Women the unsung heroes in caring for working horses and donkeys, findings suggest

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it was widely assumed that horse and donkey care was carried out by men, and women were often not recognised as facilitating equine welfare.
It was widely assumed that horse and donkey care in Guatemala was carried out by men, and women were often not recognised as facilitating equine welfare. © World Horse Welfare

The crucial role of women in the care of many working horses and donkeys has been highlighted in a just-published study.

The researchers also found that horses and donkeys made an important contribution to making life easier for women, who were quick to acknowledge the importance of the animals.

One commented: “All my animals are equal, but none can survive without the horse.”

The study by Molly Vasanthakumar and her fellow researchers was carried out in the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala.

The researchers said it was widely assumed that horse and donkey care was carried out by men, and women were often not recognised as facilitating equine welfare.

The study team set out to investigate how working equids contributed to women’s livelihoods in six of the World Horse Welfare programmes that help communities in Guatemala, and determine what roles women have in their care. Thirty-four face-to-face interviews were carried out.

The authors found that working equids supported women by reducing domestic drudgery, generating income, feeding livestock, and saving time.

Thirty-two of the women were found to play a major role in the care of one or more equids and, overall, women did not feel that they knew enough about their husbandry.

Thirty-one of them said they would attend training opportunities if the advertising was clear and they felt that women were able to join.

“This emphasises the need for extension services to include and cater for women, improving equid welfare and their ability to continue supporting women’s livelihoods,” the study team wrote in the journal Animals.

The authors noted that there were about 116 million equids in the world, most of which are used as working animals in low to middle-income countries.

“Policy-makers have traditionally associated men with owning working equids, and livestock initiatives aimed at women have tended to focus on poultry, dairy cows and small ruminants.

“However, there is evidence to show that the type of livestock women own and care for varies greatly between regions, meaning that often women are the owners and/or carers of horses, mules and donkeys.”

In the Invisible Helpers report published in 2014 by Brooke, a charity to support working animals, women were found to be the primary caregivers for working equids in communities in Kenya, India, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

The report also found that, despite their involvement, the women have little to no access to education on equid health and welfare.

The women interviewed in Guatemala acknowledged the importance of their equids to their families, saying they were integral to the wellbeing of their other livestock.

All participants owned food-producing animals, from keeping a few chickens to running a cattle fattening farm. Almost all the women felt that their equids contributed to food production by transporting firewood for cooking, and food and water for other livestock.

Five of the women said that although the overall physical workload of their work was reduced by their equids, caring for them actually gave them more chores. One commented: “Our horse gives us more chores to do, but they are much less physical than our chores if we didn’t have a horse.”

Within the communities visited, 32 women were the primary caregivers for all livestock, including the working horses and donkeys. But only five of the women, or 15%, were actively involved in using them. One of them was from a woman-headed household.

The researchers said the results showed that working equids in Chimaltenango are important to women’s livelihoods. “They reduce domestic drudgery, generate direct income and save time.”

They said the idea of gender and animal ownership within the present study supports the findings of a 2017 study which showed how men are perceived to be household heads, with women as illiterate or poorly educated carers and helpers.

“This gender bias denies women access to information and extension services, as well as devaluing their roles and responsibilities.

“Gaining a better understanding of how gender roles surrounding working equid husbandry are assigned could identify methods to support women in carrying out equid husbandry tasks safely and confidently in the absence of men, should they have to, or wish to.

A working horse in Guatemala.
A working horse in Guatemala. © World Horse Welfare

“It could also provide women with opportunities to obtain the respect given to women who are seen to use and handle their equids, from members of the community.”

They said further research is needed to identify social norms that affect women’s existing and desired interactions with equids. Researchers also need to identify the factors that influence their ability and interest in engaging in equid-related training, and the optimum structure of programmes to fit in with their other daily commitments and responsibilities.

The study team comprised Vasanthakumar, Melissa Upjohn, Tamlin Watson and Cathy Dwyer.

The research was funded by World Horse Welfare.

Vasanthakumar, M.A.; Upjohn, M.M.; Watson, T.L.; Dwyer, C.M. ‘All My Animals Are Equal, but None Can Survive without the Horse.’ The Contribution of Working Equids to the Livelihoods of Women across Six Communities in the Chimaltenango Region of Guatemala. Animals 2021, 11, 1509. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11061509

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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