Thursday, November 06, 2014

Women's Working Equine Partners

Shepherd's burro in Bulgaria

A new report estimates that there are 112 million working equine animals in the world, providing support to hundreds of millions of poor households in both rural and urban areas throughout the developing world. The breakdown includes:
• 43 million donkeys;
• 11 million mules; and
• 58 million horses.

Here in the United States, author JonKatz has served as the voice for the working carriage horses of New York, reminding us of the need "to work to keep animals in our world rather than take them out of it" and that earning a living in partnership with animals is a time-honored and respected tradition. It’s a reminder many Americans need, because for many, the notion of having a working animal partner is a thing of distant history. Readers of this blog tend to be people who know and understand working partnerships with animals, but for many Americans, the partnership of horse and man is limited to the workings of cattle ranches rather than broadly across our culture.

After adding three formerly wild burros (donkeys) to our ranch operation as guardians for our sheep flock, I quickly became fond of these calm and gentle creatures. In our travels throughout Europe and Asia, it would be impossible not to notice how many people still depend on these beasts of burden.

Cart horse in Kurdish region of Turkey.

The Brooke is a London-based international animal welfare organization dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules in the world’s poorest countries. Recognizing the fundamental role of equines in providing support to rural families, the Brooke doesn’t seek to ban human use of equines, but works diligently to improve conditions for these animal partners – providing veterinary and animal health services, hosting training and skill-building sessions, undertaking research, and working to raise the profile of working equine animals. The organization is based on the belief that “when animals are well and prosper, so do the owners, families and communities who depend on these animals for their livelihood.” The Brooke currently operates in Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East.

With this background, the Brooke has released the results of its Voices From Women research project exploring the role of equines in women’s lives in Ethiopia, Kenya, India, and Pakistan. The report is entitled “Invisible Helpers: Women’s Views on the Contributions of Working Donkeys, Horses and Mules to Their Lives.” The entire report is worth reading, and is linked here.

The report notes that over 95% of donkeys in the world are kept for work, and in developing countries the money earned by each working equine can support between 5 and 20 family members. People rely in these animals in order to survive. Two-thirds of poor livestock keepers in the world – 400 million – are women, according to the Brooke. How they use their equine partners is revealed in the Brooke report. It should be noted that although horses and mules are included, the majority of women use donkeys for their livelihoods.

Burros packing maize in Lesotho (Africa).

Ethiopia: Equines are the most important livestock in the farming and transportation system, providing a lifeline for 85% of rural Ethiopians dependent on subsistence farming for survival.

Kenya: Subsistence farming is the primary – or only – source of livelihood for rural women. Donkeys are used for farm work, to support other livestock by carrying water and animal feed, and donkey carts or pack donkeys are the main source of transportation.

India: In a country where 84% of women rely on farming for their livelihoods, working equines are used mainly for pulling carts or as pack animals.

Pakistan: Donkeys are widely used for transport of people and goods, and women use their donkeys in generating income through seasonal brick kiln work or rubbish collection.

In all four countries, women were asked to rank livestock species by importance and 77% put their working equines first. Cows and buffaloes, which provide milk for both their families and for sale, ranked second. Goats that provide meat and milk, and can be quickly sold in times of need, ranked third.

Researchers also found that although there is an assumption that the male members of a household are the decision-makers when it comes to purchasing livestock, most women reported that their husbands consulted with them about such purchases, and half of the women reported that such decisions were a mutual agreement between husband and wife. In Kenya, women make the decisions about livestock purchases, and in some areas a donkey is the first gift a husband presents to his new bride. In most communities in all four countries, women are the primary and traditional care givers for the family’s livestock.

One woman in Kenya provides a glimpse of the importance of donkeys in everyday life: “The donkey affects each and every aspect of my life as a woman. On a typical day the donkey fetches water, which I use to do the dishes, to clean the house, and for bathing. It also fetches sawdust which I use to cook all meals; then I hire it out and it brings in income on a daily basis that I use to buy flour for the evening meal. In other words, I eat, drink, dress, live off the donkey and more so as a woman and not one employed, I work hand in hand with the donkey. Basically the donkey is like me but to plainly put it, the donkey is me.”
A burro hauling firewood in Turkey.
Donkeys reduce the amount of labor and drudgery of household chores for these women. Imagine the burden of women transporting water and firewood without an equine partner. A donkey in Pakistan can transport a month’s worth of firewood in one day, whereas women without donkeys have to carry wood every day. In some regions, women collect dung as a fuel source and to sell to others, and use their donkeys to transport these materials. Women transport grain back and forth to mills. They use their donkeys to transport fodder for the family’s other livestock, and bring household goods to and from the market.

Many women told researchers that by using donkeys to share the burdens of everyday life, the women were able to spend more time caring for their children. One woman from Ethiopia said, “My donkey is just my backbone. It solves all my household problems.” When a donkey is sick, the woman’s workload increases and the family becomes stressed. If she can’t transport enough fodder for the family’s other livestock, the livestock will also suffer and the family will not receive as much milk from their animals.

All of the women interviewed by the Brooke were involved in some sort of income generation with their donkeys, although some was indirect income. A woman in India said, “They are our identity and our source of income. Not having one means no food for the family.” Women use income generated from their donkeys to purchase other livestock, provide food, and pay for household expenses, school fees, and healthcare.

The Brooke report concluded: “For women from equine owning communities, these animals are essential or, as some women put it, they are an additional member of the family or an additional limb of the body.”


Anonymous said...

Gosh, how I LOVE donkeys!!! And people in societies unfamiliar with them really miss out on one of the most amazing, tolerant, personable, patient, affectionate, useful domestic animals out there! My donkey experiences were mostly at a "Petting Zoo" I worked at, where we had both miniature donkeys, and a few GIANT ones--they ended up being some of my favorite animals I've worked with! After getting to know them, and all their great qualities, now when anyone calls me a "donkey" or an "ass", I beam and say "thank you very much for the compliment!".....L.B.

Dave said...

Burros are awesome.

One thing that people never mentioned is that history literally was built on the back of donkeys. They choose to focus on horses, which weren't as hardy. Perhaps because horses are much more regal or noble, and show up in staged photographs and paintings more often.

You might enjoy this website:

Anonymous said...

what a worthwhile post to read! I have been hiking with my adopted bureau of land management wild burro since 1992. we have thousands of miles of trail travel. even the trail to phantom ranch where I was able to coax her across a moving suspension bridge with water gushing by below. I have xperience with horses, mules, and burros and by far the most intelligent and personable is the burro. they are not stubborn as some accuse them to be. they are cautious, a sign of intelligence. they wanna look the situation over before they proceed. unlike horses, the burro rarely, if ever has stomach or digestive disorders. they can skim by on low grade forage, if needed. I'm glad I could not afford a pricey llama, which led me to the burro. unlike the llama, they are stout, hardy, cold/hot climate tolerable and most of all (in general) personable if you start with a genial approach. saludos a los burros del mundo!

Cat Urbigkit said...

Thanks for all your great comments. It was great to read a report featuring the importance of burros to women's daily lives.