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Land tenure and agriculture

Time use studies challenged the commonly held belief that women play a marginal role in agriculture. It was found, for instance, that women produced most of the food in Africa (Cecelski 2004) (Figure 4). Official statistics recognize that women now make up about 40 per cent of the agricultural labour force worldwide, and about 67 per cent in developing countries (Seager 2003).

Figure 4: Gender dimensions of agriculture

Source: Seager 2003

Despite this key role in agriculture, most of the world's women do not equally own, inherit or control land and other property. Discriminatory inheritance and property ownership laws restrict women's ability to ensure long-term food security for the family, and to get loans using land as collateral. They also have important consequences for soil and land management - it is widely acknowledged that owners of land take more care to ensure soil conservation. Improved access to agricultural support systems, including credit, technology, education, transport, extension and marketing services, is essential to improving agricultural productivity and promoting environmentally sustainable practices - yet often women have no access to these services.

Small scale farming in Mozambique.
Source: Jorgen Schytte/Still Pictures

The division of labour between men and women in agricultural production varies considerably between cultures. However, as a broad generalization, it is usually men who are responsible for large-scale cash cropping, especially when it is highly mechanized, while women take care of household food production and some small-scale, low technology cultivation of cash crops. This has important implications for biodiversity. Gender-differentiated local knowledge systems play a decisive role in conserving, managing and improving genetic resources for food and agriculture. In Kenya, researchers have found that men's knowledge of traditional crops and practices is actually declining as a result of formal schooling and migration to urban areas. By contrast, women retain a widely shared level of general knowledge about wild foods, craft and medicinal plants, and acquire new knowledge about natural resources as their roles and duties change (Rocheleau and others 1995).

The 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes the vital role that women play in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, and affirms the need for their participation at all levels of policy-making and implementation. Women from farming communities in developing countries have also played a key role in opposing the patenting of plant and animal species by corporations, and continue to campaign to protect their access to seeds and medicinal plants essential to their survival (Diverse Women for Diversity 2004).

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