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Women with farming future

Will the feminisation of farming in Asia’s transition economies have a similar effect? There are no guarantees. Evidence so far has shown that increased representation in agriculture does not necessarily contribute to women’s socio-economic empowerment.

by Caroline Rath

South Asia’s record on gender equality is quite depressing, to say the least. The region has the world’s highest rate of child marriage, and domestic violence against women is pervasive. Women are over-represented in unpaid work, and under-represented in the labour force, even in countries, such as Sri Lanka, which has invested heavily in girls’ schooling. Yet, there is one sector where women are taking over — agriculture — that could present a much needed opportunity for women economic empowerment.


As South Asian economies develop, men are increasingly chasing jobs in manufacturing (or overseas), leaving women responsible for a growing share of agricultural labour. In Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, the share of economically active women working in farming now ranges from 60 percent to 98 percent. In each of these countries’ agricultural sectors, women outnumber men.

A comparable shift occurred in some high-income countries during the Second World War. As men left for the battlefield, women filled the vacant civilian jobs, including farming. In America, for example, the share of women agricultural workers jumped from 8 percent in 1940 to 22.4 percent in 1945.

When the war ended, women were not simply going to return to the pre-war status quo. In some sectors, especially higher-skill positions, the Second World War labour shock seems to have directly and permanently changed women’s paid employment. More generally, however, women had sampled the economic and personal freedom that employment provides, gained marketable skills, and proved their capabilities. Women’s wartime experience thus gave powerful impetus to the movement for gender equality. The number of European farming women has been slowly increasing in recent years. The most recent data suggests that, on average, around 30 percent of farms across the European Union are managed by a woman.

We should also notice that, even if agriculture remains the main employment sector for women in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, it accounts for a huge part of the population in the western world as well. Within the European Union, in 2016, for example, women working in agriculture accounted for 35 percent of the total working population in the sector and more than 40 percent in some member states such as Austria (45 percent), Romania (43 percent) Poland, Greece, and Slovenia (41 percent in each).

But, will the feminisation of farming in Asia’s transition economies have a similar effect? There are no guarantees. Evidence so far has shown that increased representation in agriculture does not necessarily contribute to women’s socio-economic empowerment.

In fact, even as women take on more agricultural duties, their decision-making power remains limited. In Bangladesh, for example, the microfinance revolution and non-government-organisation-led training programmes have enabled thousands of rural women to become frontline workers and even start their own small businesses since the 1990s. The country now leads South Asia in closing the gender pay gap. Yet, in agriculture, women have about half the power of men, measured by variables like asset ownership and control over income.

On top of that, a research carried out in India has found that women’s growing participation in agriculture is strongly linked to several indicators of poverty. This at least partly reflects the fact that women’s entry into the paid workforce is not accompanied by any reduction in their already-heavy burden of unpaid labour. And a rising proportion of women employed in the agricultural sector are not paid for their work at all.

Add to that the unpredictable nature of agricultural production, and, as researchers in India say, ‘The feminisation of agriculture may better be described as the feminisation of agrarian distress.’ In the Indian state of Maharashtra, mounting debts have led to a doubling of suicides among women farmers in the past four years.

By contrast, in rural Bangladesh, empowerment, such as the ability to influence purchasing decisions and join voluntary associations, has contributed substantially to their life satisfaction, regardless of their economic status.

How, then, can South Asian governments translate rising women participation in farming into genuine empowerment? One approach focuses on income earned outside the home. Data from rural Bangladesh show that it is not paid employment per se that increases women farmers’ autonomy, but rather employment outside of their husbands’ farms. In Bangladesh, the microfinance revolution and non-government-organisation-led training programmes have enabled thousands of rural women to become frontline workers.

Yet the fact is that most women in agriculture in South Asia are working on family farms, where they cannot earn an independent income (or, in many cases, any income at all). One way to tackle this could be to promote exports of high-value-added agricultural products, such as seafood. Formalising the production process could encourage the monetisation of women labour and improve working conditions, as export-oriented manufacturing of readymade garments, textiles, and footwear has done in many emerging Asian economies.

Female force: gender distribution of the agricultural labour force in target regions
Technology can also help by enabling women to circumvent barriers rooted in social norms. For example, even as Bangladeshi women do more on farms, they are traditionally excluded from aquaculture. The USAID-funded Aquaculture for Income and Nutrition project’s low-costgillnets, however, have enabled Bangladeshi women to harvest small fish from small local ponds quickly and easily, so that they do not have to compete with men for access to larger sources.

Similarly, digital technology can improve women’s ability to sell their products. In many places, women are excluded from markets, and a male family member must be present for the sale of crops; that would not be the case online. Governments should support the development and dissemination of such technologies, which could also enable women to assert more purchasing power, such as over agricultural inputs, and put an end to the digital divide so that women can have more of such opportunities.

Another crucial element of an effective strategy for empowering women in South Asia’s agriculture sector is the reduction of unpaid labour for which they are responsible. Pursuing this objective is tricky, given that in patriarchal societies, interventions that empower women at the expense of male family members are sure to provoke formidable resistance. But productivity-enhancing schemes can help to pave the way for the more equitable distribution of domestic duties.

The tale of women’s vulnerability is shamelessly corny, and many groan at the old cliché: ‘Women are vulnerable and powerful — victimised and empowered — through food.’ With the right policies and effective use of technology, we can tip the scale in the right direction.

The writer is a Pakistani-based freelance journalist focusing on health and women and gender equality.

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