WOMEN are the backbone of subsistence farming and play a vital role in providing food security. A majority of them work within a system of sharecropping and toil from dawn to dusk on farms for sustenance of their families.

However, women sharecroppers are not paid for their labour. They are simply considered helping hands for their men/family. Although deeply connected to rural economy, they largely remain ignored for a number of reasons.

“Women’s contribution to agriculture, livestock and food security is often unaccounted for. One of the main reasons is the established social mores which define women farmer’s role as household helpers only. Thus, their labour is not considered an economic activity,” says Rotary International’s Riaz Pirzado.

Women make up 43 per cent of agricultural workforce, but they own less than two per cent of land. If they have equal access to agricultural resources, poverty among them and their families can be reduced noticeably. Lately some NGOs working with farming communities have noted that per acre yield can be increased considerably if women have a say in agricultural matters.

“The tragedy is that there are no accurate figures about rural women’s contribution to the economic growth and gross domestic product (GDP) which is quite significant,” says Sindh Institute for Democracy and Development’s Zulfiqar Halepoto.

The government should make sure that women farmers and their contribution is fully reflected in future statistics to ensure their access to benefits meant for farmers. In absence of gender-sensitive data — necessary for gender equality — women’s contribution to agriculture is not recorded.

“Rural women world over are an integral and vital force in the development processes, which are the key to socio-economic progress. Rural women include farmers, wage workers, petty traders, artisans, industrial home workers, micro-producers and domestic servants.

They form the backbone of the agricultural labour force across much of the developing world and produce 35 per cent to 45 per cent of GDP and well over 50 per cent of the developing world's food. Yet, over half a billion rural women are poor and lack access to resources and markets. In fact, the number is estimated to have increased by 50 per cent over the past 20 years and today they outnumber poor men,” says UN’s Geneva Declaration for Rural Women.

Women’s engagement in agriculture and livestock has also limited their opportunities to educate themselves as compared to men.

“A major chunk of household budget is spent on men instead of women despite their greater contribution. Boys are given preference over girls when it comes to education and health. If rural women’s work is recognised and recorded it would help develop agriculture faster, and it would be the biggest single factor in reducing poverty,” says Pirzado.

“They work as entrepreneurs, as farm and non-farm labourers, in family businesses, for others and as self-employed, while they take on a disproportionate share of unpaid work at home. However, their contribution is limited by unequal access to resources as well as persistent discrimination and gender norms which need to be addressed to allow the realisation of their full potential,” says International Labour Organisation.

All works done by rural women — agriculture, livestock and traditional crafts making — should be recorded to ensure their access to resources, to open bank accounts and to borrow money and buy agriculture inputs like fertilisers and seeds. The government should offer agricultural subsidies to women farmers. .

“Their special needs like pregnancies and births are attended to by village midwives. If they own land and have savings they can use the money for their needs,” says Pirzado.

“Gender analysis of men’s and women’s paid and unpaid economic activity, including through periodic time-use surveys, should be carried out to achieve better harmonisation of data base and workload. The value of unpaid work should be fully reflected in official accounts,” Halepoto adds.There is a need for revising the agricultural policy to identify women’s role in rural economy. It should be gender-sensitive and highlight and determine women farmer’s policy needs with facts and figures. This will help improve the quality of their lives and their health and environment.

Women farmer’s right to resources and decision-making will help make them self-reliant and less dependent on men.

“At least 3,000 women would have become owners of their lands if the land allotment programme had succeeded in Sindh. Men would have become protectors of women’s land rights and encouraged them to get hold of the land,” Halepoto says.

The underlying issue, that is the real cause of problem, is absence of women farmers at policy level and attention should be paid to their participation. The revised gender-based agriculture policy should deal with both the long- and short-term issues affecting women sharecroppers.

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