Women and milk production

In most societies, women are responsible for milking animals and for processing and marketing milk.

A 1994 IFAD study of women livestock managers notes that the gender division of labour in livestock production can vary greatly from society to society and can change over time. Nonetheless, in most societies women play an active role in all that relates to milk and other livestock products. Where households own cattle, women usually do the actual milking, processing and marketing of milk. This applies to both transhumant and settled agropastoral societies.

In agropastoral societies, women look after milk livestock, generally kept close to the homestead, whereas men and boys care for male and non-lactating female animals. This is the case in most of West Africa, in south-western Nigeria, among the Kikuyu of Mt. Kenya, the non-Arabic families of south Darfur in The Sudan, in most Nilotic societies and among the Karimojong in Uganda. In transhumant societies, such as the Krimojong and Jie of Uganda, women and girls are also responsible for processing and marketing of milk and hides. But in most Muslim societies (with the exception of some African Muslim societies), women may be in charge of processing but not marketing because of restrictions on their mobility and activities.

The study also notes, however, that in some areas, it is the men who do the milking, which shows how difficult it is to generalize. For instance, in the high mountains of northern Pakistan, men traditionally milk yaks and goats, although women milk the cows. Among the Beja in The Sudan, women are not allowed to milk camels. Men also do the milking in Nigeria and among the settled Fulani or the Atokora in Benin. Among the upper caste of the Ankole in Uganda, women are completely barred from milking animals.

The general assumption is that in most societies, men control the sale of livestock and livestock products. The study points out that this is not always true. Women in Latin America, Asia and Africa are involved in petty trading, especially of milk products, and often have complete control over the revenue generated by such sales. Even Muslim women among the Fulani, the Somali, or the Beja of The Sudan have complete control over both milk processing and marketing. Marketing of dairy products can provide as much as one third of a household's income; and, unlike the erratic income from the sale of live animals, this income is steady.

Nor should it be assumed that because women do the milking and may even care for the animals, they can influence decisions related to the feeding and breeding of livestock. The study illustrates this point with findings from Burundi, the Peul of Mali, the Toucouleur of Senegal and the Masvingo province of Zimbabwe. It is also the case in most Caribbean countries. Among the agropastoral Fulani of Niger and Nigeria, women control milk processing and marketing, but they do not do the actual milking. They have no say in key decisions influencing milk production, such as the length of the grazing day, selection of grazing sites, supplementation of cattle diets or when to begin milking after birth. Moreover, they have no control over how much milk they actually receive from the herd, except when they or their children own the animals themselves. But once women actually have the milk, they can decide what to do with it.

In contrast, among Yemeni women in the Dhamar Montane Plains, women decide whether or not to milk and how often to milk. They also pressure men to make certain decisions that affect milk production, for instance in regard to weaning of lambs so that they can obtain more sheep milk for making soft cheese (laban), which they believe has medicinal qualities.

The IFAD study notes that men often take control of milk collection centres and livestock cooperatives, once they are established. There may be several reasons for this, including women's illiteracy and the fact that when income from an activity is 'small', it is women's domain, but when income becomes significant, men take over its management and decide on its disposal. A similar situation occurs when a change is made from a milk-based strategy to a beef-based strategy. In that case, it probably also has something to do with the close association of women and milk: when milk is no longer an issue, women lose control.

In sum, with some exceptions, it can be assumed that women are likely to be responsible for milking, processing and marketing of milk products. But this does not necessarily mean that they can control related decisions regarding livestock. Therefore, where changes are being introduced, each situation will need to be assessed on its own merits.

Adapted from

M. Niamir-Fuller, Women Livestock Managers in the Third World: Focus on Technical Issues Related to Gender Roles in Livestock Production, Staff Working Paper 18, Rome: IFAD, December 1994.