Women's role in livestock production

In developing countries, women's role in livestock production varies from no role at all to a very high level of responsibility. Underestimating their contribution can jeopardize the success of development initiatives.

A 1994 IFAD publication on women as livestock managers in developing countries classifies the division of labour by gender and age into four categories, representing a range of women's responsibility:

  • Men are completely responsible for livestock, with no involvement of women.

  • Men are responsible for managing all livestock, and women are responsible for processing livestock products.

  • Women are responsible for managing and processing small stock and any other animals kept near the homestead, whereas men are responsible for other animals.

  • Women are responsible for managing and herding large stock and other animals and for processing livestock products.

In transhumant systems, women typically have complete responsibility for animals that are kept close to the homestead, such as poultry, calves and other small livestock, and for sick animals. Women rarely have major herding and management responsibilities for large stock, although there are exceptions as among the Touareg in Algeria, Mali and Niger, and sometimes among women in The Sudan. Women in transhumant systems in Somalia herd cattle, sheep and goats, while men take care of the camels.

In agropastoral systems, women also generally manage and control the animals that remain around the homestead. In most traditional Asian agropastoral societies, for instance, women manage, water and feed small ruminants and other small livestock near their homesteads, whereas men herd the other animals. But there can be variations on this pattern. In many agropastoral societies in the Middle East and Asia, women engage in cattle production and sheep fattening. They may even become shepherdesses during the peak agricultural seasons, or during Ramadhan. Often the women cultivate alfalfa and collect hay year-round. In the Altiplano of Latin America, women may herd and feed sheep, goats, camelids and cattle. In areas where they are not acting as shepherdesses, they often raise small stock, while the larger animals are men's responsibility.

Situations do exist, however, in which women are completely prohibited from having anything to do with livestock, as in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Cultural differences in women's roles can even exist within large tribes. For instance, the Fulani of Benin allow women to raise and sell hens and guinea-fowls, but the Fulani of Niger do not. Moreover, while there may be an 'ideal' division of labour in livestock, as prescribed by cultural norms, it is not always practised. Economic considerations, settlement patterns, general labour availability and other factors can cause people to adopt other labour divisions. In some societies, such as the Maasai in East Africa, women may even slaughter cattle and small ruminants, although this is considered men's exclusive responsibility. Women may also market larger livestock when men are absent, for instance during the seasonal outmigration of men. The IFAD study points out that women are called upon to perform men's livestock responsibilities much more often than the reverse, with a corresponding increase in their workloads.

The essential point is that women usually do a great deal of the work in livestock management, a fact that development initiatives frequently ignore or underestimate. This can result in information being channelled to men only, inadequate consideration of the demands that new technologies or breeds might make on women's time and labour, and other similar mistakes that can threaten the initiative's success.


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.