'Equality' is not enough

Women lose control over the crops they grow as soon as the crop becomes commercialised.
Pambazuka | 2012-04-26, Issue 582

'Equality' is not enough
Food security and farming: women’s rights in rural Africa

Nidhi Tandon

As acknowledgement of women’s farming roles grows, so does the set of solutions targeted at rural women as farmers, as heads of household and as those responsible for providing for and caring for their communities. More often than not, these solutions are presented as an extension of farming service delivery systems to make sure that they do reach women as effectively as they might reach men. This would fit in with the idea that women and men need to be treated ‘equally’.

Most policy, trade and aid decisions that impact rural men and women are made in a non-participatory, top-down, one-directional way. Some of the policies, instruments and tools specifically targeting women include legal provisions, such as the right to vote or the right to own land; financial services including micro credit and rural cash infrastructure; and practical training such as marketing, processing and small business training. Arguably these could be important and valuable services if they in fact help to empower women.

That is what is not yet evident. The evidence on the ground suggests otherwise, that these ‘solutions’ do not value or take into account women’s socio-economic productive roles, nor their cultural knowledge, intelligence or legacies.

Some questions need to be asked. Do these ‘solutions’ enable women to be actors in their own decisions, or do they further compromise women, placing them in greater debt, at deeper risk, and in positions of further weakness and silence? Who makes the real farming decisions at household level? Who presents the economic arguments for bringing more farmers – women and men – into the global market as mass producers of commodities for export and consumers of (imported) food? How are women empowered to protect their basic human rights to take farming decisions that prioritize and first satisfy local food needs before cash crop production? These questions are applicable to poor male farmers, both sexes are exploited; however in the case of women they are further suppressed by men – they suffer double exploitation.

Put another way, do these solutions serve only to further entrench women in a system that is essentially iniquitous, unstable and that pursues infinite growth at any cost? Can there be equality and equity within a system whose core DNA is flawed? Are ‘rights for women’ being co-opted to entrench a particular economic agenda that is unlikely to level the playing field? Are commercially-based solutions adding to the problem?

Most mainstream policy solutions that target or engage women, especially in Africa, are economic or legal decisions set against a background where all the political leverages are in the hands of powerful elitist governments supported by donor and private funds to promote large scale commercial farming. And while big strides have been made in addressing women’s issues through the lens of human and legal rights, we are in danger of losing what gains have been made since the first World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. If we are willing to stand only by the principles of gender equality, and by extension accept and even determine, that the fate of poor women should be equal to that of her poor male counterpart then there is something fundamentally amiss in our interpretation of human rights and development. The problem is larger, systemic, and structural. It is not reducible to individual rights.


The majority of rural women start from a position of comparative disadvantage to their male peers. Discrimination against women is also firmly anchored in the customs, traditions and usages of various ethnic communities in the country. One of the most pronounced aspects of gender imbalance in the country is in resource allocation and management. Despite the fact that women constitute over seventy percent of the productive land-based labor force in the country, land relations in particular, are based on laws, customs and practices that marginalize and disempower women in terms of their rights and capacity to own, manage and transfer land. It stands to reason then, when land pressure escalates, (which it is) women as a group are subjected to exclusionary pressures by their male relatives or community members.

It is easy to confuse cause and effect – are these cultural aspects the main reason why women account for such a high proportion of food cultivation in many African countries? Or is the fact that women on the continent account for most of the local food farming precisely because men have been removed from the household farm into other commercialised sectors, of which extractive industries and plantation labour are just two. The disruption of family and community life caused by plantations both through displacement and evictions cannot be overstated. Several studies show how the contract labour system is responsible for family breakdown; increased alcoholism, drug use and crime; the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV AIDS; as well as perpetuating a cycle of poverty that entrenches poor nutrition, inadequate education, and illness. All of these factors reinforce each other and the negative costs on community are enormous and long term.

