Women in Farming

The word “farmer” has usually been identified by activities involving plowing and sowing.  In Ethiopia, both activities are mostly associated with men and not enough times with women.  Farm Africa states that in sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of agricultural production is by smallholder farmers and the female share of this agricultural labor force is the highest in the world.  With women not having the same rights as men and having to juggle both their agricultural duties and their domestic ones, women do not have it easy (Farm Africa, 2021).

How important the role of the woman in agriculture is often goes extremely unrecognized, which causes “perception bias” as described by a research project carried out by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).  Because the bias is towards men, the consequence is the idea that most, if not all, agricultural services are needed by men.  This indirectly affects females in the farming sector as it creates less effort put forth toward the development of their skills, education in the field, and access to extension services.  The report states this perception bias creates a fourth challenge to the already existing three—matters involving the market, the state and the community.   As documented in the Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, sufficient amount of evidence proves that rural women have very poor access to agricultural services and extensions, less access to agricultural credit, basic training, and modern inputs and irrigation, and are most likely to be involved in any farmer’s association or agricultural interest organizations (World Bank et al., 2008).

In any given farm field in Ethiopia, one can notice how involved women are in almost all aspects of food procurement, agricultural production, marketing, household nutrition.  Sadly, women are still not considered to “farm.”  This unfortunate cultural notion continues to prevail even though so many agricultural tasks are under the woman’s responsibilities.  Duties include poultry raising, home management, weeding and harvesting, transporting food and water to the farm fields, and preparing storage (EEA/EEPRI, 2006).  The delicate socio-economic societal fabric continues to marginalize women’s roles in the agricultural sector.  This prevents further advancement and technological improvements in households that base their livelihoods on agriculture.

Background:  The Plow

Studies show that women involved in farming are categorized into two:  the woman who runs her household without a husband present and the woman who resides in her husband-headed household.  These two types of women farmers face very different challenges.  One of the advantages that can be considered is the fact that the woman who runs her household without a husband due to death or divorce is at a slightly higher advantage because she may be able to own her land and have more access to the local community associations in terms of gaining aid in some form.  The Peasant Associations, for example, was formed during the Ethiopian military regime from 1974-1991, creating a community of farmers and helping to provide them with various resources like extension, fertilizer and land (Frank, 1990).

A study done by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1992 listed activities generally carried out by women in the farming scenario:

  • Land Preparation – involves leveling and picking unwanted plants to clear fields for farming; includes bringing food to the fields for all those engaged in plowing
  • Sowing – the transportation of seeds to the farming fields; sometimes involves the women furrowing and planting
  • Hoeing – involves women on an equal basis with all members of the family
  • Weeding – almost performed by women exclusively and is considered to be the most time-consuming of all farming activities
  • Harvesting – generally the collecting of pulses, root crops as well as perennial crops
  • Threshing and Storing – considered the most important activity that women are involved in, responsible for preparing the separating area, transporting the completed products to the appropriate storage barn
  • Household Garden – women are primarily responsible for their households’ private gardens, having the choice of what is grown and taking care of all facets of maintaining the gardens
  • Livestock Production – another primarily-women responsibility; barn cleaning, milking and the processing of milk, herding, hay processing, water fetching for animals, tending to sick animals

Although not an absolute fact, it is common for the woman to have the right to the income that is generated from small animals such as sheep, goats and chickens.  The study showed that most of the times if the number of these animals is minimal, then the woman is given the control; as the number increases, the man takes over the control.  The sales of crop and the control of the sales revenues are very much gender-differentiated and sometimes crop-type related.  For example, fruits and vegetables are for the most part mainly managed by women, with the rights to the income generated from them.  This income is generally used for their household needs.  When it comes to the income generated from the larger scale crops such as ጤፍ “Teff” and coffee men are most likely the ones with all the rights and control.

Considering all this involvement of women in the farming and agricultural sector, it becomes difficult to refute the fact that women do play a very serious role in the agricultural supply chain.  Unfortunately, in terms of aid, more focus is placed on providing specialized programs such as sewing and other traditionally-focused, domestic-style activities instead of pushing for women’s improved participation in farming at large (MoA, 1992).

