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Voices From Africa

 

Number 5: Sustainable Development Part 1

Contents

 

WOMEN AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

Ruth Meena

Introduction

Sustainable development refers to a development process which enhances peoples' capacity to create and consume wealth on a lasting basis. Sustainable development requires, among other things, a socio-economic, political and cultural environment which enables people to engage in and sustain the development process. The political system should provide stability to allow people to engage in production. Intra-ethnic conflicts, tribal wars and social tensions, as well as denial of basic human rights, constrain efforts to promote sustainable development. The social relationships between individuals and communities can either promote or constrain sustainable development. Social security is thus one of the necessary prerequisites for promoting sustainable development.

Besides social security, there is a need for economic freedom. Economic freedom in this context refers to a condition which enables people to utilize their innovative and creative capacities in the development process; protects individual economic rights to have access to productive assets, including land rights; provides a right to control one's labour in terms of decisions to engage in economic activity of one's choice; and conveys a right to control the fruits of one's labour. It also implies a right to gainful employment.

In ideal conditions, therefore, women, like men, need political stability which guarantees protection of their basic human rights, social security to be able to engage in productive activities, the right to develop and utilize their talents, fair pay for the work they perform, and the right to participate in the management of their societies as intellectuals, policy makers, producers and consumers.

This is the context within which the roles of women in promoting sustainable development will be discussed. But, before we do this, we shall briefly discuss the constraints which have limited women's contribution to promoting sustainable growth.

Constraints

The conditions under which African women have been participating in the development process have not enabled them to enhance their capacity to utilize their physical and intellectual energies in promoting sustainable development. Three areas are considered to have limited women's contribution to sustainable development: policy environment, social cultural setting and women's initiatives.

The Policy Environment

Most development plans and policies of African states have been "gender blind." The planning and policy making processes in the region have failed to appreciate the fact that women and men have different roles and that their needs and constraints are different.

Policy makers and planners have failed to address the socially structured subordination of women to men. Unequal division of labour, legal discrimination against women and abuse of women's basic human rights have been more or less ignored by policy makers and planners, despite the lip service paid to the elimination of sexual discrimination.

In brief, plans and policies have not been "gender responsive." That is, they have not recognized existing gender imbalances, and have not taken into account the different gender roles which men and women play. Women are therefore constrained in participating effectively in the development process because their subordinate position in society is ignored in development planning and policy making, while their concrete needs are equally ignored. This is reflected in the manner in which resources are allocated and utilized.

Access to Land and Unequal Division of Labour

Land tenure systems, for instance, are based on discriminatory policies. While most African states have considered agriculture the backbone of their economies and acknowledge the significant role of women in the agricultural sector, few have paid much attention to the land tenure systems which have been discriminating against women.

Women's access to loans and other credit facilities for agricultural improvement has been constrained by their inability to own land.

The impact of discriminatory land tenure systems on agricultural production;and specifically on production of food crops;is an area which needs careful analysis by policy makers and planners. This problem is more pronounced in countries where the migrant labour system has led to an increase in female heads of household who lack power and control over the land they work. This condition is worsened by the fact that the existing rural credit policies are also blind to the existing discriminatory systems. Women agricultural producers are not benefiting from rural credit facilities and this limits their contribution to promoting sustainable development in this sector.

Agriculture continues to be the backbone of African economies. According to a 1989 World Bank report, agriculture provides about 33% of African GDP and 40% of its exports, and has great potential for expansion. Most African communities have had gender specific roles in agricultural production. Land clearing is normally assigned to men, while women and men participate in tilling the land. Weeding is normally done by women, who are also responsible for transporting crops from the farm to the home or to cooperative units. In terms of division of labour, studies have indicated that women have been contributing more time in the agricultural cycle than men. A recent study done for the World Bank, for instance, estimated that women in sub-Saharan Africa produce up to 80% of all staple foods but own less than 10% of the land. In another study, on the world economic crisis and its impact on women, it was further estimated that women in this region contribute up to 30% of labour in ploughing, 50% of labour in planting, 60% of labour in weeding, 85% of labour in processing and preserving food, while performing up to 95% of all domestic chores. Indeed, throughout rural Africa, women's labour input is estimated to be three times that of men. This was neatly expressed by the former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere,1 who said, "It would be appropriate to ask our farmers, especially men, how many hours a week or how many weeks in a year they work. The truth is that women in the villages work very hard, 12-15 hours in a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays. Women who live in the villages work harder than everybody else in Tanzania. But men who live in the villages are on leave for half of their lives."