And because men are earning an income, however insecure, their work has more perceived value than that of the small farmer whose earnings are even more tenuous. This trend is set to continue as more (male) labour is absorbed into more timber and agro-fuel plantations and mines opening across the continent. When male labour is diverted to other activities, the ability of women to sustain food production is severely limited by sheer time and energy constraints, as well as by less-frequent contacts with agricultural extension workers, the diversion of their labour to cash crops or other income-earning activities, and their numerous domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. Harvest yields are further compromised if women are growing on more marginal lands, are walking further for water and fuel and are undertaking all kinds of other activities to supplement income.


A few exceptions aside, most systemic responses to addressing women’s concerns – particularly in relation to food growing and food security – have serious shortcomings.

For instance, in response to the fact that commercial farming takes priority over small-scale food growing, women are encouraged to become plantation labourers or to engage in commercial farming so that they can ‘benefit’ from the earnings of high value export crops. This is instead of developing local markets and structures, or reintegrating local plant knowledge with current farming methods that support women’s food production for local markets.

In response to the fact that women usually work smaller areas of land and might be excluded from commercial systems, they are encouraged to plant ‘high value export crops’ alongside their food crops so as to supplement rural income. These would be crops like jatropha, sunflower, vanilla, tobacco, cotton or sugar cane. But most times the income from the sale of these crops goes to men and not women – as one woman remarked to me ‘Jatropha is a woman’s crop because we labour over it, but it is a man’s crop when it is sold’.

What is evident time and again is that women lose control over the crops they grow as soon as the crop becomes commercialised.

A study of beans in Malawi confirms this trend, ‘as the crop becomes more and more commercialized, the income share of women is reducing although the absolute amount of money that women get is increasing as the crop shifts from a traditional subsistence crop managed by women to a more commercialized crop with formal markets’. Added to this, as more food crops now gain a value in the agro-fuel market – like cassava, maize, palm oil and soyabean - what will this mean for women’s control over these crops?

In response to the impoverished and unprotected working conditions of plantation workers, international labour standards and voluntary guidelines are established but the plantation or export models themselves are not called into question. On the contrary, as world prices drop, existing tobacco plantations are converted to grow other high-value commercial crops like jatropha or sisal.

In response to the fact that banking and insurance services do not stand to make much profit from servicing the money needs of poorer families, micro-finance services are offered to small farmers. While micro-credit or rotating loans in the right circumstances are invaluable, many micro finance institutions have been chasing profits, using intimidation to recover loans from peasants who simply cannot carry the interest or repayment. Additionally micro-credit is often packaged with seed, fertiliser and pesticide, on the unspoken assumption that applying the agro-inputs to the seed will guarantee a repayment method for the loan. An Economist article (11 December 2010) reported on a farmer suicide in India, where a 40 year old left his widowed wife with the 15,000 rupee loan (US$333). According to the Economist, ‘heavy rain had waterlogged his cotton crop and left the family struggling to pay the interest rate of 36% a year’.

It may be easy to criticise the countless measures established to improve the situation for rural women. But in anticipation of an intensification of women’s, and communal, struggles over natural resources and the public commons, and the continued ‘invisibility’ of their societal and productive roles, how do we prepare for a future of women’s movement for their rights, for their security, and for their sustenance?


The judicial system is the mouthpiece of the government. Laws are made without the consultation of the poor people. Even where the government wants to protect the interests of the poor, it is so cumbersome and the process is so male dominated, they are not sympathetic to the interests of women. Mary Tandon, Women’s Action Group, Zimbabwe 2009

Land rights are essentially political issues; but where women’s land rights are concerned, the solutions take on a legal dimension. A technical solution to a political problem has its shortcomings, because ‘lack of political will’ often means that a legal statute is rendered useless – or worse, overridden entirely. Lack of political will translates into a bureaucratic tactic that delays, slows things down, obfuscates, and hopes that resistance fizzles out. The imperatives of responding to farming seasons mean that rural people can ill afford to wait when there are so many mouths to feed and a harvest to tend to.

