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Gender Considerations in Informal Food Markets in Sub-Saharan Africa

This post was written by Kristina Roesel, Postdoctoral Scientist, Animal and Human Health Program at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). She previously served as coordinator of the Safe Food Fair Food project in Africa.

Gender moves beyond biology to consider the socially constructed roles, behavior, activities and attributes that determine the power relations between men and women. Gender analyses take a close look at men’s and women’s relationships and how these relations define each other’s responsibilities, rights, division of labor, interests and needs. This can help explain social determinants for equity, as well as undesirable health outcomes, and create opportunities to better prevent these.

Different roles for men and women could potentially result in different benefits and risks: Both women and men have important roles in producing, processing, selling and preparing food in informal markets in sub-Saharan Africa. These roles may have impacts – both positive and negative – on their own socio-economic status, including market access; their own health, including occupational exposure to diseases; and the health of others who consume the food they supply, including nutrition benefits and foodborne risks.

Gender-based roles in animal sourced food production in sub-Saharan Africa can have different health and economic risks, including:

  • In West Africa, where men dominate milk production, they are more at risk from diseases associated with cows during milking (e.g. brucellosis). On the other hand, in smallholder farms in Kenya where women are in charge of milking, the situation is reversed.
  • In Ghana, men own the cattle and are responsible for milking, feeding and care, while women and girls assist with collecting water and feeds and cleaning. Women are responsible for boiling, fermenting and selling the milk. If done consistently, boiling and fermenting milk reduces the level of pathogens and contaminants. Also, women will be able to tell bad milk (clotting on boiling) from good milk; therefore, these practices can have positive or negative effects on the quality and safety of the milk and the health outcomes of the customers.
  • Both men and women agree that the need for lifting and moving carcases means men predominate in slaughtering. However, this does not apply to all animal species, and excludes women from market participation: in most African countries, women slaughter poultry for home consumption but only men are employed in formal poultry slaughter houses. For sellers of meat, too, there are no stringent physical requirements, yet in west Nigeria most are men, while in Vietnam nearly all are women.
  • In artisanal coastal fishing in West Africa, men are responsible for the fishing but women are in charge of the on-shore processing (smoking) and marketing. The smoking practice not only exposes the women to health hazards such as eyestrain and headaches, it also increases levels of potentially carcinogenic residues in the fish that are a result of using an unsuitable type of wood for smoking fish.

Some differences in health and nutrition states are attributable to biology; for example, pregnancy brings many risks to health. Others are attributable to gender roles. For instance, in some countries, girls and women are not supposed to eat meat in order not to become “too strong and outspoken.” This is because meat is considered energy-rich, making “strong bones.” In some cases, men or boys may experience worse health outcomes because they are allowed to eat more meat. For example, barbecued meat is often consumed with alcohol in small bars in Tanzania. This puts meat at greater risk from meat-associated pathogens.

A gender perspective in food safety research can ensure that men’s and women’s differential exposure to agriculture-related risks are better understood and interventions better targeted, particularly as it relates to health outcomes. It can also ensure that women and men have increased capacity to manage food safety, nutritional and economic risks, and are more involved in their surveillance depending on their role in the supply chain. 

This article is adapted from a chapter in the book "Food safety and Informal markets: Animal Products in Sub-Saharan Africa" published by Routledge in 2014.

More information:

  • Grace, Delia; Roesel, Kristina; Kang'ethe, Erastus; Bonfoh, Bassirou; and Theis, Sophie. 2015. Gender roles and food safety in 20 informal livestock and fish value chains. IFPRI Discussion Paper 1489. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/129860