Global estimations indicate that of 600 million poor livestock keepers, two-thirds are rural women. Studies by the International Livestock Research Institute and partners reported that women across Africa face a fairly consistent gender ‘gap’ in access to production assets, inputs and services compared with men.
The researchers further argue that promoting equal access to resources could pave a pathway in ensuring that women and men are equally prepared to cope with future challenges.
Development studies also indicate that women spend close to 90% of their income on their families. This ability of women to manage their income is reported as vital to the survival of many households.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argues that if women were to have access to the same level of resources as men, agricultural productivity would increase by up to 30%, agricultural output in developing countries would rise by up to 4% and the number of poor people would be reduced by up to 17%. Livestock are generally acknowledged as an asset that rural women can easily own either through inheritance, markets or collective action processes.
Documented role of smallholder farming in South Africa
Several studies estimate that about 40% of South African livestock are in the hands of approximately 240 000 smallholder farmers, mainly farming in rural areas. A number of rural households earn a living from livestock farming and consider keeping animals as a store of wealth.
It is used as a ‘bank’ from which livestock can be sold for emergency needs, such as sickness or death in the family, hence the wide recognition that smallholder livestock farming provides pathways out of poverty, food insecurity and unsustainable livelihoods.
Similarly, key strategic development plans in South Africa, including the Agricultural Policy
Action Plan 2015–2019 and the National Development Plan 2030, identified livestock farming as one of the strategies to alleviate poverty and improve food security in rural South Africa. However, the country’s rural farmers face many challenges that limit their capacity to generate adequate income from their livestock.
These range from animal diseases, sourcing of necessary supplies for livestock production and animal health, the need for advice and information on production, and limitations in timely access to veterinary services and practitioners.
Compounding these challenges is that in rural communities there is a perception that livestock-keeping is a man’s task, as women are mostly involved in household chores such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.
Studies on challenges faced by women livestock keepers
Recent studies conducted by the Agricultural Research Council on 544 livestock smallholder farmers in rural areas of the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West revealed a gradual increase in the participation of women in livestock-keeping, with some claiming sole ownership of their herds.
These studies focused on women who were involved in communal farming and those who were beneficiaries of the State Land Allocation Project. Despite their participation and the perceived economic role of livestock, there is a gender knowledge gap in livestock production and animal health-related issues between male and female livestock keepers.
As a result, women reported various challenges that limited them from achieving optimal livestock production, reducing their potential income and thereby threatening their household food security.
Problems facing women
The following challenges have been highlighted by women livestock keepers involved in communal farming areas:
- Grazing areas are too far and women do not feel safe while looking after their animals. As a result, they are more vulnerable to stock theft.
- Due to cultural considerations in certain areas, women are not allowed to enter a kraal, including when they are mourning the passing of their husbands.
- Incidences of animal disease, expensive medication and lack of capital to buy it, lack of knowledge in primary animal health care, lack of animal-handling facilities, including dip plunges for small stock, were also mentioned by the women stock keepers.
- The women’s livestock are often not of good quality due to poor breeding bulls. This results in them losing potential income at commercial selling outlets, as their animals are bought at lower prices.
- Female stock keepers lack the financial resources to build and increase their herds. Transport costs to get livestock/cattle to selling outlets such as auction points also hamper their progress.
- Women have limited access to veterinary supplies and services.
- Interviews with communal female livestock keepers in these provinces revealed that the main reason for the gender knowledge gap is the fact that married women mostly only start getting involved with livestock matters when they become widowed. Another reason is that many women farmers are constrained by limited resources and time due to household chores and priorities.
Beneficiaries of the state land
The following challenges have been highlighted by women livestock keepers who are land reform beneficiaries:
- Some farms do not have water sources, while others have limited access to water, with non-functional boreholes and windmills. This was stated as the main challenge by the majority of the farmers.
- There is a lack of infrastructure such as animal handling and storage facilities and boundary and camp fencing, and housing is poor to non-existent.
- The women have limited knowledge on the prevention and control of animal diseases, including handling of animal injuries and birth difficulties.
- There is often a lack of farming resources such as electricity.
- Bush encroachment is amongst the challenges faced by the majority of the female farmers.
- The women’s operations are set back by stock theft and predatory animals.
- Some of the leased farms are not operational and require a huge financial injection to establish farming enterprises. In most cases, the beneficiaries are waiting for the state to assist them as they do not have any collateral for bank loan applications.
- The state provides limited extension services.
- Although the women are operating in different environments, they share common challenges such as a lack of farm resources and knowledge, and limited access to veterinary services.
Despite these challenges, some female farmers have taken the initiative to invest in their farming activities. It is recommended that the institutions involved in rural and agricultural development should organise and prioritise female training and skills development that will increase women’s access to capital, technology, livestock production and health-related skills.
Gender integration in the commercialisation of livestock production in rural areas should consider strategies on how to improve the position of women to influence strategic gender relations and not just focus on the number of female beneficiaries. Attention to these priorities would enhance the effective and efficient participation of women in livestock value chains.