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Women’s unequal access to productive assets exacerbates land degradation

Many people living in the drylands depend on agricultural and pastoral activities for their livelihoods. However communities engaged in these activities display different patterns of asset ownership and access. Among agricultural communities for example, men own the land and produce cash crops, and as a result can obtain credit and other facilities. Women on the other hand rarely own land and are often confined to the production of subsistence foods. In Uganda, for example, although 97 percent of women have access to land, eight percent have leaseholds, and only seven percent actually own land and have access to credit (UN-Habitat: 2002). In such communities, women’s access to critical resources is mediated by relationships with men. This places female-headed households at an even greater disadvantage.

By contrast, in pastoral communities, assets tend to be communally owned, thus men and women generally have equal access. Yet, as with women in agricultural communities, pastoral women also may face significant barriers to accessing crucial resources. For example, among many pastoral communities it is men who are mainly concerned with managing livestock, which manage the water points. These water points often have no taps for women to draw water for domestic use. Consequently, women are forced to fetch water at the cattle troughs used and contaminated by animals.

Women are key players in both the agricultural and pastoral production processes. They are the primary natural resource managers, providers of food security, and repositories of knowledge and expertise on indigenous plants, medicines, food and water. These are crucial roles when dealing with soil fertility and crop failure in degraded and drought-prone areas. Women in areas affected by drought and desertification, however, are generally engaged in subsistence and small economies and are therefore more vulnerable than men to the negative impacts of global economic, technological and cultural transformation processes.

The restoration of degraded soil requires the supplemental use of new technologies. Such technologies are usually transferred through agricultural extension systems staffed by male officers who are more comfortable working with male producers. In some cases, local cultural norms make it difficult or even impossible for male extension workers to interact with female producers. Consequently, women often do not receive information about new technologies, and men obtain most of the direct benefits during the initial set-up and implementation stages of the new technology.

Without ownership of assets such as land, women cannot access credit, extension and technological services. This in turn affects their ability to sustain their families and manage other natural resources that lay the foundation for sustainable production systems. It deepens their exclusion from participation in land conservation and development projects, agricultural extension work and policy-making processes. As a result, the land they depend on for their income is easily and continually degraded. Asset ownership and access to land also have a bearing on people’s vulnerability to disasters and risk.

Although both the rich and poor are affected when disasters from desertification, land degradation and drought arise, the poor, especially women, are hardest hit because their ability to cope with and recover from these phenomena depend on access to assets such as land and the ability to mobilize resources. For instance, when drought strikes, an individual, group or community can invest its assets in another area to meet short-term needs. As the most disadvantaged in asset access and ownership, women in drylands encounter great difficulty in adjusting to extreme effects related to desertification, land degradation and drought, such as those anticipated from climate change.


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