This week, as school is just starting at UC San Diego, Prospect is revisiting some of our most popular pieces from the previous academic year. We will begin posting new material soon; until then, enjoy our look back!

By Lauren Freidenberg
Contributing Writer

Statement of Issue:

In Kenya, women command domestic duties as well as the majority of agricultural cultivation. In this region, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the labor force, where women make up 75 percent of that work force (Mwangi, 2008). Women are given ownership of the crops they cultivate, but are not given the title of land owners (Gray & Kevane, 1999). The responsibility put on women to produce food for the family requires legal protection in order to maintain economic and food security. This legal protection involves access to land, to land tenure, to credit, and to the profits reaped from labor (Mwangi, 2008).

Agricultural production is the main source of money and security in Kenya, and arable land is highly valued and sought after. Rural women in Africa are dependent on males due to traditional gender roles that define division of labor, and are therefore subordinate socially, economically and politically (Feldman, 1983). Kenyan women are equal to men before the law, but legal protection is based on their relationships with their husbands or male family members if unmarried or widowed. Assumptions based on traditional gendered roles perpetuate female subordination to males and prevents access to agricultural rights and economic resources (Karani, 1987).

Through modernization and globalization, the marginalization of female rural agricultural workers has been amplified. Multi-national corporations (MNCs) have utilized Kenya’s arable land to erect cash crop farms that have negatively affected rural workers, especially women. Men have migrated to work in urban areas or commercialized crop factories, leaving women to tend to the agricultural duties on land plots technically owned by their husbands with no legal protection (Feldman, 1983).

Kenyan land tenure reform acts, which have resulted in land privatization, have created unequal access to land deeds based on gender. Without registration or legal protection, women are prevented from competing against the MNCs, and are therefore vulnerable to losing their land or being forced to move to smaller areas (Mwangi, 2008). The inability for women to gain access to resources restricts their bargaining power and their ability to provide for their families (Mwangi, 2008). Social interpretations of land classification and crops are defined by gender and are manipulated to maintain the subordinate position of women in the cultured and gendered discourse of agricultural work. MNCs explicitly recruit male workers in their factories and production sites. Due to the emphasis on social status and dependency of rural women on men who cultivate on small farm plots, they are subjected to restricted land rights and exploitation (Gray & Kevane, 1999).

The growing disparity between male and female rights in the agricultural field of labor in Kenya is an issue that needs to be addressed. Rural women are not able to compete against MNCs and are bearing the brunt of globalization. Commercialization of the rural economy is negatively impacting women’s ability to provide for their families; thus, female laborers are exploited by cash crop producers due to their lack of legal protection (Feldman, 1983). Policies have advocated for “female integration into development,” but this is already present in Kenya (Feldman, 1983). Women are the main source of agricultural production, and integration is superfluous. A realistic solution to end this exploitation and inequality is based on female access to education and a concentration on gendered legal protection of women’s rights to property (Mwangi, 2008; Karani, 1987). This policy design is intended to acknowledge and end inequalities based on traditional gender roles and allow female entrance into the economic world.

Origin of Issue and Current Context

Crop cultivation is hierarchically organized by gender (Wane, 2003). The traditional role of the rural Kenyan woman is to be a mother, take care of household duties, and to be involved in agricultural activities that require year-round attention, whether it is weeding, harvesting, cooking, or storing (Karani, 1987; Wane, 2003). Male and female cultivation is divided by food production destination. Women cultivate crops eaten at home, such as legumes or fruits, while men work in the fields of cash crops, like maize when it became a commercialized commodity (Wane, 2003). Maize was initially a female produced crop until it became “too male” and the gender roles dictated the switch from female to male production (Wane, 2003). This transformation of produce depicts how a commodity that gains more profits becomes a priority to be cultivated by a man which perpetuates the gendered inequalities. Thus, social status and access to goods and land is in a constant state of flux that benefits males and suppresses female land rights and economic return (Gray & Kevane, 1999). In addition, access to cultivation and land is contingent on social status which is based on a woman’s tie to her husband, number of male children, kin folk, or duration of plot labor, all of which put women at a disadvantage and contributes to their dependence on males (Gray & Kevane, 1999).

