Fact Check 9: Women Livestock Keepers

Women are often perceived to play a significant role in rearing livestock. But how confident can we be in the global data supporting this perception? 

Are there 600 million poor rural livestock keepers globally and are two-thirds of them women? This fact check reveals the evidence behind these figures.

A recurring theme in agriculture for development narratives, is the predominance of women among the population of rural livestock keepers, and the value of livestock to women on a global scale. Usually this statement is substantiated with a statement that “Two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers are rural women”. Statements like this inform important debates, policies and programmes for livestock development, but are the numbers accurate? We investigate the facts behind the figures to understand the origins of these statements.

The facts behind the figures 

“Two thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers are rural women” has been quoted repeatedly and widely within livestock communities.1-4 It is difficult to track where the numbers originated and how they were calculated, yet the “fact” is widely applied to demonstrate the importance of livestock to women’s empowerment.1 While these facts may appear to be solid, they are based apon a fusion of data from a range of qualitative and quantitative sources. When the statement is written, it is usually either presented without a source or with the citation Thornton et al. 2003.5 On investigation, it appears that the “fact” can be divided into two parts: 

PART A. “Two thirds…are rural women” 

PART B. “600 million poor livestock keepers”

Thornton et al. 2003 did, in fact, estimate there to be 600 million poor livestock keepers, but they did not calculate the proportion of women. Nevertheless, their work is frequently cited alone with the full statement.1 Upon reviewing the literature it became apparent that many sources end up citing each other, without reference to the original calculation.1-4 

PART A - Are two thirds of poor livestock keepers women? 

Finding the origin of Part A of the fact is particularly difficult. 

Gender Disaggregated Data 

It is difficult to obtain up-to-date poverty data and furthermore, it is difficult to disaggregate existing data by gender. Often, studies have attempted to study gender dimensions retrospectively. This is in contrast to projects which are designed to reduce gender gaps, which would receive appropriate funding to collect disaggregated data. These gender-intentional or -transformative projects are more likely to provide a comprehensive understanding of gender for particular contexts.6 

Alternative Gender Data

 It is suggested that women make up 70% of the world’s poor. However, this data does not specifically refer to rural livestock keepers and it was previously concluded that background literature was not sufficient to back up the statistic.7,8 The dynamic World Poverty Clock, which computes the spread of poverty reduction around the world, suggests that around 51% of the world’s poor are women, as of August 2020.9 Both of these figures deviate from the one stated in this “fact”.

PART B - Are there 600 million poor livestock keepers?

The majority of publications that mention “600 million poor livestock keepers”, usually cite Thornton et al. 2003. Thornton et al. 2003 calculated their numbers on data from the 1990s, and focused specifically on rural livestock keepers.5

Examining the terminology

The use of the term “livestock keepers” in the central statement is significant, as it is a subjective label. It could encompass people who legally own livestock, people who manage livestock, or those who claim livestock as their own. Within a household, different survey respondents can give different opinions as to who owns an animal, and who makes decisions.10,11 The term livestock, in this particular instance is defined as to “include not just cattle, but also camels, llamas, buffaloes, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry”. By including a broad range of animals, this definition also captures a greater number of people who keep livestock, and may account for a larger proportion of women, who it seems, are more likely to own chickens.12,13 This could account for potential loss of data regarding women, and contribute to the “invisibility of women”.12

It must also be acknowledged that women may often be discouraged from identifying as “farmers” or “livestock keepers” and are often considered “helpers” according to the gender norms established within a household or community.11 Therefore, the number of women declared to be “livestock keepers” or “farmers” is likely to be underreported in existing quantitative studies.

Alternative Poverty Data

The World Poverty Clock estimated that in August of 2020, there were over 705 million people in poverty overall.9 The 100 million difference between the fact in question and the current estimation by UNESCA cannot be compared reliably, as only a subsection of the poor population (livestock keepers) was estimated in the fact being discussed. 


It is difficult to make global statements on this subject as the statistics vary so drastically all over the world. The general point of our “fact” – women livestock keepers constitute a greater proportion of the world’s poor livestock keepers – is plausible according to relevant qualitative research. However, although the numerical values in our “fact” support this conjecture, the values themselves may not be completely accurate. This begs the question of whether accuracy and quantitative data are as important when undertaking high level analysis, as the trends that they display.


  1. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). 2018. Women’s role in livestock enterprises - Why Livestock Matter.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2014. Invisible Guardians - Women manage livestock diversity. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 174. Rome, Italy. 
  3. Kristjanson, P., Waters-Bayer, A., Johnson, N., Tipilda, A., Njuki, J., Baltenweck, I., Grace, D., and MacMillan, S. 2010. Livestock and Women’s Livelihoods: A Review of the Recent Evidence. Discussion Paper No. 20. Nairobi, Kenya, ILRI.
  4. Elton J., 14 surprising stats about global food consumption. ONE. 2020
  5. Thornton, P.K., Kruska, R.L., Henninger, N., Kristjanson, P.M., Reid, R.S. and Robinson, T.P. 2003. Locating poor livestock keepers at the global level for research and development targeting. Land use Policy 20(4):311-322.
  6. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Gender Integration Markers.
  7. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 2015. Gender and Climate Change – Strengthening climate action by promoting gender equality. Gland, Switzerland.
  8. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2018. Women in agriculture: Four myths (Webinar).
  9. World Data Lab. World Poverty Clock [Internet].  Available at:
  10. Valdivia, C. and Gilles J.L. 2001. Gender and resource management: Households and groups, strategies and transitions. Agriculture and Human Values, 18(1): 5-9.
  11. Galiè, A., Mulema, A., Mora Benard, M.A., Onzere, S.N. and Colverson K.E. 2015. Exploring gender perceptions of resource ownership and their implications for food security among rural livestock owners in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. Agriculture & Food Security. 4, 2.
  12. Livestock in Development. 1999. Livestock in Poverty-Focused Development, by Ashley, S., Holden, S. & Bazeley, P., Crewkerne, Somerset, UK.
  13. Marshall, K., de Haan, N. and Galiè, A. 2019. Integrating gender considerations into livestock genetic improvement programs in low to middle income countries. Presented at the Association for the Advancement of Animal Breeding and Genetics Conference, Armidale, Australia, 27 October-1 November 2019. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.
  14. Galiè, A., Jiggins, J. and Struik, P.C. 2013. Women's identity as farmers: A case study from ten households in Syria. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences Volumes 64-65, Pages 25-33. 

Gender fact sheet working group

This fact sheet was produced with the expert input of the LD4D Gender Working Group in 2019/2020.

MacVicar, I. (Supporting Evidence Based Interventions) - lead author

Gebremikael, M. (Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems - University of Florida)

Olaniyan, O. (University of the Gambia, Banjul)

Aris, G. (Land O'Lakes/ Venture 37)

de Haan, N. (International Livestock Research Institute)

Baltenweck, I. (International Livestock Research Institute)

Galie, A. (International Livestock Research Institute)

Meadu, V. (Supporting Evidence Based Interventions)

Salmon, G. (Supporting Evidence Based Interventions)