New Internationalist

The Forgotten Workers

November 1979

According to UN estimates,women are responsible for over half the agricultural production in the Third World. Yet when it comes to agrarian reform they are rarely consulted. Kenyan sociologist ACHOLA PA YA OKEYO in an interview with JOE HANLON says that little progress is likely when half the population is ignored.

In development planning the interests of women are largely ignored. First the plan or conference is worked out, then something about the interests of women is added as an afterthought, says Kenyan sociologist Dr. Achola Pala Okeyo.

This is more than just a feminist issue, she argues. In most of the world, women do the bulk of the agricultural work, and so they are basic to agrarian reform - yet they are left out of the discussion.

‘People are surprised that rural devel­opment does not move forward - but how can it when half the population has been left behind?’

Women are often seen as obstructing development. In fact they sometimes do - and for good reason, because the intro­duction of cash crops can mean that they have to do more work for no more money.

Weeding priorities

In Kenya it is the women who culti­vate the vegetables and other crops to feed the family. When cotton and tobacco were added, no-one could under­stand why yields were low. The reason was that the necessary weeding had to be done at the same time as the weeding of food crops and the women made the perfectly sensible choice of weeding the food crops.

A slightly different thing happened in areas where pyrethrum (a plant which produces a chemical used in insecticides) was grown. Formerly, the individual was paid for production. But then a co-op was set up, and the money was paid directly to the men. So the women simply stopped work on the pyrethrum. Land reform too often harms women. Traditionally in Africa land rights went to the person who worked it. But land reform has tended to put emphasis on the idea of ownership - usually by the male head of the household.

Women disappear

Dr. Okeyo claims that this works against the accepted practice of giving ‘land to the tiller’. ‘This is not land to the tiller, but land to the rural farm house­hold. And if women are only understood as part of the farm family, they disappear.’ New technology can also be to the women’s disadvantage. They might dig with a hoe, but it is the men who learn to plough, so a skill gap grows. And the women who actually do the work cannot obtain inputs such as seed and fertilizer because that depends on credit, which depends on assets - and the men own the land.

Dr. Okeyo also cited several large schemes to grow cash crops which made no provision for growing vegetables or fuel. ‘I have been to schemes where women have to walk miles for food and firewood. But the government officials say "This is a family matter and we should not interfere." But they were the ones who set it up that way.’

‘Why do people always have to wait to find out after a plan has failed that it was because it didn’t take account of women?’ Dr. Okeyo asks. The problem is that delegations, planning and evaluation missions and the like rarely include more than a token or statutory women are there but they are not looked there is no possibility of raising these issues.’

She tells the story of being invited to a cocktail party in Kenya for a World Bank evaluation mission, with 15-20 men and no women. ‘I cannot believe there were no qualified women. The women are there but they are not looked for.’

There ought to be a quota of at least one-third women, not only on delegations and evaluation missions, but on small local committees too.

‘It is time to stop putting women in the corner saying "tend to your embroi­dery, while we men talk about develop­ment," ‘ said Dr. Okeyo. She calls for a firm commitment that aid should go specifically to help women. She believes FAO should set up an international team, which certainly should include Third World women, to monitor progress.

‘Go out of the conference halls and into the rural areas to see what women do,’ she urges. ‘If you don’t look at the role of women you are ignoring the whole question of rural development.’

This feature was published in the November 1979 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 081

New Internationalist Magazine issue 081
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