farmers – perhaps engaging in climate smart agriculture, conservation agriculture and so on to achieve the vision – there is evidence to suggest that women will be a significant proportion of the population of small farmers in many locations, even though men may still be there. One thing is certain, it is not possible to take women’s cooperation in all of this for granted.

The Ladipo case study provides some insight into this from a different perspective. The occupational ladder for the women who feature in this case shows them moving from less to more capital intensive, and decreasingly labour intensive, activities. They began their income-earning lives by working as hired labour, moved slowly to selling cooked food, to engaging in rural petty trade, and then to more distant trading, and finally, possibly, to farming commercially on their own account. When in 1976 a child nutrition program was started in the villages, the women requested something ‘for themselves’, to make food processing easier and to build capital. With advice, they built their own cooperative and acquired a maize sheller, and eventually adopted a high-yielding white maize for commercial production, which they controlled.

Women’s increasing engagement with commercial farming and/or other capital-building later in life has been reported by others (Seur; Mckenzie; Schroeder; Okali and Sumberg). These reports suggest that women and men share similar interests, but how these interact with other responsibilities through life, varies. The women also reported that the purpose of the cooperative for them was to stop them ‘falling down their occupational ladder’.

Women’s paid and unpaid labour: small family size and more work

Regardless of which family form dominates the African countryside, the continued outmigration of men from rural areas surely means that a reliance on family labour will no longer be a defining characteristic of family farms. However, the question of women’s labour must be addressed in any policies related to this family farming paradigm.  It is widely accepted that women, along with other family members, contribute to food production for consumption, but at the same time, women bear the costs of social reproduction. The potential ‘costs’ to women, especially younger women, of increasing commercialisation of family farms in the context of reductions in unpaid family labour with no other interventions to soften the blow, go beyond social protection – for which again women are frequently being made responsible as the most obvious policy targets.

We might not expect to see these issues spelled out in FAO’s relatively brief definition of family farming. But it needs to be clear that while in general this declaration might be celebrated, it comes with obligations to take note of the way in which related policies will feed into existing, often entrenched ways of doing things that can place limits on the achievement of natural resource-related objectives, and result in even further disadvantages for women, especially younger women, and possibly for younger men.

Some conclusions

In an era when increased production and productivity for the market lie at the centre of rural development policy, it is always tempting to focus on directly-related interventions for achieving these objectives, scaling up, and so on.

For women, this might be to improve their access to a range of agricultural inputs, and supporting moves to ensure more inclusive land access arrangements rather than focusing on providing individual ownership rights. While gender-equitable land laws are on the books in many places, they are often subverted in practice.

But however valuable these interventions might be, access to public resources for, say, self-provisioning of water and fuel supplies might actually be the most valuable intervention – freeing up time for women especially, stimulating a range of economic activities not previously possible, improving health – possibly the most important benefit – but no doubt providing a range of other benefits, some of which might not be visible at present.

Finally, scattered through this blog post are points that suggest the need to reassess the way families are positioned here in small-scale farm production and related natural resources development and protection, in policy. Some of the significant shifts for women have been the increase in collective action for them over the last decade, some moves to change the regulations of cooperatives that have long led to the exclusion of women in particular (see Ladipo 1981), and the spread of farmer field schools and other learning modes.

It is now time to focus on other initiatives and to accommodate the diversity of institutional arrangements within which farming investments are being made, while being aware of the wider structures of gender and socio-economic inequality that must be continually questioned if sustainable benefits are to be seen.

Sylvia Chant (2003) reminds us that poverty is not just about incomes but about power, self-esteem and social legitimacy… and adopting a socially inclusive stance in service provision.

Not more of the same please!


Chant, Sylvia (2003) ‘Female Household Headship and the Feminisation of Poverty; Facts, Fictions and Forward Strategies’ New Working Paper Series, Issue 9, London School of Economics, Gender Institute online

Jackson, C. (2007) Resolving Risk? Marriage and Creative Conjugality, Development and Change, 38(1): 107-129

Ladipo, Patricia (1981) Developing women’s cooperatives: An experiment in rural Nigeria, Journal of Development Studies, 17(3): 123-136: DOI: 10.1080/00220388108421802

Ladipo, P., (1991) Looking beyond the farm for gender issues in FSRE, Journal

For Farming Systems Research, Vol. 2(2)2: 39-50

O’laughlin, Bridget (1998) Missing men? The debate over rural poverty and women-headed households in Southern Africa, Journal of Peasant Studies, 25(2): 1-48

Leach, Melissa (2007) Earth Mother Myths and other Ecofeminist Fables: How a strategic notion rose and fell, Development and Change, 38(1): 67-85

Prügl, Eliazabeth, Razavi, Shahra and Reysoo, Fenneke (2013) ‘Gender and Agriculture after Neoliberalism’, Report of a workshop organized by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) 19–20 July 2012, Villa Rigot, Geneva.

Razavi, S. (2009) Engendering the Political Economy of Agrarian Change, Journal of Peasant Studies, 36(1): 197–226

Schroeder, R.A. (1993) Shady practice: gender and the political ecology of resource stabilization in Gambian gardens/orchards, Economic Geography: 349-365

Schroeder, R. (1996) “Gone to their Second Husbands”: Marital Metaphors and Conjugal Contracts in The Gambia’s Female Garden Sector, Canadian Journal of African Studies 30(1):69–97

Thebe, Vusilizwe (2014) New Social Formations, Livelihood Transition, and Food Insecurity in Worker–Peasant Communities, Journal of Developing Societies 30(1): 1–23

Thebe, Vusilizwe and Rakotje, Mapepe F (2013) Land Strategies and Livelihood Dynamics in Peri-urban Communities: Challenges to Land and Agricultural Policy in Lesotho, African Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2013.851468

Whitehead, A. and Kabeer, N. (2001) ‘Living with uncertainty: Gender, livelihoods and pro-poor growth in rural sub-Saharan Africa’, IDS Working Paper No. 134, Brighton: Institute for Development Studies.

Image: Subsistence farmer family from Brong-Ahafo, Ghana by farmingmatters on Flickr (by-nc-sa)