Our Burning Planet
Women in rural agriculture stricken by climate change effects
Women in agriculture, particularly those in rural areas, face adverse challenges to their livelihoods due to climate change effects and its consequences on food and economic security.
Climate change is not gender neutral. As developing countries bear the brunt of climate change in the form of extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods – increasing the vulnerability of pinched natural resources – it is women and girls in agriculture and rural and remote areas who are most affected and unshielded from these events. Climate change effects exist alongside deep-set gender inequalities, and its consequences only widen this gap as women and girls, who are custodians of the household, are stripped of resources set aside to look after their families.
Busisiwe Mgangxela, 59, a farmer in the Eastern Cape’s Middledrift who trains nearly 300 Eastern Cape women in organic farming through WhatsApp, told Daily Maverick that while all farmers experience climate change and its effects, it is women who are mostly affected as they are crop, horticulture and livestock farmers; forms of farming that require lots of water.
The Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces were declared a national disaster just last month, following a seven-year drought that AgriSA has called the worst experienced in 100 years. The declaration of a national disaster gives local government access to financial relief that farmers have been needing.
Mgangxela warns however that the relief may be gendered.
“Disaster programmes by the government that seek to help farmers in times of disaster declaration favour men mostly, because they help with livestock feed and water for red meat livestock, prioritising cattles and leaving behind sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and vegetables which women mostly farm,” the 59-year-old said.
South Africa’s agricultural quarterly force statistics (QLFS) show that 60 to 80% of labour in the sector is made up of women. According to the same QLFS, only 3 million people in South Africa are employed in subsistence farming, while another 4,4 million spend time collecting water, dung or wood for subsistence needs.
Climate change disproportionately affects women, placing them further along the societal and economic margins. For these women, this is felt in the form of limited food and/or nutrition for children, and pinched resources for education, mainly impacting girls.
Food security… or lack thereof
Climate and Energy Campaigner Thandile Chinyavanhu told Daily Maverick that as the potential of the agricultural industry shrinks due to climate change impact, increased job losses are felt by women.
“Women who were able to make ends meet through subsistence farming are realising that their crop yield is less than they had two, or five years ago. They are forced to get by with less than before,” Chinyavanhu said.
Women in rural areas have since developed to take on work that generates an income such as trading of their harvest, reshaping gender inequality relations, as women use the income to further sustain their households, a study shows.
Despite this, male-headed small-scale farm households are more food secure than female-headed households. However, the contribution of agriculture to food security is higher in female-headed households than in male-headed households, particularly in rural areas. These effects of climatic characteristics on food security are often more apparent in rural areas than in urban areas.
Statistics South Africa’s last quarterly results show that the agriculture sector lost 2.2% of jobs. This reflects an 18,000 employment figure decrease in the industry.
While these figures do not allot to gender specifications, women are often at the forefront of subsistence farming, with girls expected to assist with duties associated with the farming. About 20.7% of households engage in agriculture, with 65% of those households being reliant on subsistence farming in order to meet household food demand.
“Experiences with climate change are: drought, death of livestock, dryness causing difficulty in vegetable and grain production, infestations with pests and resistant weeds. All this threatens food security,” Mgangxela said.
As women who are heads of households experienced poverty exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, women were forced to make trade-offs between household expenses like food and electricity, Chinyavanhu said. She added that women were starving to feed their children, a term coined “shielding hunger”.
“Climate change is driving poverty through extreme weather events that erode agricultural potential and lead to job losses in this industry and its auxiliary industries or directly taking food off the plates of subsistence farmers through affecting their yields,” the campaigner said.
According to the Mgangxela, climate change poses another challenge to water as a basic human right. Dry rivers and dams used to collect water for household use, sanitation, farming and hygiene, increase the opportunity for viruses and bacteria that can cause illness or even death. This is especially risky to women and girls who quite literally carry the responsibility of collecting water.
Climate change effects have gone beyond dry land and lack of resources, but have also, according to Mgangxela, resulted in pests that have never been seen before, such as the fall armyworm (native to North and South America) that attacks maize, sorghum and potatoes. Birds have also been damaging crops as they are in need of food due to loss of biodiversity through deforestation and monocropping, the farmer said.
Intercropping, however, has been a method that some rural women are using for maximum harvest on small land, Mgangxela said. The method is also beneficial to insects and the end product of the harvest, all while benefiting the soil, environment, rivers and people as it brings biodiversity through principles of organic farming. Sustainable methods such as intercropping and agroecology regenerate the soil and build fertility, the farmer added.
“Women have to find working solutions to the challenge that is upon us and work around it because their families and the nation look to them for nutrient-dense food,” Mganxela said.
Increased climate change impacts are seeing women revert to indigenous knowledge systems, which are being found to be climate smart as they ensure climate resilience, Chinyavanhu said.
“Planting techniques like half-moon planting in Burkina Faso allow for crops to thrive in arid regions. An irrigation technique in Niger called Tassa has significantly improved yields,” the campaigner said.
Lack of access to land
The customary land tenure system sees women experiencing a lack of access to land, as ownership is transferred only to males in the family and sometimes women with children are favoured over those without. This often sees women vulnerable to increased gender disparities, impacting their livelihood and limiting their economic independence.
“This prevents them from securing loans from banks to help them farm. Grant funding and government support also require proof of land ownership, among the criteria for funding or assistance,” Mgangxela said.
Gugu Nonjinge, senior advocacy officer at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, told Daily Maverick that women are more vulnerable to climate change than men due to their dependence on natural resources for their livelihoods and resilience.
“Secure access to, control over and use of land provides a source of food, shelter, income and social identity, and reduces vulnerability to food insecurity, hunger and poverty, particularly for women in rural areas,” Nonjinge said.
However there have been cases of women demanding their right to arable land by challenging governments and corporations, Chinyavanhu said.
Some of these recent cases include KwaZulu-Natal’s Ingonyama Trust ruling, which saw residents no longer having to sign leases to live on their ancestral land, a barrier that had limited women’s access to land. The uMgungundlovu community in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape, is also an example where the community won a case last year, enabling them to have meaningful consultations with mining companies before any mining takes place. And there’s the ongoing Amadiba Crisis Committee case in the Eastern Cape, where a proposed route would cut through the community. Chinyavanhu says she is hopeful for a positive outcome.
Adapting and absent policy
A lack of policy targeted at women farmers placed them in an even more vulnerable state. Mgangxela said that the lack of policy to support organic farmers was discriminatory.
“There is no support for Ecological Organic Agriculture farmers. Programmes and policies work against [organic farmers], in favour of more hectares of monocropping that has put us in this climate change calamity,” the farmer said.
It is no doubt that women are pivotal to food security, especially in rural areas. However with climate change negatively affecting their produce, livelihood and security, women in agriculture, particularly those in rural areas, are most vulnerable to climate change. However, women seem to be doing as much as they can with the little they have by turning to indigenous knowledge and several climate change mitigation methods to limit the impact of climate change on their lives. Limited access to land, on the other hand, becomes a barrier to mitigation efforts that attempt to protect women and their households from climate change consequences.
“Women are adapting to include climate-smart agriculture in their practices, but in the absence of decisive climate action, there is no way to shield women from a changing climate,” Chinyavanhu said. DM/OBP