Food production is completed by both genders; however, ownership of goods and access to land and legal protection and registration is patriarchal, despite the fact that woman do the majority of the work (Wane, 2003). A woman’s work in agriculture is seen as an element of her domestic responsibilities by maintaining food security for the family (Feldman, 1983). The importance of agriculture in rural Kenya is apparent in the emphasis placed on plot cultivation and food production for home nourishment and trading or selling as the primary means for the income (Wane, 2003).

Globalization has initiated many changes within rural Kenya and traditional agricultural production which stems from colonialism (Karani, 1987). British colonizers created a social hierarchy that was founded on race, gender, and class. Division of labor by sex allowed the British to recruit males to work outside of their local communities; thus, male work within agriculture on family land transitioned into an added workload for women (Wane, 2003).

The current situation in Kenya continues this legacy of gendered divisions of labor that leave women exposed to exploitation. The contemporary colonial presence is illustrated in the role of multi-national corporations. The global agro-food industry intertwines agriculture and industry with rural and urban regions together (Opongo, 2000). Utilizing contract farming of male laborers, rural men are migrating from small-plot farms to work for the MNCs. Thus, the MNCs obtain a cheap work force that allows for greater competition in the international marketplace while women are left with no bargaining power or legal protection to the land owned by their husbands or male kin (Opongo, 2000; Gray & Kevane, 1999).

The imperative role of food production that sustains the family is now on the shoulders of rural women. Caring for livestock and other work which was traditionally a male’s job is another component woman must add to their agricultural duties (Karani, 1987). Men are migrating as they used to during the colonial years and are leaving woman to tend to the agricultural and domestic work without aid and without legal protection. With no access to land allocation or title deeds, women are dependent on men to gain rights of access to land without legal rights to registration, tenure or inheritance (Feldman, 1983). Modernization has pulled men away from home leaving woman vulnerable to MNCs and unable to compete in the expanding international cash crop market.
Critique of Policy Options

The Kenyan government has acknowledged that rural women in the agriculture industry are marginalized. The creation of groups that provide technical and financial support, such as the Women’s Bureau and Ministry of Culture and Social Services, have attempted to provide self-help aid to close the gap between gender inequality (Karani, 1987). However, they have put the issue on hold as other political and economic crises have emerged, therefore no significant action has been taken (Feldman, 2003). Despite the effort to institute these specialized programs, the goal of these organizations is not congruent with the issues that need to be addressed. MNC contract farming of male workers leaves women vulnerable on small-farm plot sites with no legal protection within agricultural production and no ability to compete in an international market (Opongo, 2000).

The government instilled a basic needs approach to development with the creation of the “Fourth Plan,” which advocates for income-earning opportunities for women through gaining social welfare functions and the placing of females into commercial projects (Feldman, 1983). These opportunities are specialized to make rural women visible as a disadvantaged group and eliminate income inequality while redefining gender roles. However, the Women’s Bureau allocates the bulk of the financial aid to those living in Central or Eastern regions, therefore the majority of those in need are not receiving assistance (Feldman, 1983). In addition, those who are better off are able to gain membership due to age and availability of time, thereby excluding 90 percent of rural Kenyan woman from membership–the ones who need it most (Feldman, 1983). Currently, only seven percent of land is owned under a woman’s name in Kenya, which displays how there has been no significant progress thus far under the government’s policies (Opongo, 2000; Feldman, 1983).

Policies of the past have attempted to educate woman and provide jobs outside of the agricultural realm. Conversely, women need education regarding legal rights and protection within the agriculture industry rather than attempting to move them out of it. Not only did the majority of women discontinue their formal education at a primary level, but traditional divisions of labor will prevent them from gaining participation in the formal or modern sector based on the traditional Kenyan culture itself (Karani, 1897; Feldman, 1983). Past policies have created a foundation that acknowledge the issue, now a policy design needs to address how to transform the norms of gender inequality while allocating legal protection to woman regarding land entitlements. Without legal protection and knowledge of rights to land, inequalities will persist and rural agriculture will continue to be marginalized against the dominant and powerful MNCs (Gray & Kevane, 1999).

