Unpaid Care Work and Climate Resilient Sustainable Agriculture: Are Integrated Approaches Possible?

Women smallholder farmers are no doubt the key drivers of the agricultural economy in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that women comprise 80 percent of the agricultural labour force in Africa (FAO, 2009)

Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

April 26th, 2015

By Christina Kwangwari, Azumi Mesuna & Anatole Uwiragiye

Women smallholder farmers are no doubt the key drivers of the agricultural economy in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that women comprise 80 percent of the agricultural labour force in Africa (FAO, 2009). Women farmers grow the majority of the staple food consumed in Africa and are also largely responsible for unpaid care work activities including food preparation and cooking, cleaning and fetching water and firewood (UN ECOSOC, 2007). Within the context of climate change, women smallholder farmers are grappling with food insecurity due to poor adaptation to climate change, significant food crop loss due to pre- and post-harvest losses, minimal value addition, inadequate food storage and preservation techniques and limited access to agro-inputs among other factors. 

This paper argues that without a holistic and integrated approach towards unpaid care work, sustainable agriculture and climate resilience, it will be impossible to attain the gender equality goals of society, particularly among women smallholder farmers. Using ActionAid’s observations in Ghana and Rwanda and a case study from Ghana, the paper analyses the challenges, resource access dynamics and gender roles which lead to gender inequality in this context. Finally, it makes recommendations based on lessons learned from the introduction of childcare centres in Rwanda and Ghana for interventions that could be beneficial in reducing the unpaid care work burden. 

Conceptual Framework

It is important to define some of the key terms and concepts used in this paper and explain how useful they are in understanding women smallholder farmers’ demands and needs on state support, sustainable agriculture, food security and unpaid care work. 

Food security is a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (FAO, 2002). The main aspects of food security include the availability of sufficient quantities of food of an appropriate quality, access for individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate food for a nutritious diet, utilisation of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and healthcare to reach a state of nutritional wellbeing where all physiological needs are met as well as the ability to have access to adequate food at all times (ibid). 

In contrast, food insecurity is linked to the consumption of nutritionally inadequate diets and can be exacerbated by a lack of physical access to affordable, nutritious foods (FAO, 2002). Food preferences are thus not met. Food insecurity is also gendered as gender inequalities in control of livelihood assets limit women’s food production (FAO, 2009). Women are usually responsible for growing and preparing most of the food consumed in the home and raising small livestock, which provides protein, carry out most home food processing, which ensures a diverse diet, minimise losses and provide marketable products. However, they are also disproportionately represented among those who face food insecurity (ibid).

Women are also responsible for most unpaid care work. Unpaid care work includes all activities that go towards caring for the household such as cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood as well as caring for the ill, elderly and children which is not remunerated (ActionAid, 2013).

These activities, mostly done by women, become very challenging and time consuming when they must be done in resource-constrained communities. Poor rural infrastructure, limited investment in health, a lack of energy-saving and affordable stoves for cooking and a lack of access to potable water are some of the challenges which make the performance of unpaid care work time consuming, tedious and challenging for rural and peri-urban women smallholder farmers. Governments generally perpetuate the invisibility of women’s unpaid care work, and thus women’s poverty, by excluding it from national accounts and failing to prioritise public services that could help reduce these unpaid care responsibilities. The disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work results in women being denied an income, food security, human capital and political voice. These factors reinforce women’s subordinate status in society as well as existing gender roles (ActionAid, 2014).

 The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights argues that heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality and to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights (UN Women, 2013). The amount of time spent on this essential work makes it difficult for women to engage in other activities such as agriculture, to partake in community development meetings, actively participate in politics and engage in personal development activities such as learning new skills as well as self-care and leisure activities. Antenopolous (2009) notes that unpaid care work entails a systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the rest of the economy that go unrecognised, imposing a systematic time-tax on women throughout their lifecycle. These hidden subsidies signal the existence of power relations between men and women. They also connect the private worlds of households and families with the public spheres of markets and the state in exploitative ways (Antenopolous, 2009).

