Women face an unfair burden in farm work

opinion May 17, 2018 01:00

By Kantilata Thapa
The Kathmandu Post

Civilisation began with agriculture. When our nomadic ancestors began to settle and grow their own food, human society changed. Not only did villages, towns and cities begin to flourish, but knowledge, arts and the technological sciences also grew.

No matter how sophisticated human civilisation becomes, one cannot ignore the importance of agriculture. In the late 1980s, it was the livelihood for more than 90 per cent of Nepal’s population, although only 20 per cent of the total land area was cultivable, which accounted about 60 per cent of the GDP.

Agriculture seems to be more dependent on the female population of the world. In recent times, more and more women have been involved in agriculture – they comprise 43 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force, and up to 70 per cent in some countries.

In Nepal, female involvement had increased from 36 per cent in 1981 to 45 per cent in 1991, and by 2017 it had reached over 50 per cent. In Africa, 80 per cent of the agricultural production comes from small farmers, who are mostly rural women. This shows that, women comprise the largest percentage of the workforce in the agricultural sector, but do not have access and control over land and productive resources.

Women are the backbone of rural and national economies. Yet they suffer from the highest illiteracy rates and are the most visible face of poverty.

Rural women have to walk long distances to carry water and fetch firewood, which is harmful to their health, causing high rates of infant and maternal mortality and reversing progress in education, endangering food sovereignty, as well as food security and nutrition. They participate in all aspects of life, including paid employment, trade, marketing as well as caring for family members. Consequently, they face multiple constraints that limit their productivity.

Compared to men, women tend to own less land, have limited ability to hire labour, and have impeded access to credit and training services. One of the major reasons behind drudgery for women is the mass exodus of young, energetic men to foreign countries. This forced the women in the family to shoulder all responsibilities of the household.

However, on the brighter side, studies show that women are more likely than men to reinvest back into their household to support the family’s nutritional needs, healthcare and school fees and become self-dependent.

Women face barriers that entangle them in a low productivity trap. These encompass societal norms, the gender division of labour, resource constraints (access to and use of land), no or low use of inputs (for example, new agricultural machinery), and limited access to climate services and agro-advisories.

As climate change is becoming a reality, these barriers will further constrain women’s ability to adapt, and the gender gap in agriculture will continue to widen.

Gender-responsive climate-smart agricultural practices and technologies should be provided to close the gender gap as well as bring women into the forefront in the fight against climate change.

Women should be trained and should be allowed to share their difficulties and ideas. Change of work and promotions in work-stages must be allowed, and women should be assured that they are par with men in work and payment.

 Gender-friendly farm equipment is most important in reducing drudgery for farm women, particularly the hand held small equipment and tools must be developed, popularised and made available at reasonable cost to the women so that it can help reduce their drudgery.

The cultural background of most of our fisher folk, farmers and pastoralists have prohibited women from doing certain activities or playing different roles. Some of these roles need to change. Drudgery, which means hard, monotonous, time-consuming work using traditional tools with inappropriate working posture in the field, might be suppressed to some extent through the use of technology. But changing the mind-set is imperative to reduce drudgery for women.

KANTILATA THAPA is Nepal’s regional exchange coordinator at the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science