Development policies on this continent have been functioning under the assumption that women's labour supply is elastic. Increasing labour demand, as well as increased infant mortality rates, have been forcing women to produce more children. The time devoted to biological reproductive tasks constrains women's involvement in other productive activities. In Tanzania, for instance, it is estimated that an average woman devotes up to 17 years to pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for young siblings. Women's biological and social reproductive roles are supposed to go hand in hand with their other productive activities. The present food insecurity cannot be isolated from the existing gender division of labour which is forcing women to increase the child population as a source of future labour. This has created an imbalance between food production and population growth. Sound population policies should not ignore existing inequities in the sexual division of labour.

Where the migrant labour system prevails, such as in Lesotho, Bostwana, Namibia and Swaziland, women have been forced to manage all agricultural activities single-handedly as most of the men have migrated to the mining industry in South Africa. This condition is worsened by the fact that the tools of labour used by women have never been improved. As a matter of fact, mechanization of agriculture has marginalized women. The small handhoe has been the main farm implement used by women. Their backs and heads have been the major means of transporting food and agricultural outputs from the farm to the household and to the market.

But despite the fact that women contribute more labour in agricultural production, they constitute a small minority of formal employees in this sector. A study done in Tanzania in 1989, for instance, showed that only 47 women were employed in the agricultural sector in the Ministry's head office, compared with 80 men. Of all these employees, not a single woman was a Principal Agricultural Officer.

A UNICEF study and analysis of the condition of women and children in Namibia showed that women constitute a small minority of formal agricultural employees despite the fact that they are a majority of rural producers. Figures for 1988 show that out of 38,388 employees in the agricultural sector;equivalent to 20.77% of the total labour force;only 1885 or 4.45% are women.2

Marginal participation of women as formal employees encourages gender insensitivity in the planning and development of this sector. Studies have shown that there are socio-cultural barriers which limit male extension officers in providing technical advice to female farmers. In many parts of the continent, extension services have been biased in favour of male farmers;a factor which explains male biases in the sector's technologies.

Traditional methods of preserving foods have also been ignored and substituted by modern techniques which do not extend knowledge of preserving female-grown perishable crops, such as vegetables. This has contributed to food insecurity at household level throughout the region and during a period when most of the countries in the region have already been hard hit by drought. Most agricultural technology, for instance, has been directed towards certain 'cash' crops, which are male dominated, and little input has been directed to food crops, especially the traditional and staple foods normally referred to as women's crops. Hardly any research has explored ways of improving such crops as cassava, sweet potatoes, a variety of yams and traditionally grown peas, beans, vegetables and so forth.

But most of the work which women do in this sector is not valued or recognized. The very concept of work is socially constructed. The Zimbabwe Bureau of Statistics defines 'work' as "a remunerative activity usually done under the umbrella of formal or informal organizations, government or private, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs)." The bureau further defines the formal sector as registered business, while the informal sector would be unregistered business.

Tanzania's Human Deployment Act of 1984 defines employment as "any gainful activity which enables an able-bodied adult to earn a living and which can result in an increase in productivity."

The narrow definition of work excludes most of the work performed by women and thus implies that women's activities are not part of the mainstream planning. This means that they do not benefit from the allocation of financial resources.

Educational Policies and Gender Discrimination

Educational policies and educational plans have also limited the ability of women to fully utilize their intellectual energies in the management of their economies. African states inherited gender stereotyped educational systems from the colonial states. To date, little has been done to transform these gender typed systems.

Very few women have access to institutions of higher learning, and those who do enter specific, stereotyped fields. In Tanzania and Zimbabwe, for instance, women constitute less than 25% of the total university student population. This means that very few women are able to contribute to the management of their societies as managers, intellectuals and politicians. Under-representation of women in higher education partly explains the marginalization of women in the mainstream of development planning, a factor which limits their contribution to the implementation of such plans. A more balanced development agenda for Africa needs the intellectual input of both men and women in the development process. This can only be achieved by removing gender barriers which limit women's access to higher forms of education.

In addition to marginal participation of women in education, and particularly in institutions of higher learning, women are stereotyped into those disciplines which groom them for traditional roles such as nursing, community service and secretarial work. In Bostwana, for instance, in 1990, university enrolment figures indicated that females were concentrated in the fields of Nursing, Bachelor of Education and Humanities, while males dominated the fields of Law and Bachelor of Science. This implies that in the formal sector, women will be employed in the health sector and other related services while men will continue to dominate the judiciary, law-making organs and the scientific fields. This implies that women will continue to play a very marginal role in decisions regarding the laws of the land and science and technology.

Women's Participation in Policy Making

Women constitute a very small minority in policy making bodies, such as parliament, cabinet, judiciary and managerial and executive positions in both public and private sectors. Here in Zimbabwe, for instance, women's participation in legislative bodies since 1980 is as follows:

Women have played a very marginal role in the cabinet. Presently, there are no full-time women cabinet ministers.