Policy Recommendation

The issue of gender inequality in rural Kenya is historically rooted in traditional values and was exacerbated by colonialism and continued by MNCs. Divisions of labor based on gender are deeply imbedded in agricultural cultivation. Although education is a definite necessity in order to promote gender equality and improve the general standards of living, agriculture is a means of survival and should be the initial focal point of the design (Karani, 1987).

Gender-sensitive land allocation is the first step in generating equality and protection of rural women (Mwangi, 2008). The implementation of the Land Tenure Reform Act was instituted by the state, which provides formal registration for land titles that gave men new rights and explicitly ignored women. Rural women are socially, economically, culturally, and now legally restricted in their abilities to gain land or higher status in society (Gray & Kevane, 1999). In order to prevent the exploitation of women by MNCs in the agricultural sector, women need access to credit and land tenure rather than depending on men for permission or rights to cultivation (Feldman, 1983). Policies can no longer be described as gender-neutral, as that will not provide any meaningful change and shadows the true issue at hand. Genderized discourse within policy creation for agricultural protection for women needs to be emphasized. Once the government of Kenya accepts policies that rectify women’s disadvantaged position in the economic and social realm by facilitating women’s legal access to land, transformation can begin (Feldman, 1983).

The traditional aspect of genderized division of labor is an obstacle that will be resolved over time. Once legislation is installed that legally and explicitly protects women’s rights, production will increase and women will be able to compete against MNCs. Rejecting the traditional dependency on male kin or husbands will prevent the patrilineal socialization that perpetuates female subordination. Legal access to land is the first step towards degenderizing labor roles and social inequality.

Success of women’s legal rights will be evaluated by the ability of women to compete in the agriculture industry. Percentages of farm plots under women’s names will be analyzed and the Land Tenure Reform Act must be revised. Protection against forced migration due to MNCs will help women maintain their land through the enforcement of the new land tenure legislation.


Rural women within the agricultural industry will continue to be marginalized unless immediate action is taken to legally protect them against the exploitation of the international market system and their traditional gendered subordination. The current policies and templates that have been implemented have made no significant change. Agriculture is integral for the success of Kenyan society and rural families, therefore integration of women outside of this industry proves minute. Education will not benefit those in need until legal protection is explicitly given to women who desperately need access to land titles, tenure, credit, and profits. MNCs will continue to marginalize this disadvantaged group unless legal rights are given. Legal protection is the first step in the process of degenderizing inequalities in division of labor, social status, and economic access.

Works Cited

Feldman, Rayah. “Women’s Groups and Women’s Subordination: An Analysis of Policies towards Rural Women in Kenya.” Review of African Political Economy 10.27 (1983): 67-85. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Gray, Leslie, and Michael Kervane. “Diminished Access, Diverted Exclusion: Women and Land Tenure in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Studies Review 42.2 (1999): 15-39. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .

Karani, Florida A. “The Situation and Roles of Women in Kenya: An Overview.” The Journal of Negro Education 56.3 (1987): 422-34. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Kofman, Eleonore, and Gillian Youngs. Globalization: Theory and Practice. New York: Pinter, 1996.

Mwangi, Wairimu E. The Correlates of HIV/AIDS Vulnerability: A Multilevel Study of the Impact of Agricultural-consumption Regimes on Women’s Vulnerability in Kenya. Diss. Ohio State University, 2008. ProQuest. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .

Opongo, Mary M. “The Socio-Economic and Ecological Impacts of the Agro-Industrial Fod Chain on the Rural Economy in Kenya.” Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 29.1 (2000): 35-41. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .

Wane, Njoki. “Embu Women: Food Production and Traditional Knowledge.” Resources for Feminist Research 30.1 (2003): 137-39. ProQuest. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. .

Photo by McKay Savage



  1. Pingback: Week 12: Women | Case Studies in a Multicultural World·

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