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close this bookPopulation, Land Management, and Environmental Change (UNU, 1996, 89 pages)
close this folder3. Women farmers: Environmental managers of the world
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentAccess to resources
View the documentWomen's agricultural work
View the documentTime as a resource
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences

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.