Women’s Rights to Sustainable Livelihoods: Exploring Alternatives and Intersections

In a continent experiencing rapid change, there is a need to search for alternatives that allow women to be more economically productive. One model which deals with this is the ActionAid Women’s Rights Programme. This programme embraces the ActionAid Women’s Rights to Sustainable Livelihoods Project which takes a holistic approach on both issues of unpaid care work and climate-resilient sustainable agriculture. Climate-resilient sustainable agriculture is a whole-systems approach to food, feeding and fibre production that sustains the health of the soil, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. Inherent in this definition is the idea that sustainability must be extended, not only globally, but indefinitely in time and to all living organisms including humans (Gliessman, n.d.; IFOAM Online, n.d.).

The project aims to partner with women smallholder farmers to organise, gain knowledge and skills on climate-resilient sustainable agriculture, challenge their existing and disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work and make their demands heard by decision makers. Ultimately, it is expected that the state will take responsibility for providing resources to support women’s unpaid care work, just as donors and development agencies will concretely address unpaid care work interventions aimed at improving women smallholder farmers’ agriculture and poverty reduction. Specifically, it also urges policymakers spearheading African agricultural policy, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), to close the existing gender gap in terms of women’s access to agricultural resources as well as including public investments in budgets for rural communities, bearing in mind that women constitute the bulk of the agricultural labour force and food producers in Africa.

Figure 1 demonstrates the interserctions between women’s time, their access to food and resources and sustainable agriculture. A lack of access to food and resources can affect women’s time use while access to these resources enhances women’s empowerment and enables them to adopt and practice sustainable agricultural production. Use of sustainable agricultural methods are beneficial in increasing agricultural production which in turn increases access to food and resources when food is consumed in the household or sold. However, for women to be able to participate in agricultural activities, they need technologies that help reduce time spent on unpaid care work, as well as a redistribution of the unpaid care work burden to men and the state. In many cases, a lack of time among women negatively impacts their access to food, resources, information and oppportunities for capacity building on sustainable agriculture. A balanced and fruitful approach incorporates the three dimensions of women’s time, access to food and resources and sustainable agriculture.

Figure 1: The intersections of women’s time, sustainable agriculture and access to resources


In order to deal with the issues of unpaid care work and climate-resilient sustainable agriculture, this unique project uses interventions such as training on unpaid care work and a participatory collection of women’s time use through diaries. This involves tracking women’s time use over three years and checking the impact of interventions such as childcare centres, a redistribution of unpaid care work and improved access to water and firewood, on women’s time use. 

Other activities include awareness raising among media, government and community members, training for women on leadership, provision of livestock to facilitate diversification of livelihoods and training on climate-resilient sustainable agriculture for women smallholder farmers. A total of 180 groups of women smallholder farmers have been mobilised and organised. They meet regularly to discuss the issues affecting women smallholder farmers. Finally, the project links national interventions and regional advocacy work with the African Union, CAADP and New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development to raise awareness on women smallholder farmers’ activities and unpaid care work.

Climate-Resilient Sustainable Agriculture: Why it is a Priority

Generally, we can expect an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme climatic events like storms, droughts and hurricanes due to global warming effects. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001), an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will probably boost temperatures over most land surfaces, though the exact change will vary regionally. Africa can also expect problems such as serious floods, landslides, crop failures and food insecurity to became even more common and more serious than today and, in fact, the likelihood of national climate disasters has doubled over the last 25 years (ibid).

Agriculture is one of the sectors worst affected by climate change because climate change negatively impacts yield potential, particularly heat waves, droughts and flooding (IPCC, 2001). Women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their reliance on natural resources, limited control of access to food and other resources, exclusion from important decision-making processes regarding climate change impacts and unequal gender roles and cultural norms (Yavinsky, 2012). For example, during droughts, women have to travel longer distances to fetch water and find food for their families in natural forests, they often have limited alternative livelihoods and may not be able to migrate in search of work outside their communities to the same extent as men do (ibid). One study has shown that, on average, natural disasters kill more women than men (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007).

All these factors exacerbate the existing gender inequalities. Women also have a contribution to make in terms of informing the responses to climate change. Using a specifically developed climate-resilient sustainable agriculture toolkit developed by ActionAid, women have been able to tackle food insecurity and gender equality while, at the same time, adequately responding to climate change. The main components of the toolkit are soil conservation, gender equality and women’s rights, sustainable water management, diversification of livelihoods, agro-biodiversity, improved processing, marketing and market access and mobilising and organising to make demands to the state and local authorities’ through women farmer’s organisations. 

