Repository logo

The significance of women empowerment on rural livelihood outcomes among irrigation and dry-land farming households in Msinga, South Africa.

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Women are major players in ensuring households‘ wellbeing in most rural areas of developing countries, including South Africa. The capacity to improve the livelihoods of their households is hampered because they are disempowered economically, socially, in agriculture and in civic arenas. Women need a sense of agency and more access and control of resources, which together constitute the empowerment capabilities, to improve their livelihoods. Thus, women empowerment is considered important to provide them with the means to meet their needs and desired livelihood outcomes. Since empowerment is multi-dimensional, and women empowered in one dimension are not necessarily empowered in the other, it is essential to evaluate the significance of the various forms of women empowerment on their livelihood outcomes, in order to inform policy. This study investigates the various dimensions of women empowerment that are critical to the improvement of their livelihood outcomes in rural areas. The study proposes a concise definition and develops a methodology to systematically measure women empowerment. It uses capabilities (i.e., comprising of resources and agency) as indicators of empowerment. Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was then applied to the levels of capabilities at each of the four main dimensions of women empowerment (i.e., economic, social, civic and agricultural), to quantitatively measure levels of women empowerment (i.e., represented by PC factor scores) and identify the dominant dimensions of women empowerment (i.e., represented by the dominant PCs). Multinomial logit model was used to identify the dominant dimensions of empowerment influencing women‘s self-reliance status. Women‘s self-reliance status had been established by applying k-means cluster analysis to the four main sources of women‘s incomes. Ordered logit model was used to identify the dimensions of women empowerment influencing household food security status. The household food security status had been established using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS). Binomial logit model was used to determine the dimensions of ‗women‘s empowerment in agriculture‘ that reduce household‘s vulnerability to food insecurity. The households‘ vulnerability status had been established using the Vulnerability as Expected Poverty approach. All the analyses were based on a cross section data that were collected from 300 women practicing either irrigation or dry-land farming in Msinga rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal province. Application of PCA to indicators of economic empowerment (i.e., levels of resources and agency) identified economic agency, human, financial and physical capital forms of empowerment as well as ‗empowerment in vocational skills‘ as the dominant dimensions of women‘s economic empowerment. Social agency, social capital empowerment and informational asset empowerment were identified as the dominant dimensions of women‘s social empowerment. Dominant dimensions of women‘s empowerment in agriculture included empowerment in crop management skills, farm financial management skills, water-use security, animal husbandry skills and weed and pest management skills. The dominant dimensions of civic empowerment identified in this study, include legal resource empowerment, civic agency, knowledge of legal rights, political and psychological forms of empowerment. Further analysis found that certain dimensions of women‘s empowerment and other household socio-economic characteristics (e.g., husband‘s income, household size, dependency ratio, etc.) are critical for women to attain desired livelihood outcomes. Women with high levels of financial and human capital forms of empowerment were more likely to be self-reliant. Moreover, women with higher levels of informational resource empowerment and water-use security are more likely to be self-reliant. On the other hand, primary female head-of-households who are young, educated, with vocational skills as well as those who are psychologically empowered are less likely to rely on independent/self-driven rural livelihood activities (i.e., farm and off-farm) because they perceive such manual activities are ‗dirty‘ jobs suitable for the low social class groups. Although access to irrigation is believed to be key to self-reliance among rural South Africans, women with access to irrigation were not significantly more self-reliant than those without. The study showed that income of husband is the most significant determinant of household food security among rural women‘s households in Msinga. Furthermore, the likelihood of a household becoming food secure also increases with higher levels of economic agency, physical capital empowerment, farm financial management skills and psychological empowerment. Moreover, older women‘s households are more likely to be food secure than those with younger primary female-head of households. On the other hand, women with higher levels of socio-cultural hindrances to agriculture and those with high levels of social capital were less likely to have food secure households. The probability of a household becoming vulnerable to food insecurity in Msinga