WOMEN’S empowerment is closely associated with a country’s economic development as it ensures equality and sustainability in all spheres of social life. Similarly, in a food system, gender equality and women’s empowerment lead to better nutrition and food security. Following the devastating floods, food insecurity is looming large. Climate change has threatened food security and economic progress in Pakistan. A growing population, climate disasters and low agricultural yields have made it crucial to address the problem of food insecurity and undernourishment. This is only possible if serious efforts are made to close the gender gap and empower women, particularly in agriculture.
Women are central to food systems as producers, processors, wage workers, traders and consumers. Their contribution to the family is greater than men’s despite vulnerable employment conditions, but the socioeconomic impact of the prevailing inequalities limits women’s abilities to reduce household poverty.
Pakistan’s agriculture sector contributes 18.9 per cent to GDP and employs 42.3pc of the labour force. It is estimated that over half the population lives in the rural areas and is directly dependent on agriculture. The latter, including livestock products, provides food security to millions. Pakistan is amongst the largest producers of wheat, cotton, sugarcane, rice, mangoes, dates and kinnow. Yet, it faces a huge food crisis because of a growing population and insufficient food productivity. Currently, Pakistan ranks 92nd out of 116 nations on the Global Hunger Index.
Gender-based inequalities affect farm production and result in a food crisis. Pakistani women’s contribution to producing crops and managing livestock cannot be ignored. But despite their significant role in providing subsistence to the people, there are huge gender gaps in land ownership, accessing inputs, extension and financial services. This is exacerbated by women’s low social status. Low literacy among rural women, lack of training and credit facilities, regressive cultural norms and early marriage are some factors hindering women’s economic empowerment, which ultimately affects national development.
The first step is to recognise women’s informal labour.
Studies prove that women’s empowerment is necessary for addressing world hunger as women are central to the four pillars of food security — availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability. Poverty and women’s low social status widen gender gaps and result in women’s disempowerment. Narrowing gender gaps and focusing on enhancing women’s role in agriculture can help address food insecurity challenges. However, rural Pakistani women’s work in agriculture does not have the expected results for many reasons. Farm women have limited literacy and are unaware of the latest developments and mechanisation. They do crop-related tasks manually. They also lack knowledge of properly using crop leftovers, by-products and managing or disposing of infected crop. Usually, crop waste is set on fire which results in smoke adversely affecting the air quality and thus people’s health. Women and children are particularly vulnerable.
The alarming food insecurity and hunger levels make women more vulnerable to food deprivation and access. Geographically, Sindh felt the effects deeply as natural disasters including floods, cyclones, storms and sea intrusion have compounded the crisis. The province has also faced extreme heatwaves intensified by climate change. Climate-related catastrophes have pushed people to extreme levels of poverty and undernourishment. This means that more committed efforts are required to improve agricultural productivity with a focus on rural areas where women and children do not have flexible access to safe and nutritious food required to meet their dietary needs.
The agricultural economy is dominated by informal and unorganised labour compared to other sectors such as industry. The primary step is to recognise women’s informal labour. Although the Sindh government has recently legislated the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act, 2019, it should be implemented in letter and spirit to ensure farm women’s economic and social security rights.
Provision of better and flexible financial services, withdrawing mobility restrictions, flexible access to markets, the introduction of technological and entrepreneurial skills and promotion of women’s associations in farm organisations can improve yields by 20pc to 30pc. It can also help meet SDGs pertaining to poverty, hunger, gender equality, economic growth and employment. Pakistan’s Vision 2025 — ‘energy, water and food security’ — envisages physical and economic access to sufficient food and guarantees food security through the supply chain — from production to consumption. Putting gender equality and women empowerment at the centre of strategies can ensure greater food security.
The writer is director of the Institute of Gender Studies, Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur.
Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2022