Case Study

Pooni Natogma is a woman smallholder famer aged 42 years old with three children (two sons and one daughter) from Kokou community Nanumba South district in Northern Ghana. Awareness raising on access to resources by women, reflective circle meetings and training on climate-resilient sustainable agriculture has yielded important results for Natogma. She won the Best Woman Farmer Award at the district level in 2013. 

Natogma’s case highlights how women’s access to important resources, such as land, training in sustainable agriculture and knowledge of women’s rights, can have a positive impact on women’s empowerment. This is important because many women have neither access to resources, such as land, nor government-supported training on key skills they need to practice agriculture. For instance, a baseline survey conducted in 2012 and 2013 by ActionAid found that 75 percent of women smallholder farmers in the northern and upper eastern regions of Ghana including Nanumba North and South, Talensi and Nabdam owned no land and many had no consistent or secure access to one plot of land over a period of years. They reported food insecurity and not being able to produce any surplus crop for sale. The study also noted that 90 percent of women smallholder farmers interviewed asserted that soils in their gardens are of a poor quality and largely infertile and about 85 percent also indicated that they could not afford chemical fertilisers. 

Pooni Natogma (Ghana) describes her experiences with the ActionAid Project:

The most important results emanating from the ActionAid Women’s Rights to Sustainable Livelihood Project are that it has educated us and made us to be able to claim our rights to fertile lands and appreciate the work we do for others that is not paid. 

Lke other women smallholder farmers in this area, I did not have access to fertile lands, even though this was required to make me boost productivity. Any time I requested for land, I was given the portion that had become exhausted and abandoned. This type of soil could not produce any meaningful crops such as yam, maize or cassava. The people consider these types of crops to be the preserve of the men while the women can only produce vegetables, usually in small quantities for domestic consumption with little to sell as surplus. I usually had extremely poor yields from such infertile lands. I could hardly meet basic needs, such as food, all year round as well as money to pay for my children’s school and medical bills. Life was bad for me and my family.

I produce yam, maize, soya beans and rice. I also produce vegetables in the rainy season. I harvested not less than 2,000 tubers of yam and 20 maxi (100kg) bags of maize. Now I am able to maximise income and I easily paid the admission fees and other related costs for my son who has recently gained admission to the Senior High School in 2013. 

All these achievements have become possible because I became aware of my rights and demanded the land with confidence. Songtaba and ActionAid made follow-ups to the land owners about the need to allocate fertile lands to women and also to allow them to cultivate crops like maize and yam which hitherto were the preserve of the men only. This year, I emerged the best women farmer in Nanumba South and was accordingly honoured at the 2013 Farmers’ Day celebration. I received a certificate, a bicycle, five jute sacks and a pair of wellington boots as an award at the occasion which took place on Friday, 6 December 2013. 

Unpaid Care Work – Water and Firewood

As noted earlier, care work can negatively affect women’s ability to participate in farming for both subsistence and commercial purposes. Unpaid care work services are primarily provided to nurture other people. On the other hand, unpaid work consists of non-remunerated activities in procuring inputs and producing for own use, as well as for the market. These activities include subsistence farming, caring for livestock and market¬-related activities. These activities are measured and included in annual GDP estimates (though, in many cases, if they are done by women they can also be absent from GDP statistics). In mainstream discussions, unpaid care work, on the other hand, is viewed as social reproduction work. The activities are seen as necessary for society but not the economy and generally not recognised as real work by both the state and society. However, a close analysis shows that households require ‘household overhead time’ – a term used by Harvey and Taylor (2000) to describe the minimum number of hours a household must spend in transforming raw materials to consumable goods and to provide a clean and healthy environment. This includes the minimum hours that a household must spend on the basic chores vital to the survival of the family, that is, the time spent preparing meals, washing clothes, cleaning, fetching water and gathering fuel for cooking and heating. The requirement of households’ overhead time differs between households according to resources. Using participatory tools such as time diaries, ActionAid is tracking the impact of interventions on women’s time use in household related activities such as childcare centres, water harvesting and woodlots as well as energy saving technologies from 2013 to 2015. 

In terms of time spent on firewood collection, it is clear that when the baseline survey was conducted, the lack of stable and easily accessible sources of firewood is a serious issue imposing a heavy burden on women and girls. Figure 2 and 3 below suggest that 87 percent of women in Ghana are spending more than four hours each day collecting firewood. Similarly, in Rwanda, women in the various sectors are spending between three and four hours on this activity. About 75 percent of the women in Ghana have to walk more than five miles a day to collect firewood. The remaining 25 percent are spending a considerable amount of time collecting firewood since they have to travel one to five miles each day. 

