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Feminisation of global farming

March 08, 2013

ACROSS the developing world, millions of people are migrating from villages to cities in search of work. Migrants are mostly men. As a result, women are increasingly on the front lines of the fight to sustain families in villages.

But all-encompassing discrimination, gender stereotypes and women’s low social standing have frustrated these women’s rise out of poverty and hunger. Discrimination denies small-scale women farmers the same access men have to fertiliser, seeds, credit, membership in cooperatives and technical assistance. That deters potential productivity gains. But the biggest barriers don’t even have to do with farming — and yet they have a huge impact on food security.

As sole or principal caregivers, women and girls often face a heavy burden of unremunerated household chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, collecting firewood and caring for the very young and the elderly.

These uncompensated activities are equivalent to as much as 55 per cent of the gross domestic product in Pakistan, India and Tanzania. But they result in lost opportunities for women, who don’t have the time to attend classes, travel to markets to sell produce or do other activities to improve their economic prospects.

To be sure, some female-headed farm households get remittances from absent men, but that is often not enough to compensate for the economic pressures they face. And we know that when women get more education and improve their social and economic standing, household spending on nutrition increases, child health outcomes improve and small farms become more productive.

Many governments have recognised the causes of the poverty trap but have not done enough to remove the obstacles facing women.

For example, several Asian countries have introduced stipends to keep girls in school, but many schools lack adequate sanitation facilities; there is a paucity of women teachers, which discourages socially conservative parents who do not want their daughters to be taught by men; and not enough is done to prevent farmers from pulling their children — girls first, usually — out of school to till the fields. I have seen many girls from eight to15 years of age in the field in rural areas of Sindh.

The government must give a rights-based approach focused on removing legal discrimination and on improving public services — childcare, water supplies, sanitation and energy sources — to reduce the burden on women who farm. But such an approach must also systematically challenge the traditional gender roles that burden women with household chores in the first place.

The Benazir Income Support Programme has done good work only on cash transfer facility for women, but they have not been trained or empowered for proper use of that money. However, recognising the burden that feminisation of global farming places on women requires us to overturn longstanding gender norms that have kept women down even as they feed more and more of the world. The most effective strategies to empower women who tend farm and family — and to alleviate hunger in the process — are to remove the obstacles that hinder them from taking charge of their lives.