The implications of environmental damage in rural areas is particularly serious for women who are generally found on the most marginal land and have the primary responsibility for providing household subsistence.
These women rarely have alternative income-generating employment opportunities. In Namibia, the highest percentage of women farmers is found in the northern communal areas with marginal agricultural potential.
In times of drought, like the ones which have been experienced for the past three years, the outstanding work of these women becomes even more commendable as they battle it out against all odds.
In Namibia environmental degradation (deforestation, water deficiencies, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity) has been hastened by the policies introduced under colonial and white rule, which allocated the least arid land to black farmers. As the population pressure on the fragile land base increases, land units per household have decreased and, to compensate, unsuitable land is cleared for agriculture, causing soil erosion, decreased fertility and productivity. Wetlands have also been lost, resulting in food and water shortages during periods of droughts, when these areas would have served as a source of water.
Another trend with implications for rural women is the high population growth experienced in Africa, coupled with unequal allocation of resources and inheritance laws which result in land parcelling and contribute to environmental degradation as the growing pressure on the land pushes farmers (and especially rural women) to over-exploit wood, water and other resources in order to meet household requirements. Such over exploitation may result in serious and irreversible environmental degradation including deforestation, long-term erosion, decreased soil fertility, and desertification, which limits the development of agriculture in most areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Under structural adjustment programmes, large scale farming and commercial crop production are promoted, based on the assumption that productivity improvements are easier to obtain in the export as opposed to subsistence or locally-traded crops sector, and that the increase in income stemming from export production will ensure national food security. As a consequence, resources (land, labour, and inputs, including research) have been reallocated from subsistence production to the production of export crops. The implications of this shift are many, especially for women who are concentrated in the subsistence sector and whose ability to move into export crops is limited by various constraints, including: (a) time (double burden of productive and reproductive tasks); (b) systemic (low access to credit, technological packages and marketing information); and, (c) socio-cultural (traditional responsibility for feeding and care of the household). Women’s already limited access to resources is further constrained, given the low priority afforded to the subsistence farming sector. Rising prices for basic food products, commodities and agricultural often encourages women to remain at the subsistence level to cover more of the households food needs.
At the same time, reduced government involvement in such areas as marketing and pricing for subsistence agriculture leaves farmers responsible for areas in which they have no previous experience or training. In addition, structural adjustment policies generally involve reduced government expenditure on social services such as education, health and rural infrastructure (water and energy supplies) which means further demands are made on women’s time and energy to make up for shortfalls in these areas.
Pressure on the countryside from the rapidly growing population and low returns from agriculture have contributed to an Africa-wide phenomenon of growing male rural-to-urban migration. While such migration can increase remittances to rural areas and strengthen market linkages between urban and rural areas, it leaves rural women increasingly responsible for farming and for meeting their households’ immediate needs.
Throughout Africa many countries have introduced new legislation and programmes to assist small farmers in the traditional sector and pay special attention to women’s needs.