Agroforestry decisions involving women result in more tree planting

By Seline Meijer

Interview in Kenani Shaba_SM

Ephraim Chisusu, field assistant, interviews a farmer from Kenani Shaba in northern Malawi about the role of men and women in tree planting. Photo: Seline Meijer.

A new publication looking at the gender dimensions of agroforestry in Malawi shows that both men and women play a key role in decision-making regarding tree planting and tree management, which has important implications for the success of agroforestry efforts.

In the past decade, greater attention has been paid to the gender dimensions of activities related to agriculture and food security. There is now widespread recognition of the need to involve and empower women in both research as well as practical interventions. When it comes to agroforestry, there is still very limited information available on the role of women in decision making and tree planting and management.

If we want to understand current patterns in the adoption of agroforestry technologies, or even improve the uptake of tree planting activities, it is important to know who it is on the farm that makes decisions about tree planting. Traditionally, it has been assumed that decision making is dominated by the head of the household, usually the oldest male. Our study published in the Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security sought to find out if this is really the case in Malawi.

The recently launched Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security is an international, open access, peer-reviewed and refereed journal published by the Africa Centre for Gender, Social Research and Impact Assessment. The aim of the journal is to promote interdisciplinary research related to gender and the agricultural and food sciences. The journal is published online 2 times a year.

As part of my PhD research with University College Dublin and the World Agroforestry Centre, I worked with colleagues to conduct 135 interviews with farmers in Mzimba and Chiradzulu districts in Malawi to learn more about how household decisions are made. In addition to tree planting and management, the study – funded by Irish Aid – also looked at decision making in relation to other farm activities such as which crops to plant, fertilizer application, firewood collection and the selling of farm produce.

We wanted to determine if there was a link between decision making and gender or kinship. We also thought it was important to determine if more trees were being planted when decisions were made by the husband, the wife or jointly.

The study found that agricultural decisions are made by the husband alone in a number of the households studied, however there are also many instances where joint decisions are made by husbands and wives together, or by the wife alone. But when it comes to tree planting and management, decisions are more often made by the husband alone compared to other agricultural activities such as crop planting and fertilizer application, where decisions are more often made jointly by the husband and wife.

The findings of the study indicate that there is a distinct link between gender and household decision making. In male-headed households, decisions on tree planting and tree management are dominated by the husband. In contrast, in households headed by a woman, these decisions are more often made jointly or by the wife alone. We found the traditional assumption that it is senior males who make most of the agricultural decisions to be false and an oversimplification of the real situation.

The household head was found to be the main decision maker in about half of the households sampled. The percentage of households where the household head was the main decision maker did not differ much between male and female headed households for most of the agricultural activities studied. Interestingly, however, the household head is more often the main decision maker in male-headed households when it comes to tree planting and tree management than for other agricultural activities.

In addition to the household survey, we also conducted 16 focus group discussions with 127 farmers to obtain deeper insights into the decision-making process. These confirmed that tree planting and tree management are mainly seen as the domain of men in both districts, but that there was significant participation by women in tree planting activities.

We heard that husbands generally dig the holes, prepare the planting sites and firebreaks, and take care of pruning and weeding, whereas wives help with getting seedlings to the planting sites, watering the seedlings, applying manure and sweeping leaves around the planted trees.

In looking at kinship structure, we learnt that the northern district of Mzimba has mostly patrilineal kinship, with households residing in the husband’s village and the husband holding the land titles. Southern Chiradzulu, on the other hand, has mostly matrilineal kinship with households residing in the wife’s village and the wife holding the land titles.

Our results suggest that when it comes to tree planting and tree management, decisions are more often made by the husband in patrilineal households. However, in matrilineal households, the proportion of decisions made by husbands and joint decision making are about equal.

An important finding is that the decision-making roles within households have implications for the number of trees planted. Relatively more trees were planted in households where decisions on tree planting are made by the wife, and when decisions on tree management are made jointly by the husband and wife together.

The findings of this study will be extremely useful in effectively designing and implementing future research, policies and extension efforts. Our research highlights how it is important to not just target the head of the household, often the husband, nor focus exclusively on women. The current concern with ensuring a focus on gender has in some cases become almost synonymous with a women-centred approach, often ignoring men. Our research has demonstrated the importance of including both men and women in a gendered approach if interventions are to be effective.

Story edited by Kate Langford

Download the full paper:

Meijer S.S., Sileshi, G.W., Kundhlande, G., Catacutan, D. & Nieuwenhuis M. (2015). The role of gender and kinship structure in household decision-making for agriculture and tree planting in Malawi. Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security 1(1): 51-72.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

You may also like...