For agriculture to be sustainable, it is vital to tackle gender inequality. High levels of inequality make it difficult to increase productivity and reduce poverty and hunger. And countries with gender disparity in income tend to have lower rates of land productivity and more heightened food insecurity.
The inequities hinder the progress of many countries in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2). Which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition while promoting sustainable agriculture” by 2030.
Across multiple dimensions, gender inequality undermines progress toward sustainable agricultural development. In developing countries, nearly half of the labor force is female, and this workforce has been traditionally large in number.
For example, over 60% of women working in the agricultural sector are in Africa, south of the Sahara. Despite this, women in agriculture face various obstacles that their male counterparts do not, including the lack of access to training, equipment, and new technology.
Most farming populations, particularly women, live in highly unequal countries. Economic resources, capacity, and knowledge are in short supply to invest in appropriate agricultural technologies and implement improved agricultural practices. Due to this disparity in access, women farmers face an increasing knowledge gap.
In around 90 countries, more than 400 million women work in agriculture even though they lack equal rights in land ownership. These women work in non-mechanized occupations such as sowing, winnowing, harvesting, and other labor-intensive activities like rice transplanting.
In India, women are responsible for more than 80 percent of the farm work. However, in addition to their labor, they also own only 13 percent of the land. As per recent statistics from the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER, 2018), women comprise more than 42 percent of the agricultural labor force but own less than 2 percent of farmland.
The aspect of recognition facing women in agriculture affects their ability to participate in agricultural production. In the absence of land rights, women agrarian workers, farm widows, and tenant farmers are left bereft of the rights and entitlements typically available to farmers.
The central issue lies in the official lack of recognition of female agricultural workers. The outcome is exclusion from rights and entitlements, such as institutional credit, pension, and irrigation sources. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS, 2018) says, 83 percent of agricultural land in the country belongs to male members of the family. And fewer than 2 percent to female members.
According to a literature review, increasing women’s land rights contributes to poverty reduction. Land rights may also be considered a key factor in rural households seeking economic migration. A recently released report from FAO looked at the effects of land rights on food security and sustainable agriculture in Niger.
Women farmers, particularly smallholders, lack access to credit markets, making them less likely to acquire labor-saving and creative inputs. This may hinder their participation in outgrower schemes. However, some lenders facilitate access to credit. They also lack access to extension services, hindering their ability to benefit from innovations.
Women’s mothering a child is also seen as a discredit to farming. If a woman has a small child, she is not given employment as it is felt that the child is a hindrance. Sometimes women who are genetically malnourished are seen as a disadvantage in terms of getting hired as farm labourers as they are understood as not having the same stamina as men.
Wage inequality is a whole separate debate. In most of the states in India, women are still paid less than men.
CNI SBSS talked to a few women farmers from Jharkhand, West Bengal project areas. Some of the insights are as follows:
In Jharkhand, a small woman farmer has to go through various production risks. Farming is rain-fed therefore the input cost is much higher. For availing facilities, they have to spend money but most of the time they lack cash. For example, if there is timely rain then even if there is more work they can go at a slow pace and furnish the task on time but if it comes haphazardly then they don’t have any other choice but to spend money to hire labor and irrigation facilities. Moreover, many times there are fragmented lands that require more hands to work. And at least 1-2 female members at home, one mother-in-law and another daughter-in-law. Sometimes even both are not sufficient to complete a farming activity as we they have to take care of the home and children as well.
In West Bengal women shared that they do not have work throughout the year as they are unable to / not allowed doing all the work that is being done in the field. They end up working more hours in the field than men doing the same work. The reason one of them shared was “As we do not take tea and cigarette breaks. We need to work along with the men in the field as well make sure that the work is done in the home as well as the kids are taken care of and the in-laws’ needs are met.”
Other challenges few women face are cultural restrictions that they cannot put their hands on the plow. In terms of capacity building, women shared that sometimes whenever there is a training, only the men attend as there is no facility to incorporate women. Also, women are not encouraged to take training in the repair and maintenance of mechanical equipment.
