Women's fundamental contributions in their households, food production systems and national economies are increasingly acknowledged, within Africa and by the international community. This is due, in no small part, to women's own energetic efforts to organise, articulate their concerns and make their voices heard. At both grassroots and national levels, more women's associations have been formed, taking advantage of the new political openings to assert their leadership roles.
They are also pressing for an expansion of women's economic and social opportunities, and the advancement of women's rights. By improving their own positions, they are simultaneously strengthening African society as a whole, as well as enhancing the continent's broader development prospects.
But women in Africa continue to face enormous obstacles. The growing recognition of their contributions has not translated into significantly improved access to resources or increased decision-making powers. Neither has the dynamism that women display in the economic, cultural and social lives of their communities through their associations and informal networks been channeled into creating new models of participation and leadership.
Beyond such political challenges, the material conditions under which most women live and work continue to deteriorate in many countries due to economic and social decline, wars and conflict, and the spread of AIDS. Women constitute the majority of the poor and the illiterate in both urban and rural areas in Africa and many young women between the ages of 15 and 25 have been pushed into sex work and face the risk of HIV/AIDS infection.
Among the majority of rural and low-income urban dwellers, women perform all domestic tasks, while many also farm and trade. They are responsible for the care of children, the sick and the elderly, in addition to performing essential social functions within their communities. They seek to manage the environment, although their struggle for survival often results in environmental damage from activities such as fuel-wood collection.
Rural women so to speak, provide the backbone of the rural economy in much of sub-Saharan Africa. About 80 per cent of the economically active female labour force is employed in agriculture and women comprise about 47 per cent of the total agricultural labour force. Food production is the major activity of rural women and their responsibilities and labour inputs often exceed those of men in most areas in Africa.
Women also provide much of the labour for men's cultivation of export crops, from which women derive little direct benefit. Women are responsible for 70 per cent of food production, 50 per cent of domestic food storage, 100 per cent of food processing, 50 per cent of animal husbandry and 60 per cent of agricultural marketing.
Yet they face constraints in access to land. Across Africa, agricultural intensification, population growth and economic change have led to substantive shifts from common property systems of tenure towards more centralised resource control. In the process, women and poorer people generally have lost out.
Where land reform schemes have been introduced, they often have displaced complex systems of land use and tenure in which women had certain rights in common law and local practice, if not in legislation. New land titles usually have been registered in the name of a male household head, regardless of women's economic contribution to the household, their customary rights or the increasing number of female-headed households.
Labour is also a bottleneck for female farmers, as men have left rural economies in search of more viable livelihoods and women have lost access to male help on farms or the money they may have previously provided.The only means for most women to increase their yields is through even harder work, using more labour-intensive methods to maintain soil regeneration and fertility. Where technical innovations such as irrigation techniques have made more than one cropping season possible, as in many parts of the Sahel, increased women's labour has been crucial in meeting the intensified work demands.
Though women have not simply accepted increasing demands on their labour time as examples from rice development schemes in The Gambia, Cameroon and Nigeria have shown, women often have bargained with men to increase what they get in exchange for the labour they expend on family fields.
In addition to land and labour, women face problems of access to other inputs, including credit, technology, extension services and agricultural training and marketing. Many credit associations and export-crop marketing cooperatives limit membership to household heads in many countries, thereby excluding most married and unmarried women. Banks demand collateral in the form of landed property and male approval before making loans to women, while men often have been reluctant to support women's applications.
Most resources and technical assistance have been channeled to men growing export crops, with improved seeds and tools going to larger commercial farmers, almost invariably men. Only 5 per cent of the resources provided through extension services in Africa are available to women, although, in some cases, particularly in food production, African women handled 80 per cent of the work.
As the world therefore honours rural women, our problem-solving equation to these aforementioned problems must hit the ground running otherwise food security would continue to be threathened. As a matter of fact, food security in Africa cannot be assured without improving the situation of women producers. Women have shown themselves to be ready to take advantage of new opportunities.
Evidence from a World Bank study in Kenya suggests that if women had the same human capital endowments and used the same production factors and inputs as men, the value of their output would increase by some 22 per cent. Given women's key roles in food production, if these results from Kenya hold for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, then simply raising the productivity of women to the same level as that of men would increase total production by 10-15 per cent, eliminating a key constraint to food security.