WOMEN the world over perform productive roles in all spheres; the agriculture sector is no exception. Globally, women produce 50 per cent of food and provide 43pc of agriculture labour. Asia in particular has a family farming system in which women’s roles are central as they supplement the family income by working the fields. In the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, for example, women perform half the labour in rice production. This goes up to 80pc in India and Bangladesh.
Nevertheless, there is scant information on the gender system of each region and the constraints women farmers face. What is known is that in developing economies, most rural women carry heavy burdens of limited literacy, malnourishment and violence, which bars them from improving their conditions.
Pakistan’s agriculture sector is said to be the backbone of the economy because of its contribution to GDP. Rural women are central to this agro-based economy; they are major participants in food production in rice- and wheat-growing regions, as well as in cotton-picking processes. Despite this, Pakistan’s social indicators present a very alarming picture: rural women are caught in a web of chronic poverty due to little access to productive resources and credit, which limits investment in technology and impedes farming productivity.
Empowered women can revolutionise rural Pakistan.
They usually engage with agriculture in two ways: they either work on landlords’ farms as peasants or manage their families’ farms. Working for landlords is largely based on payment in kind. For example, farmers, including women, in northern Sindh are paid 40 kilograms of wheat upon the harvest of half an acre, which is used up in household consumption and is central to the family’s survival. This, however, takes its toll.
Much of the work involves manual labour that consumes time and energy. And since their work is not registered, women face extreme exploitation. The mode and value of payments are decided verbally, and there is no concept of meeting the national minimum wage. And while 72pc of working women are involved in agricultural activities, most are not involved in post-harvest activities, such as processing or grading of fruits and vegetables.
Those working on their families’ farms lack knowledge of modern farming techniques to boost productivity. In the event of a pest attack, poor farmers prefer setting the affected area on fire to save the remaining crop because they cannot afford pesticide, let alone quality fertiliser. As a result, they yield only enough for subsistence living.
The absence of social capital and well-integrated social community networks — generally associated with women’s empowerment — also affects women’s ability to bring change to their lives. These groups not only enhance access to loans but also help women bargain and sell their labour. In most cases, women’s ability to obtain loans for agricultural production is determined by their association with community networks. Once a network is formed, it can be used for multiple purposes: sharing produce from livestock, selling and buying from each other, etc. Some NGOs in Sindh have started this to ensure flow of credit to rural women as well as the smooth return of credit, but on a larger scale such networks are practically nonexistent.
In this regard, women’s access to and control over capital and finances is very important because it helps them form social networks. Financing in the formal and informal sectors has increased over the years, yet farmers’ access to financial services in developing countries is limited. The absence of a well-integrated credit system specifically for women farmers has reduced social capital and networking opportunities.
Farm labour that women are engaged in plays a vital role not just for the economy but also for their families’ wellbeing; studies show that women invest more in children’s education, health and nutrition than men. Given the rigid patriarchal norms that constrain their lives, it’s no wonder that women continue to be the poorest of the poor. Their engagements with farm labour only helps them access enough food for survival — the vicious cycle of poverty remains intact.
Empowering and facilitating women will have a durable positive impact on agriculture productivity and families’ food and social security.
It is necessary to study gender systems in different regions and explore rural women’s constraints. As long as they remain unexplored, it is difficult to narrow gender gaps and empower rural women. The government should introduce gender-sensitive agricultural policies. Engaging women in targeted trainings and enabling them to access flexible loans will also improve livelihoods. These initiatives can only be compatible and effective when we know the gender system of each region.
The writer has a PhD in women’s studies.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017