Women farmers in Jharkhand and West Bengal are mostly involved in weeding, hoeing, or putting fertilizer in the field, cleaning the land of debris, sowing the seeds and saplings, watering the plants, and are also responsible to sell the vegetables. Being asked about their experience, they shared that they do enjoy these activities. During the rainy season, they help each other by providing their days to others’ fields (pachha system in the tribal community) so that plantation can be done on everybody’s land together. During this time, they sing, and at the end of work, they apply mud on each other’s faces. This shows the celebration of the completion of work.
In terms of the use of machinery for farming, the women farmers from Jharkhand, West Bengal shared that usually heavy equipment like tractors, threshing paddy machine, and water irrigation machines is operated by men only. The tools/equipment available for different farming operations are earlier designed for men workers keeping in mind male dominancy in the Indian agriculture environment and the same was given to women despite their suitability to work. However, women face different technological difficulties in operating these tools which can cause occupational health problems and ultimately reduce work efficiency. Most of the activity where women are involved includes sowing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and winnowing which are very drudgery prone. The traditional tools used by women worker involves operating in bending or squatting posture which causes drudgery and leads to serious health issue such as back pain, and knee pain and sometimes also causes injury to women operating it. Therefore, there is a need to introduce drudgery reduction tools for women in rural areas.
Marketing products is another challenge women face in their daily lives. In Jharkhand, women face issues in selling forest produce collected by them in the market. As their collection quantity is less, there are more vendors in the market and they have money to purchase large amounts. In West Bengal, women shared that they are unable to bargain well for their produce at a lower rate compared to the men. Also, there are no toilet facilities in the market for women as a result they sell vegetables at low rates so that they can return quickly home. This was interesting to note. In West Bengal women shared that sometimes women who can’t cycle need to walk long distances to sell vegetables on their head, which sometimes affect their health- make them dizzy, make them prone to headaches and nausea, especially during summers. One of the women farmers very bluntly said that “We are small farmers so our production is less and the prices slightly more than the big farmer who comes to the market with more vegetables and therefore charges a bit less. They do not give a fair deal to women in case of pricing and often make us sell as fewer rates and they feel we are weak and do not know anything.”
Social development initiatives can improve women’s labor burden. But their needs are rarely considered by investors, leading to unpaid work. Investments that increase access to labor-saving technologies can reduce women’s labor burden in contract farming. However, women waged-workers face long working hours in agro-processing and plantation agriculture. Women can increase their household incomes as foreign investments increase income. But the conversion of subsistence crops to export crops can create new food security risks.
Investment projects have largely reproduced gender divisions of labor that place women in insecure, temporary employment. Contract farming schemes have the potential to increase women’s income, but women are largely excluded from these programs.
Agricultural export operations can be an opportunity to create new paid employment avenues, but employment conditions such as remunerations, are often poor. Crowding women into the field or packing housework can raise the possibility of sexual harassment and physical pain. However, compliance with labor standards and certifications has improved working conditions, including safety and health conditions.
The growth of women’s earning power through investment projects has sometimes helped adjust the cultural constraints on women’s decision-making power. Large-scale investment projects have a poor history of including women’s voices in consultations and negotiations, relying on male elites to provide advice. Yet investment projects rarely increase women’s representation in producer cooperatives and worker groups or internal decision-making and dispute-resolution processes.
Monitors such as the project-level Women’s Empowerment in Agricultural Index (pro-WEAI) from IFPRI enable countries to document and adjust their policies on livelihood activities and the sale and use of outputs, the purpose of income, and borrowing from financial institutions.
The benefits of such investments will need to be delivered in a gender-sensitive and pro-poor manner to reach the groups that need them the most. This will further contribute to better, more sustainable agriculture and, ultimately, to a more beautiful landscape for all.
Our focus at CNI SBSS is on implementation and practice. Even the best principles must be accompanied by capacity-development activities to ensure compliance. At the same time, they must also be able to adapt during on-the-ground engagement if unintended consequences occur.
In our gender-equity approach, we associate and believe that the inclusion of gender equality is an essential part of the “social contract” with foreign investment in agriculture. In the same way, accept community participation and recognition of existing land rights as the key principles for fair and equitable investment.
We involve women in the development and implementation of investment philosophies; From the inception, RIFs should work with women as key stakeholders in the investment outcome and include them in efforts to implement and monitor the impact at every stage; These projects should be seen as being implemented with, as well as for, women.
To mitigate any unintended negative consequences and implementation strategies, we work with local women and researchers familiar with the cultural context regarding gender norms.