Ethiopia’s agricultural nature as far as gender is concerned is greatly apparent in the ways that children are brought up in the rural areas.  Different spaces are allocated for boys and girls, and activities are separated accordingly even at a young age.  With girls required in mostly domestic-related, household activities and boys more involved in the activities of farming and other outside duties, this directly results in boys growing up with a closer association of farming than that of girls, hence the early identification of “farmer” as a male role and not that of a female (Gella, Asrat & Tadele, Getnet, 2015).

As stated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), “While their contributions are plentiful, women and girls face discrimination when accessing – and making decisions regarding – education, agricultural information and inputs, land, and other assets to aid food production…still the laws have not triumphed over deep-seated social norms that reinforce discrimination against women – especially in agriculture.” (McMullan, Sarah and Kieran, Caitlin, 2014)  Research shows that although half of the Ethiopian labor workforce is made up of women, their contributions are not reciprocated by support from the government and the society at large.  It is obvious that change will not be realized easily unless first the mentality towards how the woman is represented in the agricultural sphere is addressed from the ground up.

Considering the inequality of the gender roles in Ethiopia, women are limited in their abilities to own land, control resources, innovate in various realms, and even engage in leisure personal pursuits.  With an estimated 46% of all working women aged 15-49 engaged in agricultural occupations, according to a review by The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), only two-thirds of the employed women are actually paid.  Male-managed farming plots produce more than those farming plots managed by women; nonetheless there is a considerable gap of production that is directly related to various elements including:

  • unequal access of agricultural assets
  • differences in land management characteristics
  • farming land attributes including the size of the land itself
  • unequal access to extension services
  • the farming field’s distance from the farmer’s residential area
  • various use of available livestock
  • use of technical inputs such as fertilizers
  • the diversification of farmed products
  • years of schooling and experience

Bearing in mind all of these factors, the reality that gender inequality creates adverse environments for women farmers and thus results in immense productivity losses is quite apparent (Drucza, Kristie and Abebe, Wondimu, 2017).  It is unfortunately a huge opportunity loss as agriculture is a great catalyst for change and development especially in the essence of attaining gender equity and ultimately carving the hunger and poverty concerns of the nation.

Trials, Challenges and Impacts:  The Sow and Fruition

Ethiopia has recognized its lack of sufficient focus on this matter of the woman in the agricultural sector.  As such many organizations, associations and joint ventures have come up with different strategies to address the matter in various forms.

Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDGF) – Joint Program

Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO); World Food Programme (WFP); United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UNWomen); International Fund for Agricultural Development (JLIFAD)

Focusing on two regions in Ethiopia (Oromia and Afar), this collaboration was developed to accelerate the economic empowerment of women, reduce rural poverty and promote gender equality.  With the help of the federal and the regional government, the strategy was implemented to support the creation of cooperatives, to promote women-owned agricultural businesses, to produce gender-sensitive extension services, and to increase the participation of women in financial unions and producer associations.

Organizational structures and internal processes presented various challenges.  The complexity of land issues also posed as an obstacle, which includes the traditional attitudes towards a woman’s right to own land.  Although the approval was granted for such activities, implementing proved to be tasking and time-consuming.  In addition, due to a state-of-emergency, severe droughts and the de-evaluation of the Birr against the Dollar, several delays developed.

The program resulted in the improvement of food and nutrition security for rural women as well as their income.  Women farmers participated in various trainings, technical capacity building, and were given access to market information as well as financial and non-financial services.  They were provided productive resources such as land and labor-saving technologies. By directly supporting gender-responsive policies, the program more importantly helped reinforce women’s involvement in the decision-making process.

Improving Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers Project (IPMS-Ethiopia)

International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); Canadian International Development Agency; Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development

ILRI launched a market-led initiative grouped into five themes to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in areas where gender inequality was more pronounced.  Many of the initiatives have been developed and field tested in several ወረዳዎች “woredas” usually in partnership with other organizations.

