Women empowerment in agriculture : agency and institutions for improved market access and household food security in Limpopo Province.
Developing the smallholder agricultural sector has been proposed as a way of developing rural communities. These assertions are partly based on the results of the Asian Green Revolution. Women’s contribution to agricultural development as workers and farmers is acknowledged, but, what is questioned is the extent to which agriculture will result in their empowerment. Local institutions and social norms have largely resulted in women owning and controlling very few productive assets and this is thought to contribute to their disempowerment. It is argued that unless women are empowered through transformed institutions, they may be further disempowered by any interventions to uplift smallholder farmers. Empowering women is considered an essential part of sustainable development and agriculture offers the right platform, since it employs almost half of the rural women in the developing world. Although they are the backbone of smallholder agriculture, female smallholder farmers do not always fully benefit from their work, particularly financially. Their limited access to productive resources and their exclusion from formal markets restricts their capacity to contribute more to agriculture and household food security. Women’s contribution to decision-making has long been used as a proxy measurement for empowerment. For empowerment to take place women must have access to resources and the agency required to transform their resources into livelihoods outcomes. In spite of their aspirations to increase production and access markets, prevailing institutional and social norms may limit female smallholder farmers from achieving their goals. Transformed agricultural, social and market institutions and secure access to productive resources are important to improve women’s productivity and raise the numbers of women participating in formal markets. This study was grounded in the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework and people-centred approaches to development. Research was conducted in three purposively selected irrigation schemes in Limpopo Province, to assess the current institutions and their effect on smallholder market access, to determine the level of empowerment in the study area and the determinants of market access and finally to measure the effect of women empowerment on household food security. A mixed methods approach was used in the study and data was collected in August and December 2013, using questionnaires from purposively selected respondents, observations and focus group discussions. The December survey was conducted using an adapted Women Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) questionnaire. The quantitative data was analysed using Statistical Package Social Sciences (SPSS) for descriptive statistics and to generate the 5DE index, farmer GPI and modified WEAI. The qualitative data was analysed using content analysis. The results show that, firstly, the current institutions restrict farmers to subsistence farming as there are few capacity building initiatives in the communities. Secondly, just over half of the respondents were empowered and were at par with their male colleagues. The women’s adequacy in the access to credit and leisure satisfaction indicators contributed least to women’s empowerment. Finally, the study showed that the households were predominantly food secure, although there was a relationship between women empowerment and food security. In conclusion, the importance of institutions in defining the opportunity structure and as enablers of agency is demonstrated by the prevalence of predominantly subsistence-oriented agriculture in the study. Empowerment is a complex process that requires a combination of personal attributes and an environment which is enabling. It is recommended that the government departments and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) working in the community work to address women’s secondary access to resources, capacity building needs of extension officers and smallholder farmers and to integrate the different training activities currently available to smallholder farmers.