Two aspects of women's workload in West Africa

THEME: Poor farm women not only work longer hours than men but often perform physically demanding work.

It is now commonly recognized that in poorer households, women farmers usually work longer and harder than men. A 1999 IFAD Assessment of Rural Poverty confirms this pattern in the West and Central African countries.

In the first place, poorer rural women in West Africa usually work longer hours a day than males in similar circumstances.

  • In the Central Province of Cameroon, women's working week is longer than 64 hours, whereas for men it is only about 32 hours. About half of women's time is spent on domestic tasks, but even then women spend more time on agriculture than men do (26 hours/week compared with only 12 hours/week for men).
  • In Burkina Faso, the average working day for men is 8.5 hours, but for women it is 14 hours.
  • In Gabon, women perform 95% of farm work, usually working around 15 hours of day. Even during peak agricultural periods, males spend only about 2 to 3 hours a day on agriculture.

The Central Plateau of Burkina Faso provides a more detailed illustration of rural women's workload. Here there are family plots (average size about 3 ha), which are under the control of the male family head, and women's individual plots (500-1 000 m2 ). Priority is given to the ‘family plot', and women work on their own crops in the time left over. Women grow various crops in their own plots, mainly for the sauces that accompany the cereals, but also for sale. Often the women have to walk for one to two hours before they reach their plots. They are also responsible for poultry and ruminants kept by the family, and for looking after children and performing household chores.

Second, women's agricultural and domestic tasks are physically strenuous, often more than they need to be, owing to poverty and cultural reasons.

In the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso, an estimated 5% of households own animal-draught equipment and animals. When it is available, animal traction is used mainly by men for primary tillage and inter-row cultivation of the family plot. Women rarely have access to or receive the benefits from animal traction for their plots, even though their plots' soil is often hard and stony. Polygamy apparently influences the extent to which men will help out on women's plots. If a man has only one wife, and he has access to animal traction, he may help prepare the land in his wife's plot. However, if he has several wives, apparently he seldom provides any assistance with their plots, even if he has access to animal traction, for fear that it will cause jealousy among his wives. The exception occurs if a wife is going to plant groundnuts, which require a loose and deep seedbed for water retention and growth, in which case he may plough the soil for her. This means that if women cannot afford to hire male labour, they have to do very heavy land preparation work and other difficult tasks such as weeding by hand, using simple hand tools such as hand-hoes. Furthermore, cultural conditioning requires that women use hoes with short handles, forcing them to bend over double while working. This is not only tiring, but also leads to backache.

The situation is somewhat different in parts of Senegal. The IFAD/FAO/Government of Japan study conducted extensive field research in the areas around Kaolack and Diourbel, to the southeast and east of Dakar. Again, there the system of the family plot and women's smaller plots, allocated to them by their husbands, exists. As in Burkina Faso, the family plot in these regions of Senegal always receives priority. If there is also an adult son with his own plot, then his plot is the next to be tended to. Only then does the woman's plot receive attention. According to a 1999 IFAD/FAO/Government of Japan study, men prepare and sow the plots, using animal traction when they have access to it. When there is more than one wife, the husband starts with the plot of the first wife. This means that some women's plots are worked later than they should be. But at least the women appear to have more help for the hardest tasks.

Women also perform heavy work in terms of head-loading produce to market and in carrying water, fuel wood and consumer goods. The IFAD Assessment of Rural Poverty estimates that the average woman in the region spends between 1 and 2.5 hours per day on transportation. Village surveys in Ghana and Tanzania show that women transport about four times as much in volume as men do and spend about three times as much time involved in transportation activities. In Burkina Faso, it is estimated that, assuming a 300-working-day year, the average farm woman carries about 20 kg over a distance of 2.5 km every day.

Much of the heavy workload of women could be decreased through better access to technology such as animal traction and animal transport. Even when this is culturally acceptable, it is usually beyond the financial means of poorer women in the region. Customs of sharing agricultural implements and the existence in some places of women's groups who work collective plots (as in parts of Senegal) suggest possibilities for the sharing of tools and animal traction between women.

Adapted from:

IFAD - West and Central Africa Division. 1999. Assessment of Rural Poverty in West and Central Africa. Rome. August.

IFAD/FAO/Japan. 1998. Agricultural Implements Used by Women Farmers in Africa. Rome.