The Complicated Gendering of Farming and Household Food Responsibilities in Northern Ghana


Siera Vercillo


Research Fellow

Faculty of Social Sciences

University of Waterloo

Siera is an Adjunct Professor in Environment and Development at the University of Waterloo ,and Postdoctoral Fellow in Food Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Her research is in feminist geography, political ecology, critical agrarian, food and development studies.


Key Takeaways

    How To Apply Insights

    • Research should be context specific, and use a range of iterative and participatory methods. Pilot studies should be used to gauge potential consequences, and local institutions and partners should be involved to negotiate shifting values.
    • Some ownership of the project should go to the communities and households themselves to decide what the goals should be
    • Development programs are inherently political, so this should not be avoided. Instead the consequences should be intentionally thought out and based on community goals and needs
    • Environmental protection practices should be inclusive of agro-ecological practices to shape the food sustem intself, and should be

    Findings & Research Conclusions

    The goal of interventions should not necessarily be to make women more autonomous, but to be better coordinated with their husbands in ways that they see as fair and equitable.

    About Case Study

    There is a discrepancy between the perception and reality of gendered roles in farming. The narrative of global and international policies assumes that wives are responsible for providing food for the family, while husbands commercialize the farm.

    Contrary to the consensus, it was found in this context that male smallholders held responsibility for providing food to their families, as part of being a good husband or a good man. When women are providing food, it indicates that something is wrong, their husbands cannot meet their needs, which was largely due to agricultural commercialization and envrionmental changes. There are gendered-disparities in access to farm and food resources and land, but men and women are not autonomous agents; in cooperative households, labor is divided and negotiated to ensure household needs are met, subject to bargaining power imbalances.

    Under the policy assumption that food provisioning is the woman’s role, reallocation programs that target women for credit, land, fertilizer and seed can lead to additional burdens on women, and intra-household conflict. In the case study, some women supported by the project did not want to top up the husbands provisions, as food provisioning was not viewed as their responsibility.

    On the other hand, commercialization programmes and policy supported by donors and development actors largely focus on men, and can lead to short term-profit seeking to pay back credit or to increase scale at the cost of agrobiodiversity and food security. Some participants make a lot of money from these contract agreements, but others cannot; leading to land competition and disputes within communities and households.

    This competition and conflict results from inadequate context-specific research from practitioners before designing interventions. In the context of climate change, gender-roles are shifting rapidly so even research 5-10 years ago may be insufficient.

    The goal of interventions should not necessarily be to make women more autonomous, but to be better coordinated with their husbands in ways that they see as fair and equitable.

    Case study of two agricultural communities in the Northern region of Ghana

    Research's methodology

    Context-immersive study with 6/7 years of iteration to re-evaluate guides and tools. Two field visits for 3 months at a time living in and participating within communities & learning about contextual systems and politics.

    In depth interviews in 2 commmunities across several community demographics and other actors in the agricultural supply chain. Over 100 interviews, including interviews with various development project staff, 12 gender-split focus groups. Community resource mapping, defining gender norms, empowerment, household roles, and the future of food and farming.


    This is a case study of one area that may not extrapolate across the wider region of Ghana.
    Female-headed households and other kinds of households were not investigated.
    The study is subject to selection bias of projects and individuals operating in that particular area

    Negotiative conflict/cooperative bargainingCooperation and bargaining between women and men in households, subject to power imbalances and heavily specific on individual family contexts. This negotiation can also happen with community leaders, tractor operators, family members, extension agents
    Social DifferentiationInequality based on social, economic and ecological factors
    Modernization of AgricultureCommercialization of agriculture to a profit-driven system, over household food consumption, nutrition and agrobiodiversity. Short term goals over long term goals and insensitive to environmental issues

    Reference this research

    Vercillo, Siera (2020). The complicated gendering of farming and household food responsibilities in northern Ghana. Journal of Rural Studies, 79, 235–245.

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