A woman milks one of her goats in Ségou District, Mali

A woman milks one of her goats in Ségou District, Mali (photo credit: ILRI/Valentin Bognan Koné).

Almost two-thirds of the world’s 925 million poor livestock keepers are rural women, and women often predominate in urban agriculture. In Africa, most livestock products are sold in traditional or informal markets which offer livelihood opportunities as well as affordable, convenient and nutritious food to millions of people.

Women and men often play different roles in animal production and in the processing, sale and preparation of animal food products. Women are more often involved in keeping poultry and small ruminants while men tend to have greater involvement in rearing of cattle. Almost everywhere in rural Africa, women are responsible for preparing and cooking food for home consumption.

Animal slaughter is also often differentiated by gender, with women being responsible for killing poultry, typically inside the homestead, but most slaughter of larger animals outside the home being done by men.

Small-scale processing of animal food products is often carried out by women while more modern, industrialized operations, such as dairy cooperatives, are often dominated by men, at least in managerial and ownership roles.

Traditional markets are particularly important for women. For example, in most African countries, the majority of street food processors and vendors are women, while the majority of customers are men. As well as being one of the few livelihood strategies open to poor women, the street food sector is of great importance to the economy.

The different roles of women and men in the production and processing of animal foods predispose them to different benefits as well as risks.

For example, in West Africa where men dominate milk production, they are more at risk from zoonotic diseases associated with direct contact with cows during milking. On the other hand, in smallholder farms in Kenya where women are often in charge of milking, the situation is reversed.

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where artisanal coastal fishing is a key livelihood activity, men are in charge of fishing but women handle the on-shore smoking and selling of the fish.

Because of these variations in the roles of men and women in the production, processing and sale of animal food products, it is necessary to adopt a gender perspective in food safety research aimed at reducing health risks and improving the safety of animal products sold in the informal sector.

A study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partners on the microbial quality and safety of meat in Bodija market in Ibadan, Nigeria revealed that gender and group membership had an influence on meat quality.

Women were found to have significantly better food safety practice than men, though there was no significant difference in their knowledge of and attitude towards food safety. The study also identified butchers’ associations as promising entry points for interventions to improve food safety.

Another study investigated the social and gender determinants of the risk of exposure to Cryptosporidium from urban dairying in Dagoretti, Nairobi, Kenya. Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrhoeal disease cryptosporidiosis.

Women were found to have greater contact with raw milk and this increased their risk of exposure to cryptosporidiosis infection. However, there was no significant difference between men and women as regards knowledge on symptoms of cryptosporidiosis or other zoonotic diseases associated with dairy farming.

These two examples show how a gender perspective in food safety research can ensure:

  • men’s and women’s differential exposure to agriculture-related risks are better understood, particularly as it relates to health outcomes
  • women have increased capacity to manage risks and are more involved in the surveillance of risks
  • women directly benefit from interventions designed to reduce agriculture-associated diseases, taking into account roles and responsibilities that may put them at increased risk of exposure

Read more in this ILRI research brief: Poverty and gender aspects of food safety in informal markets in sub-Saharan Africa.