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close this bookCERES No. 075 (FAO Ceres, 1980, 50 p.)
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''Women are not benefiting from the modernization of agriculture''

An interview with Marie-Angque Savan

Marie-Angque Savana Senegalese sociologist, is coordinator of the research project on the effects of socioeconomic change on woman's condition, launched by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. She was interviewed last December by Armelle Braun, a contributing editor to ceres.

ceres: What is the most important aspect of the research you are about to undertake?

M-A SavanI think the most interesting aspect of this project is, above all, its conceptual approach. For once, particularly as far as Africa is concerned, the female condition will be analysed in the context of a society's history, instead of considering it solely as a sectoral or secondary aspect of that society. People still talk about "peasants" in general and refuse to consider women's work as productive work leading to a certain kind of accumulation of capital. We are starting from the hypothesis that, in studying the rural world, one must begin with the division of work between the sexes. If reforms are to be introduced to improve living conditions in the countryside, the extent of each person's participation must first be known. How can people talk about the causes of rural poverty without ever mentioning the subject of women? But this happens every day.

Despite economic growth, food production has become stationary or even dropped, particularly in Africa. However, no one has drawn attention to the role of women in this sector, and as long as their participation is unknown or deliberately ignored, all manner of possible or imaginable solutions can be proposed without solving the problem. Take the modernization of agriculture, for example: it is becoming more and more obvious that women are not benefiting from it, and that in fact it has a fairly negative impact on their living and working conditions. But from the technical point of view, modernization can always be presented as a positive factor.

Q.: How does the monetarization of the agricultural economy affect power structures in the peasant communities, and what is its impact on rural women?

A. The agricultural situation in Africa can no longer be considered in a uniform way. Studies have shown that the penetration of capital into agriculture remodels power structures in the rural world. In Senegal, for example, in the course of one survey the field researchers told me, "The funny thing is that the 'slaves' (so called in ethnological literature and now known as 'captives') are often richer than their ax-owners." It is interesting to see how the hierarchy of rural classes has been turned upside down. New moneyed classes are emerging, completely separate from the former local hierarchies. In some countries, loans granted by the state to certain peas ants or traditional districts, or the dynamism of farmers following the new methods being taught them, have led to the emergence of very wealthy peasants. But there are also many more agricultural labourers than before. Formerly, many agricultural labourers had links with one particular family; they came to work for it every year, and sometimes ended up by marrying one of the daughters, establishing themselves and enjoying land-use rights. But the penetration of capital and mechanization have put an end to all that, particularly in countries with big plantations, where this situation is not new. However, this new stratification is still in process; it is not so well defined that one can immediately say: "Look, the peasant has discovered the way to get rich."

It is true that the problem of land in Africa is not so acute as in Asia or, to a lesser extent, in Latin America. In Africa, we have no large estates like the latifundia, but what seems to me important is that the small peasantry is disappearing, since the small peasant is less and less able to hold his own in the face of competition.

In the countries with big plantations the proletarianization of the men is accentuated, and it is interesting to see what becomes of the women. Some of the men emigrate voluntarily, for example from Upper Volta to the Ivory Coast, and in this case the women must choose between following their husbands and staying in the village.

When the plantations are near the village, the men become agricultural labourers and the women become the principal food producers. The role of women in food production is already well known, but we have never been shown that there are cases where they alone are responsible for feeding the family. The men's wages are affected by the fact that women are entirely occupied by this production and without remuneration, since some of their needs are met by the unpaid labour of the women. Not only do the latter make a hidden contribution to the economy, but also the exploitation of the Third World is largely on their shoulders because of the unpaid work they do to maintain their families.

Bearing in mind the social stratification I mentioned, women's interests are certainly going to be divergent. A rich planter's wife knows nothing about agriculture any more; a woman whose husband owns a number of agricultural inputs (machines, etc.) works far less. But available studies show that the more mechanization advances, the more women are marginalized. Any productive work they do is manual. The husband can clear a field completely with his machines; the wife then turns to gathering cotton (this happened in Senegal), and will gradually be excluded from this too because of mechanization.

What we want to do in our survey is to raise the problem of women's future in the process of agricultural mechanization. What will happen to the female labour force? Shall we even take a step backward and shut them up in their homes, or will it be possible to create small-scale industries or other forms of production to accommodate women? Where will they find the income to carry on?