Figure 2: Proportion of women that spend significant amounts of time collecting water and firewood in Ghana (%) (ActionAid, 2014)


Figure 3: Average hours spent on water and firewood by women in Rwanda (ActionAid, 2014)


Climate change impacts such as droughts or floods also increase the challenges in fetching water while non-sustainable farming practices which lead to deforestation or do not invest in woodlots often mean women have to travel longer distances to fetch firewood. The demand for firewood has also increased due to a lack of investment by the state in technologies such as energy sources, especially electricity and the production of briquettes or energy-saving stoves.

Women expressed their concern over the task of firewood collection in wild forests which is associated with high risks such as snake bites, injuries, fines and other dangers. To ease their firewood challenges, it was reported that some women resort to collecting firewood from sources that are not environmentally or agro-friendly. 

Low-Cost Interventions

Childcare centres

Low-cost pilot interventions through childcare centres in Ghana and Rwanda can help reduce the amount of time spent on unpaid care work. The Women’s Rights to Sustainable Livelihoods Project has piloted such interventions in Ghana and Rwanda and these have yielded good results. 

In the Gisagara district of Rwanda, women are able to send their children to childcare centres which frees their time for participating in other activities such as farming, marketing and other economic, social and political activities. One woman reported that she has managed to gain five hours additional time to invest in her farming activities as a result of the introduction of a childcare centre in her area. Many women often have to perform agricultural work as well as other unpaid care work activities with children on their backs while receiving little support from male household members. To worsen the situation, the state and public resource allocations for agriculture do not invest in childcare centres, seeing it as outside their mandate and more of a private activity. There is a need for an integrated, holistic approach which advocates for increased support for women smallholder farmers in the areas of skills training, inputs and access to land as well as properly recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work. 

Mobilising, organising and breaking isolation

Through reflection using the ActionAid tools, it has been noted that many women have managed to break free from isolation and discuss matters that affect them regarding farming, food security and unpaid care work. Reflection-Action is ActionAid International’s integrated participatory methodology. Within a Reflection-Action process, people living in poverty analyse their situation, identify rights’ violations and work together in solidarity to bring about change. 

One woman named Anathalie from Rwanda’s Nyanza district has found the reflect circles a useful space to discuss some of her issues. There are 30 members in her reflect circle and they meet twice per month. The reflect circles are also a platform for learning, empowerment and engagement with community leaders and other stakeholders.  Anathalie is a widow and mother of two children. She says: 

As a widow I used to do everything without seeking any advice from neighbours because I felt unable, sorrowed, excluded and the poorest woman in the society. But when I started participating in the reflect circle meetings, I shared my ideas, thoughts and sorrow with others. Now I have a better life and I am preparing a better future life for myself and especially my children. 

Redistribution of Unpaid Care Work to Men and Boys

Unpaid care work is essential for all members of the household and sharing of the responsibilities is the beginning of a long-term change on gender roles. After women were sensitised and began discussing their unpaid care workloads and compiling time diaries, wives started to discuss with their husbands the issue of their non-participation in household activities and mobilised men to recognise the burden and share unpaid care work with them. Gradually, some men have started changing their mindset on unpaid care work. The women’s responsibility for care work was seen as a cultural issue and women did not think of the possibility of men helping them. Normally, men are not involved in weeding crops or growing vegetables because vegetables are considered non-cash crops. This has changed in some households in which men now work together with women in weeding vegetables. They also participate in taking care of children such bathing, feeding and sending them to school. The notion that care work is the preserve of women, as revealed in the baseline study, has changed tremendously.


The model described above clearly shows that it is possible to integrate interventions aimed at reducing unpaid care work with those addressing climate-resilient sustainable agriculture. Many of the interventions required are low cost, although the state has not been willing to take them forward. It remains the responsibility of the state to increase public investment in water, energy and childcare services to reduce women’s unpaid care workload. The state must also prioritise climate-resilient sustainable agriculture including emphasising gender and women’s rights if it is to achieve lasting improvements for gender equality and food security in Africa.

This article was prepared by Christina Kwangwari, Azumi Mesuna and Anatole Uwiragiye. he data presented is based on the ActionAid Women’s Rights to Sustainable Livelihoods Project which is currently in progress.


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About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.


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