Similarly, in Tanzania, women members of Parliament constitute a very small minority despite the introduction of a quota system, which has ensured the maintenance of a certain percentage of women in Parliament. Women members of parliament have scarcely exceeded 10%.

This trend explains why most states in this region have not made any fundamental changes in the laws they inherited from the pre-colonial patriarchal structures and those introduced by the colonial patriarchal rule, which favoured men. Such laws include those related to issues of property rights, marriage and child custody.

Population Policies

Population policies and strategies have been abusing women's reproductive rights. In South Africa for instance, the apartheid regime used forced birth control methods on black South African women as a political instrument to control the growth of the country's black community.4 Most family planning methods in this region are not directed at enhancing women's reproductive rights. In most cases, they provide pharmaceutical companies with lucrative business at the expense of women's health and reproductive rights. For women to be able to participate fully in the development process, they should be able to determine the number of children they need, when they need them, and their spacing. This means having a right to decide on the type of contraceptives they use.

Modern contraceptive methods have also ignored the safer, traditional methods, which could have been improved at lower cost in terms of the side effects and psychological trauma which result from the unpredictable consequences of the use of modern contraceptives.

Related to the above are the development policies for human resource development. In underscoring the need to invest in the development of human resources in Africa as a measure to promote development on a long-term basis, the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa noted that, "Economic development and transformation will be impossible in Africa without sustained policies for human resource development and utilization. Therefore, Africa must accord high priority to human resource development and utilization."5

Unfortunately, most African states have considered the training of high-level human power as the only critical area for human resource development. This limited perception is also biased in favour of the male gender. While this training of human resources is essential, I consider the quality of human resources in its totality as being fundamental in promoting sustainable growth.

Human resources development and utilization must also take into consideration the reproductive processes, both biological and social, of human resources. Investment in development of human resources has to include, among other things, maternal and child care services, education, water, housing and health.

Unfortunately, the market model pursued by most African states has forced governments to abdicate their responsibility for the welfare of the people and their households. This is indicated in the budget cuts in social services such as water, health, housing, education and sanitation, which have placed an increased workload and responsibility on those who shoulder the burden of social reproduction, that is, women.

The 'domestic' environment, for many African women, is very stressful. Women invest a lot of their productive energies in processing and cooking food. The time wasted in looking for firewood and water, as well as time spent in processing food to make it ready for cooking, could be saved if water and firewood were within reach and if cooking stoves were improved. The grinding stone, which is still in use in many parts of Africa for processing maize and millet, the main traditional staple foods, consumes a lot of women's labour time. Where the grinding mill has been introduced, it is not making a significant impact because some women have to spend long hours walking to the mill and even longer hours waiting for their turn.

The care of children remains essentially a woman's role. In the African traditional setting, the care of young infants and siblings was a collective responsibility. This has been altered due to various socio-economic changes which are taking place on the continent. Lack of community support in caring and rearing of children has made it extremely difficult for women to contribute effectively to promoting sustainable growth. Women have to perform most of their tasks with babies on their backs. This not only affects their labour output, but also, in a negative way, their health and that of their babies. The impact of growing up on mothers' backs has to be carefully studied in terms of the development of the child's creative and innovative capacities.

In order to enhance the quality of human resources, there is a need to invest in and improve the necessary tools of labour, as well as to provide support services for the reproduction of the human species. There is a need for a clearly spelled out policy which addresses the whole question of human resources. The plans must clearly define the strategies which will facilitate the improvement of the reproductive process. This also means recognizing and giving value to reproductive tasks such as child bearing, rearing and caring, caring for the sick and the old, and all the domestic chores needed for the maintenance and reproduction of human capital.

Political instability on the African continent has contributed largely to the inability of African states to fully exploit either material or human resources for development. This instability has paralyzed the economies of Mozambique and Angola, as the war situation has made productive work more or less impossible. Violence in South Africa has made it difficult for women to participate effectively in negotiations. The process which led to the signing of the peace accord, for instance, left out women, yet women in South Africa have been in the forefront of the struggle for the establishment of a democratic and peaceful South African state. Women in South Africa will only be able to contribute to the promotion of sustainable development if they are part of the process which will shape the future of that country. This means that policies leading to the creation of the New South Africa cannot ignore the concerns of women who have suffered from sexual discrimination, colonial oppression and racial discrimination, as well as class oppression.

