Zaheer Mahmood Siddiqui highlights how women’s role in agriculture remains largely ignored.According to Women Agriculture and Rural Development: A Synthesis report of the Near East Region, FAO, Rome, [in Pakistan] “Women comprise 42pc of the total family labour.” Unfortunately this major contribution goes largely unacknowledged and unrewarded.
In addition to their usual domestic chores like cooking, managing the house, taking care of children, the elderly and disabled, fetching water and fuel, taking care of the cattle and poultry, they work along with their men in transplanting vegetables, rice and bare-root plants and harvesting wheat, rice, cotton and other crops. Tasks that require squatting for long periods, such as mowing of grass, removal of weeds and unwanted growth, inter-cultivation of vegetables and picking of small fruits, are almost exclusively carried out by women.
Unfortunately, no serious efforts have so far been made to collect credible data on the female labour force in rural areas of the country; their contribution is recognised neither socially nor economically. According to government figures, the female labour participation rate is 18pc, compared to 71pc for men. However, according to Human Development in South Asia 2010/2011: Food Security in South Asia by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, “there has been a considerable increase in the share of the female labour force in the total agricultural labour force in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The rate has almost tripled in Pakistan since 1980, to 30pc, and women now exceed 50pc of the total agricultural labour force in Bangladesh.
“Much of women’s work in the household, as subsistence farmers, unpaid agricultural workers or family helpers is not reflected in official statistics. In Pakistan, for instance, with the adoption of the United Nations definition of the system of national accounts boundary, women’s participation in the workforce has increased from 13 to 39pc and in Bangladesh from 19 to 50pc.
“In Punjab, Pakistan, it was found that women perform more than 13 major activities in the rural areas and spend more than nine hours a day working on these multiple tasks. Almost 25pc of their time is spent on livestock-related activities that are routinely classified as household chores. This role of women in agriculture and rural livelihoods has increased over the years as more men continue to migrate to urban areas and households are then headed by women. Even in households headed by men, women continue to contribute a significant portion of their time to agriculture-related activities. While traditionally agricultural activities were more gender-segregated, a shortage of agricultural labour has meant that women have even taken over tasks previously performed by men,” says the report.
However, veteran labour leader Khurshid Ahmed maintains that data on rural female labour force still does not depict reality.
“Contribution of rural women in conventional agriculture and economic activities had been substantial but it has always been underestimated and undervalued. More than 50pc of the labour force comprises women in our rural areas but their contributions remain largely overlooked and the value of their output has never been incorporated in national statistics. They are fed and provided with clothes etc, but not paid,” says Ahmed.