At first glance, it may seem that women in northern Mozambique might enjoy more power than women in other places, at least in the agricultural sector. In this region, land is often passed through matrilineal rather than patrilineal lines. And since the enactment of the Mozambique Land Law in 1997, one might expect that women here are better able to access land and retain control over land they bring with them into marriage. But a new discussion paper finds that women in northern Mozambique still control only about 30 percent of rural land plots, and are able to make planting decisions on only about 70 percent of the plots they control. Why is this so, and what steps can be taken to increase women’s agricultural empowerment?

The paper’s author, Senior IFPRI Research Fellow Alan de Brauw, uses data from 36 communities in Zambezia Province to determine who controls each household’s farm plots, who makes decisions regarding which crops to plant, and how income generated from crop sales is used. The same communities were surveyed for a previous study on the nutritional impact of orange-fleshed sweet potato on children [link], meaning that the majority of households surveyed are made up of younger families with small children; this factor may help account for relatively high female control of land in the sample.

However, controlling a plot of land does not necessarily equate to control over decision-making about the plot. Even on female-controlled plots, women make only 70 percent of the decisions regarding what to plant; de Brauw finds that this number is even lower in male-headed households, where women make only 60 percent of the cropping decisions for the land they control. On the other hand, in female-headed households, women make all of the cropping decisions.

De Brauw also discovers differences not only in who makes planting decisions, but in what those decisions are. When men manage plots, they tend to plant more crops than women, regardless of who actually owns the plot. When women manage plots, they tend to both plant and sell fewer crops, and place less emphasis on more complicated cash crops. Finally, when men manage plots, their farm incomes are significantly higher (20-50 percent higher, in fact) than women’s incomes when they manage plots themselves.

One of the paper’s most significant findings, however, is that women appear to have more decision-making power when men had access to off-farm labor six years prior to the survey. When men work outside the farm, even seasonally, they tend to leave women in charge of managing their own plots. Men’s access to off-farm labor could also explain why women seem to have less interest in more profitable, but more difficult to grow, cash crops; if a household can generate additional income from the man working in off-farm labor, the woman may not see the economic need to engage in farming cash crops.

De Brauw’s research has important policy implications because when women are empowered economically and socially, they can be a force for global development. Recent research shows that empowering women, particularly rural women working in the agricultural sector, can enhance children’s welfare and might even improve a country’s overall economic development. But the constraints that rural women face vary considerably from country to country and even within countries, making it difficult to pinpoint broad policies that will work for all women. De Brauw emphasizes the need to look on a case-by-case basis to determine the specific factors impacting gender inequality in a particular area. In the case of northern Mozambique, his results suggest that programs to increase access to off-farm labor could be a key pathway to foster women’s empowerment.

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