In Africa and many other parts of the world, women are denied equal access to and control over resources, land, credit, and income and access to services such as education and healthcare. They are marginalised and powerless in decisions about resource use or community development priorities. Many have no secure property or inheritance rights. Some of the root causes of gender inequalities are the norms, laws and practices that discriminate against women and girls. These can be linked to tradition, culture and religious beliefs.
Women are the majority poor and the most vulnerable, suffering marginalisation and violence within homes and communities. Women’s poverty and powerlessness means they experience the worst impacts of environmental degradation, climate change and diminishing resources. The gendered roles of women and girls mean they are responsible for meeting basic family needs of water, fuelwood, food etc. As local resources become scarcer due to environmental degradation, climate change and over exploitation, the work of women and girls becomes more difficult. Their time burdens increase. They have to walk further and work harder to meet family needs. Women have less time to earn an income. Girls have less time to attend school. Some girls drop out to help their overburdened mothers, exacerbating the inequalities in access to education between boys and girls. When resources decline and life becomes too difficult, men may migrate to find work. Women’s work increases again as they continue their role as carer, but now must fulfil male roles of earning an income and tending the farm and livestock. Lack of access to land means women have no collateral to access credit. This is a huge constraint to income generation.
Despite the critical roles women fulfill in societies and economies, their contribution is undervalued and undermined. They produce more than half the food in the world and over 70 percent of Ghana’s subsistence foods. They achieve all this even though they lack access to fertile lands, productive resources, agricultural advice, inputs, credit and new technologies. Imagine how much women could achieve if this situation was reversed. Equitable access to education will bring even greater benefits. Educating women and girls contributes to improved health, welfare and education of their children than educating men. Improved health also increases productivity. The benefits of equality are huge.
This is why we mainstream gender in all our projects and programmes. Gender mainstreaming ensures the concerns, needs, knowledge and experiences of both women and men are accounted for in the planning of any action, and also assesses its implications for both. It aims to ensure both women and men participate in and benefit equally from the action, and that inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.
Gender and sustainable development
Equality between women and men is essential for the achievement of sustainable development. This means we need to change the cultures, traditions, norms and laws that discriminate against women and perpetuate inequality. Women depend highly on natural resources to fulfil their gendered roles. They can only do this is an environmentally sustainable way if they are empowered to have equitable access to resources, and if they participate in decision making and control over resource use. Equity is also critical for the socially side of sustainability: when women and girls have equitable access to basic services such as education and healthcare, they will be empowered to improve their welfare and achieve their full potential.
Subsistence food production is an area where women suffer very inequitable access to resources including land, inputs, credit, and advice. This is a disincentive to women’s investment in land and other productive resources. Some examples of women in agriculture illustrate the difficulties African women have in accessing resources:
- Desertification – where land becomes so degraded it turns to desert – has many causes including vegetation removal, poor land use practices, climate change, poor government land-use policies and poverty. The outcomes are many. Lands become unproductive and water sources dry up. Food and water security decline, poverty increases, and competition for resources worsens. Men migrate and women’s responsibilities and work burdens increase, exacerbating the difficulties and inequalities they already face.
- In some West African societies, investing time and resources in a piece of land secures the person’s user-rights for that land. But women are so constrained by severe poverty and time burdens, it’s difficult for them to make the investments.
- In some societies in Ghana, women may be given land temporarily by their husband to grow their subsistence crops, but it is fragile, marginal and degraded land and usually the farthest away, while the men keep the fertile lands for their own cash crops. Even so, he will only give the land if he feels he can spare his wife’s labour.
- In north east Ghana, unmarried women rarely have access to land, and widows lose their access unless they have male children.
- Rights to irrigation water are closely linked to land rights. So where this is the domain of men, women have difficulty accessing water for irrigation purposes
- Even access to technologies, information, inputs and extension advice are biased towards the needs of men because they farm cash crops.
Women’s insecure land tenure results in a number of negative outcomes:
- Women limit the crops they grow: for example, they won’t invest in tree crops if they think they’ll lose the land before the trees start to bear fruit
- They are not encouraged to improve the land, for example implementing labour-intensive soil and water conservation measures, or developing an irrigation system
- They can’t use the land as collateral to access credit from more affordable formal sources because they don’t own it.
Equitable access to and control over land and other productive resources will go a long way to supporting and encouraging women farmers to use resources in a more sustainable way, because the investments towards sustainability will be worth their time.
The cultural norms and traditions that reinforce women’s marginalisation and powerlessness need to be broken down carefully and sensitively. Our women’s empowerment projects try to do this by involving men and community leaders as well as the women in the planning, shaping and implementation of those interventions. In our other projects that don’t focus solely on women, we take a gender mainstreaming approach so that women and men benefit equally from the project outcomes. Several of our projects focus on women’s empowerment. Read more…
You may also be interested to watch our sister organisation’s video on Ghana’s witch’s camps where women are forced to flee to after being accused of witchcraft, beaten and chased from their homes and communities by lynch mobs. Our sister organisation is the Southern Sector Youth and Women’s Empowerment Network (SOSYWEN) and you can watch the video here.