Study challenges gender assumptions in tree planting

Focus group discussions in Malawi. Seline Meijer.

Focus group discussions in Malawi. Seline Meijer.

Are men really the ones who make most of the decisions about planting trees on the farm? And if they make these decisions, will more trees actually get planted than if these decisions are made by women?

A study in Malawi has found the assumption that it is senior males who make primary agricultural decisions to be false, especially when it comes to planting and managing trees.

“If agroforestry research, policies and projects are to be relevant and effective, assumptions on headship and gender roles need to be locally checked and validated,” says Seline Meijer, PhD student with the World Agroforestry Centre.

In a study of 135 households in 2 rural districts of Malawi, Meijer and colleagues from the World Agroforestry Centre and University College Dublin found that gender of the household head and kinship affected who was the main decision maker which in turn affected the density of trees planted by the household.

“Tree planting and management seem to be considered as mainly the responsibility of men in these districts, but jointly-made decisions actually resulted in the planting of more trees,” outlines Meijer.

The study involved surveying households in the northern district of Mzimba and the southern district of Chiradzulu. Mzimba has mostly patrilineal kinship with households residing the husband’s village and the husband holds the land titles. Chiradzulu on the other hand has mostly matrilineal kinship with households residing in the wife’s village and the wife holds the land titles.

“We wanted to determine if there was a link between decision making and the head of household, gender or kinship,” explains Meijer. “We also thought it was important to determine if more trees were being planted because of decisions made by the head, the spouse or jointly.”

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, fertilizers, firewood collection and the selling of farm produce.

The scientists found that while the head of the household was usually the main decision maker for agricultural activities, joint decision making by husband and wife was also common.

“No clear pattern of household decision making emerged from our data on the various agricultural activities,” says Meijer. “This indicates that decision making is a complex process and cannot be reduced to a simple model.”

In patrilineal households, decisions about tree planting and management were more often made by the household head while in matrilineal households, joint decision making was more common.

In male-headed households, the head tended to make decisions about tree planting but in female-headed households these decisions were more likely to be made jointly.

When it comes to how many trees actually get planted, the scientists found greater tree densities resulted from joint decision making or decisions made by the spouse than by the household head alone. The gender of the household head was not significantly associated with the density of planted trees.

Meijer says this finding should be taken into account in extension and research programs that tend to target household heads instead of recognizing that decision making about farming practices is multidimensional and site-specific.

“The assumption that the household head is the sole decision maker is flawed and an oversimplification of reality.”

Download the poster:

Meijer S, Catacutan D, Sileshi G W, Nieuwenhuis M (2014). The role of gender in household decision making on tree planting: A case study from Malawi. Poster presented at World Congress on Agroforestry. World Agroforestry Centre and University College Dublin.'

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.

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