The Small Animal That’s Making a Big Difference for Women in the Developing World

Chickens in America have it rough. They’re the symbol of cowards. They’re the butt of corny cross-the-road jokes. Every kind of mystery meat is supposed to taste exactly like them.

But if you ask a woman in a developing country about chickens, she’s likely to show a lot more respect. That’s because a chicken can mean the difference between a family that merely survives and one that thrives.

For one thing, chickens are a good source of income. In fact, chickens are known in international development circles as “the ATM of the poor,” because they are easy to sell on short notice to cover day-to-day expenses.

Furthermore, eating chickens (and eggs) is good for you. In fact, they contain seven essential micronutrients like calcium and vitamin A.

But there’s another, less intuitive way that chickens make life much better for poor people. In most developing countries, raising chickens is considered women’s work, and the money from selling chickens and eggs belongs to women to spend as they choose.

In Burkina Faso where the national dish is Poulet Bicyclette, people eat a lot of chicken and poultry is a big part of their economy. Even a single chicken can make a big difference in the life of a poor farmer.

Usually, men control a family’s income. Men take cash crops like cocoa and cotton to market. The more milk a cow produces, the more likely it is that men will sell the milk and decide what to do with the proceeds. Chickens are the exception. Many men think chickens aren’t worth their time because the income from them is small and sporadic. So women fill the gap.

Why is this such great news? Because the evidence shows that when women control money, they are more likely than men to spend it on priorities that help fight poverty, like education, health, and nutrition. I come across a lot of statistics in my line of work, and maybe the one I’ve been most impressed by is this: When a woman controls the family’s income, her children are 20 percent more likely to live past the age of 5.

Behind that abstract percentage stand millions of women who sacrifice to make sure their families have what they need. When I visit poor communities and speak with women about their lives, they tell me about the daily struggle to give their children a chance at a better life than they had. And a lot of times, one of the most powerful weapons in that struggle is a small flock of chickens.

In India, our foundation works closely with an amazing organization called Pradan, which is staffed by Indians who know intimately what life is like for the people we’re trying to help. So I put a lot of stock in the fact that Pradan is currently running a project to help women raise chickens. They’re focused on the details of the business — how to use credit to get started, organize into cooperatives to fetch better prices, and work with animal health workers to keep flocks healthy. But before they dig into these specifics of “how,” Pradan always explains the “why” of its work. The chicken business, they say, “gives the woman farmer an income from her labor while giving her the dignity and control of an owner.”

Dignity and control. These prerequisites of empowerment can be hard to come by for women in developing countries. But when women are able to express their dignity and seize control, sometimes with the help of their chickens, they transform their lives — and the lives of everyone around them.

My husband agrees with me when it comes to chickens. That’s why Bill has launched a campaign to get the message out. Follow the link to learn more.




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Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates

Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, businesswoman, and mother. Dedicated to helping all people lead healthy, productive lives.

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