Q.: Do you think the elimination of women from the agricultural sector is irreversible? Could they not be given some technical training?

A.: That is indeed a possibility - but it is unlikely to happen. I was really talking in the context of existing systems. I can hardly see the governments in our countries, struggling with the already enormous problem of male unemployment and underemployment, creating work for women when there is not enough for men. It must be remembered that men have far greater political weight; they are much more demanding, they form trade unions and join political movements that are difficult to control. Women, on the other hand, are far more centred on the family and the home, since they have been specially trained for these roles. Moreover, women have no direct access to land. In many African countries they have no ownership rights, so how could they have access to mechanization? And then, we now have the concept of the head of the household, the person who can obtain credit facilities; women are excluded by this definition. There is also a whole mentality to be changed if women are to be on an equal footing with men. It is possible that we shall reach a situation similar to that of the industrialized countries, but I don't think so. I think that the international division of labour is such that there is practically no chance that developing countries will reach this level. In our countries there will always be pockets of super-development, very sophisticated, where perhaps women will be driving tractors, but that would surprise me very much. But if countries now launch out into structural changes, like Mozambique, which is proclaiming egalitarianism, I don't see why there should not be more effective use of the potential of women.

Q.: Could you give more details about the question of access to land so far as women are concerned?

A.: A distinction must be made between practice and legislation. Our laws are certainly modern in concept, and take no account of reality. In general, women are not landowners, and in many regions, every year or every two years, the husband allocates a certain number of parcels of land to his dependents and his women. There has been much talk of the distance between these parcels and the bad state they are in: it is always true. This land does not belong to the women, it belongs to the group and to the head of the family who does what he pleases with it. If the women divorces, she loses this right of use and must return to her family. If the latter has land, she will be given some; otherwise she will work with her mother or elsewhere.

In some countries you will be told: "We have agrarian reform, we have laws on public property, etc." But when a state takes charge of all land, it is not necessarily in the interests of the peasant. The state says: "In fact, ownership has always been collective; we are merely going back to a traditional custom." In practice, however, this means that the state can at any moment dispossess the peasants and give their lands, sometimes the best, to big transnational companies that have just set up some agribusiness. The African countryside is thus being completely upset; this should be realized, and also the limitations on action by non-governmental organizations (NGOS). Governments manoeuvre so that the state will not have to be responsible for the poor; if you study development plans, you will see that projects to benefit the poor are not taken on by governments but by outside organizations, and in the case of women, it is even worse: almost everything to do with women comes from outside, which shows that governments refuse to undertake the cost of development for women.

Q.: How can you react to this? What remunerative activities can be established for women?

A.: There are many NGOS and international organizations, UNICEF in particular, that are trying to create paid jobs for women, but it is always very difficult. I support these projects very strongly, but I also have my doubts, because you cannot create a series of projects for income-generating activities without reviewing market structures. Take, for example, handicrafts. In the few projects that really work, the handicraft products are always sold abroad; the organization launching the project finds the means to cart these products to Western countries, or other countries of the region.

Q.: Should women take over the marketing of the product?

A.: Among other things. What must be aroused first of all is the spirit of initiative. It must be the women who organize themselves, and I think that here information has an extremely important role to play. Women must understand that they have to solve their own problems. They have already made a beginning, but they are doing it within the family, in an isolated way. Whereas if there were women's organizations at village and regional level, this could have a considerable impact. It only takes several villages, or a region, to specialize in certain products to create trade on the domestic market. What is needed on the national level is awareness, and a women's organization to coordinate paid activities.

Q.: Doesn't this awareness exist already? Is it encouraged?

A.: It exists already at several levels. When you look at Africa, you have the impression that nothing is being done precisely because of this lack of information, communication and coordination. In fact, there are many traditional associations for mutual aid and solidarity. Sometimes women even work together to solve a problem often local unfortunately which concerns the village. The trouble is that these organizations don't make any propaganda, and especially that everything is done in a traditional framework where existing hierarchies are accepted: the traditional relationships between men and women are not questioned. The problem is to reach these women.

Q.: Is polygamy justified from the economic viewpoint, or is it just custom that persists although the reason for it has long ceased to be valid? Who benefits most from it?