Both men and women cannot engage in productive activities when the state fails to provide minimum security. For women, however, social insecurity has not been confined to war-torn countries. Existing legal systems have failed to protect women against abuses of their basic human rights. The majority of women are living in an actual and potentially explosive and violent environment. The issue of domestic violence has not been addressed by existing political systems, yet the mass media is full of horrifying reports of domestic violence, especially against women and children. Employers and senior executives have sexually harassed women. Some learning institutions, including universities, have created very hostile environments for female students;a factor which might constrain their academic performance, as well as discourage their participation in these institutions as students and academic staff. Women's contribution to the production of knowledge is thus diminished.

There seems to be a need for policies which clearly spell out what constitutes violence against women. Measures to protect women against various forms of violence, including domestic violence and violence at the workplace, have to be clearly strategized.

Socio-Cultural Norms

Besides the policy environment, women have also been constrained by existing socio-cultural norms through which they are perceived as inferior or second class citizens.

Although the position of African women in traditional societies remains undocumented, there has been a tendency to use culture and tradition to undermine that position. This has had a negative impact in promoting sustainable development. Culture has been used to justify the subordinate position of women in the household, a factor which excludes women from property ownership. Culture has also been used to justify the existing unequal division of labour. Some cultural norms concerning age of marriage and marriage rights have also limited women's participation in formal schooling. And yet, African states claim that African culture is dynamic and change-oriented. When it comes to issues of gender inequity, African culture seems to be protecting the culture of oppression.

For culture to play that dynamic role, women themselves have to create an alternative culture that challenges the one endorsed by African states. This is the context in which women's initiatives have to be analyzed.

Women's Initiatives

Participation of women in the development process has been constrained by their inability to influence policy making and planning, as well as by their inability to change the patriarchal ideology which continues to legitimize their subordinate status in society.

The majority of women have been participating in the economy as marginal actors in the agricultural sector, where they till land they do not own with the crudest tools and produce crops they do not control.

Others have opted to participate in the informal sector, where there is no state support and where at worst they are victims of state repression because most of their activities;such as street vending or local beer brewing;are considered illegal. The fraction employed in the formal sector participates as semi-skilled, unskilled or low-paid wage earners. They have been victims of the retrenchment measures which governments are pursuing in the name of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).

Women have taken various initiatives in order to overcome some of the constraints which limit their effective participation in the development process. A few have organized economic groups and cooperative ventures. During the 1980s and 1990s, most African states witnessed a proliferation of women's income-generating projects. Most of these groups, however, are small in nature and have been confined to the informal sector. Most of these women-only projects, as Diane Elson noted, are not economically viable and, in the majority of cases, tend to be welfare oriented. Most are small and lack sufficient official support and have therefore remained outside mainstream plans.

Women's income-generating activities however, are enabling the majority of African states to weather a severe socio-economic crisis with minimal social upheavals, as women absorb the shocks of the crisis.6 And yet, such activities can only be sustained if;and only if;they are part of the mainstream plans, in other words, planned for, budgeted for and supported. With present trends of economic liberalization, however, these income-generating activities will not survive the competition from external and internal companies. Less state intervention in the economy might be a death knoll to women's economic activities.

Women on this continent have been implementing projects and plans which have been imposed upon them by their governments and the donor community. The marginalized position of women in Africa has been used by African states and donor governments to inject funds into issues other than those directed towards empowering women. African women have to fight for greater participation in decision making organs and should demand that governments be more accountable to them. Women will contribute more effectively if they participate in the decisions which affect them and society at large.

This has forced some women's groups, such as the Zambian women's lobby group, to organize for political influence. Women can only contribute to the sustainable development process if they are part of those who design plans and formulate policies. This means they have to play a more aggressive role in the management of their societies.

African states have to recognize that unless men and women participate in designing development programmes and formulating policies for the development process, sustainable development will remain a distant dream.

References

1. United Republic of Tanzania: Ministry of Community Development Culture, Youth and Sports (1988).

2. United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF) and Namibian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER), University of Namibia, A Situation Analysis of Children and Women, Windhoek, Namibia, 1991, p.107.

3. Figures for 1982 are not available.

4. Southern Africa Political and Economic Monthly (SAPEM), Vol.5, No.6, Harare, Zimbabwe.

5. African Leadership Forum, 1990.

6. Meena, Ruth, Southern Africa Political and Economic Monthly (SAPEM), vol.4, No.12, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Ambio Vol. 22 No.6, 1993.

Sammani, M.O. (ed). Kordofan Resource Inventory and Development Prospective by Rural Council. Khartoum, Sudan, 1988.

Seif El Din A.G., Drought-Induced Disaster in North Kordofan;Sudan a Case Stud,. UN Emergency Office, UNDP Khartoum, Sudan, 1993

UNEP/FAO/UNESCO/WHO Carte Mondiale de la Desertification a l'echelle du 1:25,000,000, UN Conference on the desert, Nairobi, 1977.

 

 
 
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