Globally women play a significant role in agriculture. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, women are the backbone of the agricultural sector and make up almost half of the agricultural labour force, according to a working paper about the role of women in agriculture by the Agricultural Development Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Despite this fact, female farmers are only able to access a fraction of the land, are unable to get credit and farm inputs, and too few are able to receive appropriate training and capacity building.
Women in agriculture and women as farmers are therefore not without controversy, says Amanda Gouws, a professor in political science at Stellenbosch University. Female-leaded farms bring a myriad of issues to the forefront of the social, cultural and political agenda in what is already being talked of as the fourth industrial revolution.
Gouws, who is also the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Gender Politics, says, “to be a woman and want to be a farmer challenges the gender roles as well as patriarchy”.
Officially, Statistics South Africa reported at the end of 2018 that the country has more than 800 000 agricultural workers. It is estimated that men make up about two-thirds of this statistic. Whilst they are in the majority with increased job security, it should be noted that the female labour force in the commercial sector are relegated to mostly seasonal labour, jobs that are by nature precarious and insecure.
But it is also important to understand that in many sub-Saharan countries there is a clear distinction between commercial and subsistence farming. Whilst the commercial farmers are able to access land through open markets, and with it the related credit and other inputs, subsistence farmers face a different set of conditions.
According to Gouws, female small-scale and subsistence farmers far outnumber males in the sector. She says there are 954 000 women compared to 315 000 men working in this arena, and despite their numbers, these women are still struggling to get access to extension services, credit and security of tenure.
“Up to 200 million tons of agricultural produce is produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of this is produced by small and subsistence farmers and women make up over 65% of the producers. In the South African case, [it is often the] women [who farm] in male households.”
Alfreda Mars, a commercial grain farmer and CEO of Middlepos Farm in Moorreesburg in the Western Cape, says because she farms on leased land, she does not qualify for credit. Her success in the industry has come at a price. As a single woman, she struggles to gain access to extension services and has to instead pay for such services through the private sector.
Roseline Engelbrecht, Labour Rights Programme Coordinator for the Women on Farms Project, a Stellenbosch based non-governmental organisation, says: “Farm workers are the backbone of our economy and yet they are the most marginalised and forgotten citizens. Despite their selfless contributions they retire with nothing to call their own; no land, no housing and no retirement fund.”
Engelbrecht believes women face a particularly hard struggle as farm dwellers. “Workers, and specifically female workers, who live and work on commercial farms typically experience intersecting livelihood challenges arising from labour rights violations, landlessness, household food insecurity and lack of alternative income-generating skills and opportunities.”
She emphasises that housing rights on farms are linked to labour contracts and housing contracts are often in the name of male permanent workers. This leaves women who live on farms as “dependents” or “appendages” of their husbands, fathers and brothers and not contractors in their own rights. In a broader context, where gender-based violence is rife, women’s lack of independent housing and access to land renders them extremely vulnerable.
Another critical question is what role agriculture can play in bridging the agricultural gender gap, and whether the sector is living up to its responsibility in encouraging equality. Gouws emphasises that in order to do this, women need access to credit and land: “In order for women farmers to feel more secure we have to look at this issue of land tenure and women’s access to land.”
According to Gouws, the issue of land tenure and women’s access to land is a very serious one. Although the country has been looking at land redistribution for the past 25 years, it hasn’t been addressing the issue of how women’s relationship to land would be accommodated.
“In the past 10 years, the power of traditional leaders has increased dramatically through the communal land rights act and through the traditional leadership frameworks act and it’s not actually been to the benefit of women,” she adds.
This then leads to the discussion of and understanding how customary law needs to be transformed, looking at living customary law versus codified customary law. Gouws believes we cannot separate women’s access to land to how it’s entrenched in legislation.
An example of this can be found in research done by Professor Ben Cousins from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. He showcases two neighbouring communities with two different traditional leaders. The one leader adheres to codified law and the other follows living customary law.
The leader who looked at living customary law said he was prepared to say that cohabiting couples who were not married could have access to land. He gave permission to single women to access and to work land. The other leader, who adhered to codified law, said no, unmarried people could not access land, single women cannot access land. The result was far higher production levels and equality in the customary law community compared to the one where they adhere to codified customary law.
Here, government needs to be at the forefront of law reform. They need to take the lead in opening the doors for women to be accommodated in agriculture and how they can be accommodated through law reform.
Given all these challenges they face, particularly in South Africa, why should women even bother farming? Women are about fifty percent of the population and just as capable as men to own land and work it. They have the potential to be changemakers in their communities.
Women already work in all aspects of agriculture. They are soil scientists and plant breeders, they work in training and development and they operate planting and harvesting equipment. Commercial farmers and subsistence farmers have to manage farm systems and their labour force. The effective input of women in commercial agriculture is essential and will significantly increase the potential to address food insecurity in South Africa and rest of the world.