A.: We must distinguish between polygamy in the towns and polygamy in the country. In the present state of our agriculture where rudimentary production methods are still used, the labour force is very important, particularly the female labour force. And precisely because of women's role in agricultural work, the more wives a man has, the more children he is likely to have, and therefore the more hands to work. In the context of rural life, this does not really bother the women because they can share the chores between them. In the country co-wives live rather like sisters and not like rivals. It is very rare to find women in a rural environment who complain about the existence of other wives. It is in the towns that polygamy can no longer be justified; not a single woman wants it. What the woman wants is to have a good (and more exclusive) relationship with her husband.

Q.: And the men?

A.: I think men like to have several women exclusively for themselves. But in town the husband cannot, unless he is very rich, give each wife a home of her own; so they all live together. Each has a separate room, and the husband spends two nights in each room. But these are townswomen. Their behaviour is not governed by the social standards according to which resentment, even if felt, was never expressed; so there are rivalries and squabbles ... As for the husband, sometimes he is the worst off of all, because his wives join together against him; or else they are all against each other, but always against him.

From the economic point of view, this situation is no longer logical. Children's education is more and more expensive and wives are more and more demanding. There must be equality of gifts, so for three wives everything has to be bought in triplicate - it's tremendous! And then, with aspirations for a better standard of living, a man cannot have with three wives the same material comforts he would have with one. Economically, therefore, the situation becomes untenable, at least for the middle classes. The rich have no problem, since they have several houses.

Q.: Tell me a bit about migrant women.

A.: One of the first people to write on this subject, Kenneth Little, assumed that women only emigrate to follow their husbands, whereas in fact female migrants are, increasingly, young unmarried women who go to the town to look for work. This is mainly because of the land problem, which we have already discussed. Now girls emigrate at a very young age. In the big African cities, it is not unusual to see ten-or twelve-year-old girls working as maids for paltry wages. But the most interesting are the ones aged between 16 and 21. They often arrive without knowing a soul. There are some districts where groups of people from different races or villages have come together, reconstructing a kind of village social relationship; this offers a certain protection to a minority of these girls. There are three avenues open to young migrants: to become domestic servants, as we have seen; to become workers in the food industries that are starting up almost everywhere, where they are hired by the day in very difficult conditions (there is no social or job security). There are many unmarried mothers among them, because they know nothing about contraception. Finally, the last possibility: prostitution. There is room for research on that subject, too.

Q.: It's never mentioned ...

A.: It's never mentioned, but it is a phenomenon developing at a staggering rate, particularly in the big African towns that are full of tourists, or even, which is serious, in the country, where "tourist villages" have sprung up. It is usually said that nothing can be done for the migrant women, since they have no training. This is partly true. But often, on the contrary, they are up to the General Certificate of Education standard - they are not illiterate and they speak English or French. This indeed is why they come to the towns, thinking they will be able to find work. But in view of the development rate of women's jobs, the market will be saturated and there will be female unemployment, whatever the qualifications of these women.

Just now we were talking about domestic servants. Some women's associations have been thinking of creating reception centres to meet the enormous problem raised by these women: they become pregnant and often have abortions in very difficult conditions. These centres could educate them and provide them with the means to defend themselves in the towns. Governments, too, should think again about their responsibilities.

Q.: What is the government position on abortion? Is it an accepted practice in African societies?

A.: Abortion is not generally accepted in Africa except in countries that have adopted a family planning policy, which means that there is flexibility. But there is practically no legislation on abortion. In general it is excluded or forbidden by popular morality. But in practice, abortion is spreading, and any doctor will confirm this. More and more young women, particularly in the towns, are having sexual relationships at an early age. They are not properly informed, and abortion becomes a method of contraception. I think governments should soften their line with regard to sex education in school and elsewhere.

Q.: So as far as information on contraception is concerned, government legislation is repressive?

A.: Yes, in most of the French-speaking countries, the French law of 1920 is still in force.

Q.: Is there beginning to be a protest movement, a real wave of public opinion?

A.: No, nobody dares to speak out, and I think this is the failure of women's movements. Legislation should be revised, and governments should recognize contraception as a human right. In most English-speaking countries there is much greater freedom, at least so far as the sale of contraceptives is concerned. Nowadays, in a country like Senegal, because there is an opening at the highest level, people know they can talk about it. I have often given lectures on family planning in schools, at the request of the directors.

Q.: You have tackled the subject in "Famille & Dloppement," for example?

A.: Yes, several times, and it has had considerable repercussions: the subject was taboo!