  1. Increasing Women’s Access to and Control over Assets

Activities included involving female-headed households and married women in farmer association activities, working with different partners to get women more access to extension services, credits and inputs and targeting women farmers to participate in transfer and adopting of technological developments.

  1. Increasing Women’s Access to Skills and Knowledge

Activities included adopting different training approaches in order to increase the participation of women in farming, supporting community initiatives that created opportunities for female farmers to gain more skills and relevant information sources and supporting adult literacy classes for women.

  1. Increasing Women’s Participation in Market-Oriented Agricultural Production

Activities included ensuring that more women retained control of the benefits of the process of the farming commercialization and encouraging the fair use of earnings.

  1. Strengthening Women’s Decision-Making Roles

Activities included training women in confidence-building and leadership skills as well as negotiating skills and carrying out awareness training at a community-level to increase a general understanding of the importance of gender equality.

  1. Improving Wellbeing and Easing Workloads

Activities included getting women farmers involved in technological demonstrations and applications, changing the mentality in the rural areas towards a more equal division of workloads, and identifying and promoting labor-saving techniques.

Some of the challenges faced include the religious influences, cultural barriers and the male-dominated society at large.  This limits the number of women farmers in leadership positions; it limits the number of women farmers with the right access to current information and requires resources for advancement.  Another obstacle was the absence of enough focus given to the women’s skills development in many facets of the agriculture sector due to the bias towards men farmers.

Nonetheless, ILRI’s initiatives have still yielded beneficial results for rural women farmers.  At the ወረዳ “woredas” level good practices are now being used, mindsets within the farming community are slowly changing, and various services are now being properly implemented such as the adult literacy classes, credit access for women farmers, and better partnerships and practice within the community in knowledge-sharing.

Conclusion:  The Harvest

Only two examples of the many projects and programs launched in Ethiopia have been mentioned in an attempt to address the plight of the woman farmer and her important role in the agriculture value chain.  Efforts have been made on various levels and platforms towards the continuous fight for gender equality in terms of recognizing the woman farmer and her tremendous contribution to the sector.  The positive changes—from knowledge- and skills-sharing to access to credit—motivate to keep women plowing ahead in their involvement within farming, improving their livelihood, and continuously contributing to community, combating poverty.


Drucza, K. and Abebe, W. (2017). Gender Transformative Methodologies: A Review in Ethiopia’s Agricultural Sector. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)


Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA)/Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEPRI). (2006). Evaluation of the Ethiopian Agricultural Extension with Particular Emphasis on the Participatory Demonstration and Training Extension System (PADETES).

Frank, E. (Oct. 1999). Gender, Agricultural Development and Food Security in Amhara, Ethiopia: The Contested Identity of Women Farmers in Ethiopia. USAID/Ethiopia.


Farm Africa. (2021). Working with Women.


Gella, A. & Tadele, G. (Dec. 2015). Gender and Farming in Ethiopia: An Exploration of Discourses and Implications for Policy and Research

International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Opportunities for Promoting Gender Equality in Rural Ethiopia through the Commercialization of Agriculture. Lemlem A. et. al. Improving Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers Project (IPMS). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


MoA, Ethiopia. (1992). A Case Study on Women’s Access to Agricultural Extension Services. Ministry of Agriculture, Environmental Protection and Development.

McMullan, S. & Kieran, C. (Aug. 2014). Bridging the Divide Between Women and Men Farmers in Ethiopia. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)


Mogues, T. et. al. (2010). Agricultural Extension in Ethiopia through a Gender and Governance Lens. Development Strategy and Governance Division. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)


Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDGF). Case Study – Ethiopia: Joint Programme on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment – Rural Women Economic Empowerment Component. Prepared by the SDG Fund: Dorodnykh, E. (Knowledge Management and M&E). Editing by Jaksic L.V. & Garrido, V.


World Bank, FAO, & IFAD (2008). Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook. Washington, DC: World Bank. http://go.worldbank.org/5Z9QPCC7L0.

Image source:  https://www.sdgfund.org/
Image soure:  Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

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