Women's indigenous knowledge of livestock production

Rural women often have considerable indigenous knowledge about many aspects of animal husbandry, veterinary medicine and range management.

IFAD is increasingly acknowledging the value of indigenous knowledge among rural men and women. Such knowledge often includes various aspects of livestock production, such as animal management, hygiene, feeding, watering and use of animal products. Knowledge held by indigenous men and women can differ according to their customary livestock responsibilities. A 1994 IFAD review of women livestock managers in developing countries observes that indigenous knowledge of livestock production is often underestimated. This may particularly be the case with women's knowledge. Only rarely do women know less about animals than men. When this is the case, it is usually a result of strict specialization of tasks along gender lines.

Women in most societies are responsible for the daily care of animals, their reproduction and doctoring. As a result, women in general have more in-depth knowledge of traditional medicine and pharmaceutical practices than do men. The study illustrates this point with a case study of village women in Punjab, Pakistan. Interviews in Botswana also found that men tended to turn to their wives for information on how many calves had been born or had died, or when the last dips had taken place. A study in Yemen in the Dhamar Montane Plains found that women had a wide range of knowledge on animal health problems and a set of traditional solutions. In Peru, women livestock managers commonly use ethnic veterinary concepts and practices. Some practices, particularly those dealing with preventing and curing diarrhoea and parasitic infections, have been found to have real therapeutic or prophylactic value. Similarly, a study in Nigeria found that practices used by the Fulani to treat animal disease are often effective and close to modern approaches. Rural women and poorer households prefer to rely on such practices and to seek out traditional livestock healers rather than to consult government services.

Women in many societies are responsible for the feeding of animals in a cut-and-carry system. As a result, they have detailed knowledge about the best kinds of feed for each season by type of animal. They will often know that lactating animals require high levels of protein. In the few countries where women are in charge of fattening animals, such as in Yemen where women in the Dhamar Montane Plains fatten rams for family consumption or for sale, their knowledge of animal nutrition is quite extensive.

Women generally are in charge of processing animal products, which is another area of indigenous expertise. Where women are involved in milk processing and marketing, they have thorough knowledge of the fermentation process, including the effects of temperature and acidity. Contrary to some assumptions, women in these societies also are knowledgeable about dairy hygiene. The IFAD review notes that indigenous women wash and sun-dry the utensils they use and the containers in which milk is stored; they also practise mould prevention and personal and environmental cleanliness. Mothers transmit such knowledge and techniques to their daughters and sometimes also to their sons.

Women and girls can also have indigenous knowledge on range and natural resource management. Among the Maasai of the Kenyan Highlands and Tanzania's Maasai Steppe, women deliberately use the ruminants they manage to control bush encroachment and to avoid damage to grass during critical periods. Among the Ahaggar Tuareg of the southern Algerian desert, women are responsible for sheep and goat production, including the choice of land for grazing and herding. Consequently, they have considerable knowledge of the dynamics of the desert ecosystem. Such knowledge has also been found among Somali women who herd and manage sheep, goats and cattle. In the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, Aymara women regularly look at the wool clips they shear from the sheep to check on overgrazing and rangeland quality. If there is a decline in productivity, they adjust the stocking rates.

Similarly, women have a comprehensive understanding of natural water sources, on which their animals depend, and of seasonal variations in water quantity and quality. They may also have ways of recycling water where it is scarce.

The IFAD study also provides interesting illustrations of how indigenous knowledge adapts and expands in response to changing conditions. New inputs can be included in indigenous cures, as when Yemeni women use Pepsi Cola as a substitute for oil to treat bloat in their sheep. The Fulani agropastoralists in Northern Nigeria provide another example of how indigenous innovation can take place to meet new opportunities. When the influx of people into a nearby town resulted in a growing demand for fresh milk, rural women learned to boil it to keep it from souring during the long walk to town. When they saw that the European Economic Commission provided powdered milk, they experimented with different mixtures to produce a fermented product acceptable to their customers.

An understanding of women's indigenous knowledge of livestock production can be useful for development programmes in three ways. First, it can become the basis for upgrading knowledge and practices in the existing situation. Second such understanding can suggest technology that can be transferred to other populations, perhaps in an adapted form. Third, it is a key factor in determining the appropriateness of new technologies and the likelihood of their acceptance, since the latter may depend on how they relate to or compete with traditional expertise.

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.