Changing gender roles within farming households? Evidence from the field in Rwanda

By Chantal Ingabire and Birachi Eliud

A return to the Northern Province of Rwanda recently to conduct the second part of our qualitative interviews with smallholder farmers was quite insightful. Similar to most of other agricultural regions in the country, agriculture has gone through various changes as a result of intensification and the promotion to market-oriented production.

Changes accompanying the transition to market-orientation

Farmers who were largely in subsistence production started to adhere to requirements for commercialized agriculture. For example changes included adopting good (improved) agronomic practices such as application of fertilizers, use of improved seed, and paying close attention to agricultural and crop calendars among others.

Besides, the farmers are encouraged to from groups or cooperatives mostly for easier access to technologies, new practices and knowledge and negotiate for better markets to achieve envisioned market-led agriculture. The interest work in groups or even form cooperatives can be also be considered as a result of the agricultural transition under which farmers get income from their farms and begin to invest in cooperatives or saving groups.

All these changes whether being consequences of the transition or tools achieve the market-led agriculture are not happening without costs to men and women farmers, for example, time has to be allocated by farmers to different activities. In the agricultural transitions, literature shows that both women and men farmers allocate more time to farm activities. However despite the increase in farming activities that require more time to be allocated to them, household chores have remained the same. This puts a time constraint on the farmers, particularly women whose work on the farm has continued to increase with the aforementioned agricultural changes.



Farmers working together in manure application. @Dusengemungu, L, RAB 


Changes in gender roles: some contradictory views

During group discussions with farmers a spontaneous question on how husbands and wives manage their time on their working day was asked. The answers varied significantly depending on whether it was the men or women responding. Most men in the discussion groups indicated that they nowadays help each other in both farm and household chores, though they recognized that women worked more hours per day:

“I can help my wife if she is working outside home, I can take care of our children. We should help each other,… we rotate in our roles in the households, we have to make a plan of taking care of our home with our wives”(Men’s group).

“We usually work together on the farm….  Then in the afternoon as you can see, I’ve just taken a bath and now going to have a bottle (of beer) in the center…. In the morning when I got up I went straight to the farm and now I’ve brought enough quantities of grass for the cattle” (Men’s group).

“In the morning we go to the field together, when we comeback, he cuts firewood for me and children help in the rest. He goes to the bar for a drink and comeback in the evening” (Women’s group).


With respect to household care work, most of older men indicated to us that they cannot do traditional women chores while the younger ones said they would like to help but they fear their neighbors’ disapproval. The latter proposed to hire household workers (maid) to reduce the women workload.

When we asked women about household chores, they could not believe men told us they can help women with such household chores and duties. They said that women’s care work had remained unchanged and from their facial expression we could also discern that the burden had even increased:

“In peak seasons, a wife goes with workers, or when she does not have capacity to hire workers, she ploughs the land alone….; she goes early around six (06:00am)… and leaves the field around two or three in the afternoon, she goes home…where she does all the home tasks, and where necessary if she doesn’t have a grown up child who will cook lunch, she does it in the previous night…”(Women’s group). 

“Yes, there are cases where a husband finds out that the wife has no time to do certain things and comes in to help. However, they are not as many as more than 2%” (Women’s group).


Part of the group discussion session with women. @ C. Ingabire, FATE Rwanda


So where to for gender roles in transitioning agriculture? 

The agricultural transformation brought a number of changes including the time allocation among farming households. There have been surely some trade-offs within these households though our expectations were that the households gender roles may have changed accordingly. The experience we had from field show little (possibly insignificant) changes in household gender roles. While some young men say that they (could) help in care work, elderly men are not for that idea and would rather propose to hire house help (maid) if necessary and possible. In reality, such house help remains inexistent in the households. Women have a very different view on the gender roles: women’s care duties did have not changed and husbands do not really help with household chores. Given the contradictory views, we conclude that with regards to the agricultural transition, the shift of households gender roles are yet to be felt but are likely to point more to increased feminization of responsibilities if attention is not paid to the process. In other words, women are likely to be the ones taking on more work load both on farm and within households with transition to market-led agriculture.


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