Women are not participants in the decisions around income or revenue aspects of land use. Their opinions on the value of land, on the value of indigenous bio-diversity, as well as on the monetary value of carbon are not being solicited nor taken into account in economic value propositions. They only become involved in decisions around land-use (and by extension, natural resource use) as an ultima ratio, the last resort when things have already soured. Some women the author interviewed in Malawi said, ‘The sugar plantation owners negotiate with our husbands, they know that if we women would be involved we would never allow the deal to go through’.

Women’s lack of voice in determining the future means that they tend to be reactive and not proactive to change.


In the context of today’s land markets, customary systems that manage the public commons, and that rely on the governance and accountability provided by village headmen and their advisors are being eroded. The reality is that many customary tenure systems are simply incapable of ensuring that households and women have access to sufficient land and other resources. A number of factors, including a growing market economy, increasing poverty and the conversion of land into a strategic commercial asset, all serve accentuate land scarcity. The further privatising and individualising of land rights has led to the poor losing any rights they might have had.

In some countries, the eroding bases of customary ownership make women's overall social security – through her access to natural capital more precarious. With increased commercialisation of land and problems of land scarcity, local leaders face mounting pressures to protect the clan system, and in so doing have placed even greater constraints on women's access. In particular, men and groups of men, organised through their lineage, have sought to renegotiate and redefine the formal and informal relationships that in the past supported women in their various roles in society.

There are a number of ways to address this – none of which is simple. At one end of the spectrum, the customary (community) ownership model could be strengthened with cross-accountability between government and village level structures with national planning budgets allocating funds to supporting this institutional structure. This could arguably protect the interests of the voiceless on the ground and of the poor who simply cannot afford title. On the other end of the spectrum all customary land could be transferred to private ownership which effectively makes the land state or privately controlled (through a lease system). This could arguably place national interests above and beyond the interests of the poor. In all cases, women have to be empowered to take a stand on their rights to secure tenure and land access.

Recent history shows that land reform schemes have rarely worked to women's benefit except when women have taken control of the process.1 In fact, land reform schemes could undermine a complex system of land use and tenure where women retain certain rights in common law and local practice, if not in legislation. Land reform almost always assigns formal land titles to male heads of households, regardless of women's economic contribution to the household, their customary rights, or the increasing number of female headed households.2 Statutory regulation of title has also served to weaken the land rights of women and tenants and to downplay the status and role of women as land users. Unmarried women, divorcees and widows are particularly vulnerable.

Foisting individual land rights on the poorest or least powerful members of community does not automatically secure them power or income stability. On the contrary, placing individual ownership of assets in the hands of vulnerable people can lead to their losing these assets very quickly; to growing debt for instance as has happened to many landless people already. Placing control of land in the hands of illiterate women who are unable to negotiate fair purchase, risks putting them in deeper and perpetual vulnerability if they sign away land under false promises of compensation or employment.

Instead, protection of land through communal processes, communal funds, and communal negotiation might stand a better chance in the face of powerful external interests. Within these processes, the rights of women need to be articulated, strengthened and realised.


A legal foundation that enables individuals or communities to independently or communally control natural resources still needs to be laid and enforced. In the present contexts of aggressive corporate investor interest and trade liberalisation, however, formal land rights on their own are insufficient to protect farmer interests.

The following from Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusines illustrates the point 'Canada lost almost three-quarters of its farm population between 1941 and 1996, and the numbers are still declining…most have fallen under a debt burden that makes their continued survival unlikely’.3 Is ‘ownership’ the only model we have of security? Are we falling into a trap by focusing on the land ownership factor? Is the tightening of intellectual property rights on nature – seeds for instance – placing an ‘ownership’ model on what has been till now a free exchange of seeds? Is the enclosure of common resources by legal measures a guarantee for the sustained future of these commons?

