By Dr Michelina Andreucci
WOMEN-headed households in Africa commonly face a shortage of matured labour.
This often results in declining food productivity, especially when coupled with the low level of agricultural inputs received by women farmers.
Labour shortages may lead women to turn to alternative crops that require less labour, even though they may be less nutritious.
Data from the Owambo region in Namibia suggested that, although the size of land holdings between male and female-headed households is comparable, the amount cultivated is often lower for women due to labour shortages.
Furthermore, women-headed households tend to earn lower incomes than male-headed households.
Only in Mauritania have women-headed households been reported to appear better-off.
This could be explained by the existence of a certain number of transfers and subsidies towards these households, especially in rural areas.
In Benin, male-headed rural households have an average revenue of US$96, per consumption unit and save 21 percent; those headed by women have an average revenue of only US$85 and save 16 percent.
In the Congo, 75 percent of the women interviewed in three districts received less than US$390 per year, which is insufficient to cover subsistence expenses (1908s).
In Tanzania, surveys indicate that rural women-headed households have the lowest cash income.
In 1985, female-headed households earned 10 percent of female urban household earnings and 25 percent of male-headed households in communal areas.
In 1990, significant improvements were noted with female-headed households earning 61 percent of male-headed households.
In Zimbabwe, statistical indicators showed that in terms of household income, rural women-headed households were 40 percent poorer than male-headed households and 90 percent poorer than women-headed households in urban areas.
Women-headed households tended to have access to smaller and less fertile plots of land and more limited access to the means of production than male-headed households.
In Zimbabwe, in the communal sector female-headed households were likely to be allocated smaller parcels of land than male-headed households.
Findings from surveys suggested that de jure female-headed households had the smallest farm sizes, varying from 40-to-80 percent of the land parcels belonging to male-headed households.
When women are involved as agricultural labourers, they appear to be remunerated less than men, which has negative implications for women-headed households in particular. According to data collected by IFAD in the late 1980s, women tend to receive only 50 percent of men’s wages in Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe, while they receive 90 percent of men’s wages in the Congo.
In Morocco, there are large variations in agricultural wages depending on the season, the region, the nature of the work and gender.
Women and girls are generally paid less than men and boys, despite a minimum wage guaranteed by the Government.
In Sudan, wages are lower for women than for men, as they are assigned work in the lower paying traditional sector.
In Namibia, to meet basic food needs, households are obliged to augment production from subsistence agriculture with cash or in-kind income from other sources.
The main contributor to subsistence across households is direct cash income from formal employment.
Female-headed households have fewer members employed formally or informally than male-headed households.
In addition, rising unemployment and social breakdown of the family have shrunk the amount and frequency of remittances.
There has been a general recognition that women and women’s concerns have often been marginal or invisible to large-scale development planning and debates.
Some well-documented limitations of women’s machineries throughout the world include: restricted financial and human resources coupled with lack of communication channels with technical ministries, departments and other bodies dealing with gender issues.
Since the early 1980s, several countries reported a growth in women’s participation in rural organisations and in the number of women-only pre-cooperatives and cooperatives.
In Benin, women’s membership in pre-cooperatives grew from practically no women in 1980 to 4,6 percent in 1985 and to 12 percent in 1992.
While women’s membership is most often limited by their lack of formal land ownership, many rural organisations emphasise the interests of male members and do not sufficiently concern themselves with the needs of rural women.
For instance, the Namibia National Farmers Union was established in 1992 to provide a voice and organisational base for communal farmers, and women comprise 30-60 percent of affiliate associations.
However, its activities stress marketing and surplus production for the commercial farming sector rather than subsistence production and food processing.
In Africa, women’s representation is also negligible in the local power structures and traditional bodies, where decisions concerning land allocation and resource development have important implications for rural women.
In Tanzania, as of 1989, out of 4 850 village committee members in seven regions, only 10,3 percent were women.
A positive development was made in 1992 with local government legislative reform which called for 25 percent of the members of the village assembly to be women.
However, in many locations women still constituted less than one percent of the candidates in the 1993 local Government elections.
Women represented only 10 percent of the Village Development Committees, which consist of democratically elected members from the village, controlling the development and use of land resources in their villages.
In Zimbabwe, women comprised only 10 percent of the District Councils, the body which allocates resources for development in their districts.
In Namibia, only three of the 95 elected to the regional councils, which represent rural constituencies outside of small towns, were women; and in Tanzania, at the provincial and district levels, women’s participation remains low with the highest number of women (20 percent) serving as regional administration officers.
There were no female land officers nor regional agricultural or livestock officers and only one regional community development officer.
In both Namibia and Zimbabwe, women’s representation in traditional authorities has been minimal until more recently.
In Namibia, traditional authorities still hold responsibility for allocating land and adjudicating disputes.
While it seems that decision-making in Africa rests with the male household head when present, the sharing of decision-making between gender varies substantially from country to country, among different cultural and ethnic groups within the same country.
In some countries, such as the Sudan, women are responsible for a wide range of decision making in farming activities even when the husband is present.
In Tanzania, decision making in farming activities appears to be shared, with men slightly dominating in those cases when it is not collective.
Several studies by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), indicated that the improvement of household food security and nutritional levels is associated with women’s role in household decisions on expenditures.
Women’s reactions to economic incentives are different depending upon their ability to make decisions regarding income allocation.
Furthermore, women’s access to credit is lower than men’s in many African countries; receiving from a low of five percent of agricultural loans in Burkina Faso to a high of 32 perecnt in Zimbabwe.
In Benin, less than five percent of the rural female-headed households have access to credit.
Over the years a substantial increase in the number of women clients was registered in Zimbabwe, increasing from 11 percent in 1982 to presently 32percent.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
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