decreases with increasing levels of women‘s economic agency, physical capital empowerment, socio-cultural empowerment and husband‘s income. However, women with high levels of financial capital empowerment, because they earned more social grants and remittances were more likely to be vulnerable to food insecurity. Such women depended more on social grants and remittances, and invested less in livelihood assets. As a result, they were less likely to be resilient to shocks threatening their agricultural production or off-farm incomes in the future. Likewise, women from households with high dependency ratios and women experiencing more socio-cultural hindrances to agricultural production were also more likely to be vulnerable to food insecurity. Most importantly, household vulnerability to food insecurity in the study areas of KwaZulu-Natal is not significantly improved by getting access to irrigation water alone but by having higher levels of water-use security. It was concluded that taking a holistic approach that considers the multidimensional aspects of women empowerment is a more appropriate way to measure women empowerment. Since capabilities (i.e., both resources and a sense of agency) are pre-requisites for women to achieve their desired livelihood outcomes, they are the most appropriate indicators of empowerment. Moreover, it was concluded that specific dimensions of empowerment are critical for the achievement of each specific livelihood outcome. The dimensions of women empowerment that influence self-reliance are not necessarily the same as those that improves household food security or reduce vulnerability to food insecurity. Thus, certain empowerment interventions are needed to achieve a specific livelihood outcome. Financial and human capital resources are the most important economic forms of empowerment important for women to achieve self-reliance as they facilitate the attainment of most, if not all the other forms of capital empowerment. In agriculture, women need to be freed from customary and cultural bondages that hinder their full participation in agricultural production to achieve self-reliance. Moreover, access to irrigation alone should not be considered a panacea for women to achieve self-reliance through agriculture. Women need, most importantly, secure access to the right quantity and quality of water for productive purposes (i.e. water-use security) to pursue independent/self-driven livelihoods in agriculture. Women also need higher levels of informational resources to pursue independent/self-driven livelihoods. Access to information enables the acquisition of knowledge and other factors of production needed for both agricultural production and off-farm investments. The stereotype perceptions of regarding agriculture as a dirty job, which are common among primary female head-of-households who are young, educated, with vocational skills as well as those who are psychologically empowered, are a major hindrance to the attainment of self-reliance through women empowerment in agriculture in rural South Africa. To achieve household food security, primary female head-of-households need a sense of economic agency and higher levels of physical capital empowerment. A higher sense of agency enables women to define their own goals and act upon them. Higher levels of physical capital resources among primary female heads-of-households help improve household food security by ensuring consistently high levels of agricultural production and more off-farm income opportunities. They also allow households to diversify incomes, thereby, ensuring stability of access to food. Improving the farm financial management skills of the primary female heads-of-households improves the food security status of their households. Farm financial management skills are necessary for running a successful farming enterprise. However, increasing women‘s capabilities alone is not a panacea for household food security; other socio-economic factors have to be addressed. This includes increasing husband‘s income earning opportunities and reducing households‘ dependency ratios. Since income is the most significant determinant of food security in South Africa, improving income opportunities for both women and their husbands improves their household food security. To reduce rural households‘ vulnerability to food insecurity, women need to increase their sense of economic agency and physical capital empowerment to ensure stable off-farm incomes and giving households the capacity to survive shocks affecting food security. Physical capital empowerment is essentially needed to enable households to resist shocks threatening food security in future. Moreover, socio-cultural inhibitions affect women‘s participation in agriculture and make their households vulnerable to food insecurity. Therefore, empowering women in socio-cultural aspects that might create hindrances to agricultural production among women can reduce household vulnerability to food insecurity. However, empowerment in agriculture alone is not adequate to reduce household vulnerability to food insecurity.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2015.


Food security--South Africa--Msinga., Women in agriculture--South Africa--Msinga., Rural women--South Africa--Msinga., Women--South Africa--Msinga--Social conditions., Women--South Africa--Msinga--Economic conditions., Theses--Agricultural economics.