A body of work demonstrates how 'common property' or 'joint management' systems are often highly effective at managing resources, with lower transactions costs, and less likelihood of exclusion of the poor and marginalised4. A Policy Brief from the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies argues for ‘supporting existing social practices that have widespread legitimacy’.5


Herman Daly once said: ‘Americans import Danish butter cookies and Danes import American butter cookies. Surely it would be simpler to exchange recipes’. To this I add, the sugar for that exchange comes from plantations that are neither Danish nor American, and those plantation workers are unlikely to be eating any butter cookies.

A common argument put forward by feminists goes like this – ‘poor rural women need more employment opportunities because they need income for medicines, food and clothing and to become economically empowered’.

To begin with, inserting a small farmer into the commercial exchange system of the international market is unfair to the farmer no matter what, especially if the reality is that farmers get, say, only 9 cents of every $1 that they produce.

Secondly, taking farmland away from cultivation for local consumption and converting that land use to farming ‘ingredients’ (sugar, vanilla, chocolate) or inedible crops (tobacco, flowers, cotton) or beverages (tea, coffee) – and the list goes on - for export, immediately puts local people in a situation of dependence on a market over which they have absolutely no control. With this dependence comes vulnerability.

Thirdly, regardless of the negative impacts of plantations on biodiversity and soil health, the international economic model does not work for small farmers. Consistent evidence shows how market liberalisation benefits the rich while poor people either do not benefit or are made more vulnerable. The 2000 Trade and Hunger series give ample testament to this fact.6 Other studies point to the fact that women who have given up their food subsistence economy for the cash crop opportunity now face a food deficit situation.7

Alternatively, there is much to be said for promoting vibrant diverse opportunities for all kinds of local level exchanges which may or may not involve financial transactions. While hard cash is needed for certain transactions, in localised communities, many other transactions take place without money exchanging hands. There is a growing proliferation of local currency exchanges in the world – over 4,000 of them – like the Swiss WIR system, which are part of the ‘slow money movement’. Where farmers supplying local markets invest time and labour (and equity in terms of care and energy) in a diverse set of activities – the socio-economic and ecological returns are far higher than any financial transaction. The only people left out of this equation are the middle agents.


There is no one single action or policy prescription - the conversation needs to begin with a national reassessment of how globalisation is impacting society. The women’s movement has taken giant leaps forward in fighting for the rights of women and the struggle continues. At the same time, rights have become a Trojan horse, conscripted to spread a particular economic agenda founded on individual property rights. The attainment of the right to own cannot be understood as a sufficient means to ‘level the playing field for women’. We need to examine the food system in its entirety and determine how best to position rural women in an iniquitous system in a way that truly empowers them.


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Nidhi Tandon is originally from East Africa, and is the Director of Networked Intelligence for Development. Nidhi works on local grassroots issues, in the context of globalisation and increasing disparities between peoples and nations.

Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


1. There are growing movements across African countries by women to claim direct rights to land.

2. Bullock, S. (1993) Women and Work, Women and World Development Series, London: Zed Publications

3. Norberg-Hodge, H., Merrifield, R. and Gorelick, S. (2002) Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, Zed Books

4. See work by the International Association for the Study of Common Property; the CGIAR system-wide programme of common property and collective action; and the Land Tenure Center.

5. http://www.plaas.org.za/ The brief highlights the importance of understanding the social embeddedness of property relations; the layered and relative nature of rights, and the flexible character of boundaries. Gaining access to key livelihood assets - whether land or housing - occurs through a range of institutional routes, and formal title is just one, and in many settings very limited, part of a more complex picture.

6. Madeley, J (2000) ‘Trade and hunger - an overview of case studies on the impact of trade liberalisation on food security’, Globalstudier, No. 4, October 2000, Forum Syd, Sweden

7. See for example Mariama Williams, COMSEC

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