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A day in the life of a woman agricultural policy adviser in West Africa

A day in the life of a woman agricultural policy adviser in West Africa

Sally Baden (left, in the white shirt), Oxfam’s former Senior Adviser on Agriculture and Women’s Livelihoods, summarizes the findings of a new Oxfam report and research project on women’s collective action in agriculture.

As an Oxfam policy adviser in West Africa (2001-8), I worked with many different kinds of farmer organization. These included cotton farmers, pastoralists and rice growers, grouped in informal enterprises as well as more formal associations and cooperatives.

On occasion, they were women-only groups – such as the organic Shea butter producers of Songtaaba in Burkina, one of a small but growing number of women-led collective businesses. But most farmer organizations were mixed sex – which in practice often meant male dominated, providing plentiful anecdotal evidence that led me to question whether, in fact, women benefit.

  • In a meeting with national level producer leaders, the proposal from a (lone) women farmers’ leader that women members be targeted for literacy training led to one (male) farmer storming out of the room, such was his fury.
  • When facilitating a planning workshop with leaders of pastoralist groups from different countries in the Sahel, it was clear that the few women present were reluctant to speak.  During the lunch break, one woman grabbed my arm and whispered in a panicked tone, ‘You must help us: If the men get better access to markets, they’ll use the money to buy more wives’.
  • When interviewed separately during a funders’ visit to a cotton-farmer cooperative, a group four or five women, expressed their disenchantment with the coop. They felt they are used as free labour and to cook food for meetings and village festivities but have limited say in decisions and derive little benefit.  (Back in the room, the men, by contrast, said they favoured women’s involvement!)

These experiences, plus similar ones from other colleagues led us in 2009 to launch the ‘Researching Women’s Collective Action’ (RWCA)  project to understand which women participate in collective marketing groups – in Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania – how they benefit, and what NGOs and others are doing to support women’s engagement in markets. We first did an extensive literature review, organized stakeholder dialogues and conducted scoping research in 15 agricultural sectors. Then we carried out surveys of nearly 3000 women (members of marketing groups and non members with similar characteristics – as a control) focused on one subsector in each country, as well as in-depth case studies of 12 groups, via focus groups and interviews with key informants.

The RWCA’s results are published today in a new Oxfam research report.

Are the examples above an unfair caricature of patriarchal attitudes (especially coming from a European feminist)? Yes, up to a point: Oxfam’s RWCA research found that male leaders’ and husbands’ support has been vital to those women who have been able to actively participate in and benefit from collective action groups, including as leaders.  Whether to engage their support, or to mitigate their opposition, strategies to promote women’s empowerment ignore men at their peril.

In more detail, the findings included:

Women’s participation in collective action groups delivers significant economic benefits, but the choice of market is critical: High value products (vs.WCA blog pic 2 sheastaples or traditional exports) which have local as well as national or international markets are likely to yield more benefits. This is true for producer organizations in general, but women in particular.  Women in groups gained high returns from the vegetables sector in Tanzania:  up to $340 per annum for women who joined groups compared to those not in groups.  The estimated monetary value of increased gains from sales was lower in Mali (Shea butter) and Ethiopia (honey) but still significant, at $12 and $35 a year respectively. Those sectors were also relatively easier for women to enter, as they do not require control over land.

Wealthier, higher status women are more likely to join groups, unless measures are taken to target the less well off: Group membership rules of ‘one member per household,’ requiring land ownership, or only admitting married members, indirectly discriminate against women or certain categories of women.  In Ethiopia, unmarried women were able to access groups because NGOs and government specifically targeted female heads of household. Married women’s participation dramatically increased after local lobbying for ‘dual membership’ per household led to changes in cooperative by-laws.

Participation in informal women’s groups increases the likelihood that women will join formal marketing groups and reinforces the benefits they derive: Building on traditional institutions such rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs), burial societies (iddir – in Ethiopia) or labour-sharing groups, informal groups help women to develop confidence and leadership skills as well as accumulate savings, which facilitate marketing of their produce.   However, as the basis for collective marketing such groups have limitations: collective enterprises require different skills, strong networks, group investments and legal recognition.  Linking informal women’s groups with mixed marketing groups can be an effective hybrid strategy, as we found in Ethiopia.

Women rarely have equal say in or leadership of mixed groups, while women-only groups may face challenges with business viability: Women themselves recognize these tensions: when the Matumaini A group in Tanzania lost most of its male members due to ‘women’s dominance’, members recognized that this also meant losing valuable skills, resources and networks. In Mali, ostensibly women-only groups had one or two male members, deployed for tasks such as negotiating with village chiefs where women were prohibited from crossing the threshold. One such group was even named after their token man!

Participation in marketing groups leads to improved incomes, but weak effects on empowerment: In contrast to the economic benefits, we found limited evidence of a clear link between women’s empowerment and group participation.  To assess this, we adapted elements of the ‘Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index’, an innovative methodology called developed by the Oxford Human Poverty Institute (OPHI) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – explanatory video here.

Graph comparing women group members control over different areas of decision making vs. non members (Mali)

Graph comparing women group members control over different areas of decision making vs. non members (Mali)

Our research showed that empowerment was greater when women participate in informal as well as formal groups.

Control over credit was the one area where women’s decision making was enhanced by group membership across all three countries. Other dimensions of empowerment – such as mobility – were affected, though less consistently. Women reported increased control of incomes from the sale of Shea butter, honey or vegetables, but this didn’t seem to extend to wider household incomes, except in Ethiopia. And it was only in Mali that stronger women’s rights over land were linked to group membership.

Learning from such experiences, development actors  – including Oxfam – need to adopt flexible approaches to supporting collective action, taking the wider context into account, and supporting women’s own initiatives.  We also need to pay more attention to the policy environment, enshrining clear principles of equality in cooperative laws, setting explicit targets to address women’s participation and leadership, making membership rules and procedures more flexible, and protecting the space for informal association.

So: Does organizing groups of rural women producers contribute to rural women’s empowerment as well as increasing their incomes?  My answer is a qualified ‘yes’; it can be a step towards increased empowerment, for some women, under the right conditions.  But we are only just beginning to understand the relationships between markets, collective action, intra-household relations and ‘women’s empowerment’.  More innovation and more research are (of course) needed.


  1. Brilliant blog and also well presented. I agree most of the findings. The only point to add is that all the relational evidence is very dynamic in nature. A good principle is not to fix them in rigid frameworks, because an NGO has a 5 years strategy/ business plan.

  2. I also do believe that there is something very powerful about women/these groups sharing thier experiences across communities as there is a lot of learning that comes across. Again we must be able to encourage the women’s groups to look outside of the objectives of their associations in order to reach out to other women non members. This is a task i left with a group of women rice growers in rural Tanzania when i paid them a visit last month. They appreciated their ability to sit with the men and be part of the decision making; appreciated the income that they were able to build cos they were part of this group but also sharply recognised that not all women were “allowed” to join.

  3. Dear Dedo,

    Very interesting post. I am one of the contributors of this study. I would like to know, according to your experience, what prevented women from joining those groups, was it due to formal or informal membership rules, other barriers to entry, or weak rights and status within their households (because of their husbands or other relatives) or their communities (access to land and other productive assets)?

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