Gender, Land and Livelihoods in East Africa: Through Farmers' Eyes

By Ritu Verma | Go to book overview

Preface

Improving the quality of life of impoverished and marginalized rural people in Africa and the Middle East is the primary mission of IDRC's People, Land, and Water (PLaW) program. Vast numbers of them struggle to maintain their livelihoods in ecosystems that have been highly stressed by an interplay of complex forces that compromise women's and men's roles as farmers and stewards of the soil. Food and water security for all will not be possible without major innovations of appropriate policies and technologies. These innovations will not be successful without substantive changes in individuals' understanding, attitudes and behaviour. Furthermore, they affect women and men differently. To ignore these gendered differences invites failure in any attempt to foster rural development and resource conservation. Understanding the power relations that underlie inequitable access to natural and financial resources is a prerequisite to progress. In 1997, PLaW enabled Ritu Verma to undertake a case study in Western Kenya to better understand the gendered context that creates the constraints and opportunities that drive women's and men's capacity to adopt better soil management practices.

Ms. Verma observed the diverse and complex coping and livelihood strategies of women and men in a representative community of the sub-humid highlands of Western Kenya. She demonstrated the value of new techniques and tools, drawn from the social sciences, that complement more traditional biophysical approaches to agricultural research. Her research unveiled the profound complexity of people's individual lives and the myriad of individual, household, community, and global influences that affect the farmers' choices and decisions. She confirmed that marginalized and poor women are particularly vulnerable to stress generated by excessive demands on their time and cash resources. They must constantly juggle numerous short-term priorities, often diverting their time and attention away from sustainable but labour-intensive soil management.

Agricultural research generates knowledge, technologies, and policies intended to improve people's livelihoods. This study elucidated how the unique bio-physical and socio-economic contexts in which local women and men find themselves have been reshaped over time, most often and quickly by external forces that have left farmers, especially women, in a constant struggle to survive. External forces, including structural adjustment programs, greater openness of the national economies, and the information and communication revolution, confound this struggle and often diminish the benefits expected from these interventions. More immediate policies on governance, land tenuredistribution, education, health, technologies and technology dissemination, marketing, community organizations, and institutional support also contribute to the complex constraints in which the rural poor attempt to sustain their well-being. All these factors have increased the burden on farmers, weakened their capacity to cope, and made proper soil management a lower priority. The lack of coherence among policies, technologies, institutional and organizational arrangements, and the beneficiaries' circumstances poses a major challenge to PLaW and all other individuals and institutions dedicated to improving the well-being of the rural poor.

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