Feminisation of agriculture in South Asia: Need to close the gender gap

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is a vehement supporter of granting land access to women and argues that economic empowerment is a critical step to realise the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Anubha Mishra Feb 03, 2024
Feminisation of Agriculture in South Asia

The agriculture sector has the largest share of women's employment in South Asia at 57 percent. The South Asian region—comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives—has witnessed impressive economic growth in the past few decades. The proportion ranges from 28 percent in Sri Lanka to a far higher 74 percent in Nepal; Maldives is at 2 percent and is the exception.

The Government of India in the Economic Survey (2017-2018) stated that the agricultural sector in India is undergoing feminisation. In the face of shrinking employment opportunities in agriculture, men diversified into the rural non-farm sector, and male out-migration emerged as a major livelihood strategy. However, this has not translated to rights over agricultural property or in decision-making. With no viable alternative livelihood opportunities, they are forced to take on economic activities that are left behind by men. The authors describe the process of feminisation as “feminisation out of compulsion” or “feminisation of agrarian distress”. Further, the authors of Economic Survey argue that the concentration of women in agriculture labour in India could also be reflective of what is described as the ‘feminisation of poverty”. 

In India, the proportion of migrant population is 29.9 percent. The proportion of male out-migrants is estimated at 8 percent. Since women did not feature predominantly in either of these trends, most rural women are still engaged in agriculture, mostly as labourers and cultivators. In Nepal, one in every four households has at least one member who has out-migrated, and 88 percent of this outmigration was by male members of the household.

Reforms in agriculture required

Several historical accounts bring forth evidence of women being independently involved in agriculture when the population mostly consisted of hunters and gatherers. With the increase in population, the cultural norms also changed and as food scarcity became more rampant, gradually the burden of growing food fell upon the male shoulders due to the kind of physically straining work that agriculture used to be and women limited to duties that were considered ‘womanly’ and ‘homely’.  Women and girls in South Asia lag behind their counterparts across the globe in other development indicators. For example, they spend more time on unpaid care and domestic work compared to the men and boys: in Pakistan, girls and women spend 11 times more hours in domestic chores—such as fetching water and fuel—than the males in their families. The consequence of this was that it bereft women with zero economic independence on their own and the social conditioning of man being a ‘provider’ raised its ugly head. The above practice sometimes became a norm worldwide and paved the way for the most dreaded aspect of society; gender inequality. And from here; the inequality got fostered in other spheres as well.

As per the stats, that are available on different government websites, the women percentage in the agriculture sector is close to 85 per cent. Women make up about 33 per cent of cultivators and about 48 per cent of agricultural labourers. And if we try to dig deeper, the kinds of crop plantations like tea, cotton, oil etc. that these women engage in, are labor-intensive and highly unskilled. Yes, they do seem like a dominating force in fields but the reality is far from the truth and these women have always enjoyed a disadvantageous position in terms of land rights, wages, representation in decision-making, familial health and if we are still talking about their ‘Empowerment’ in the 21st century; their scuffle for affordable quality education can be well thought of.  These women continue to wait for development to reach their doorsteps and affect their lives in a significant way. Government institutions engaged in policymaking need to bring some long-anticipated institutional and structural reforms in this direction. 

Merely naming a day against these women farmers (not labourers) is not going to ease their plight in any manner.   Therefore, government schemes should focus more on reforms like enhanced access to land, water and credit facilities to these women coupled with other institutional facilitations. Hence, these reforms become critical and should involve adequate women representation.

 Most agricultural development programmes are linked to asset ownership, as the very definition of a farmer is linked to the possession of a land title. Since women do not own land, they are not officially recognised as farmers. Strong gender and social norms govern the intra-household distribution of income and other material benefits in rural South Asia.   Women across Asia own less land than men, with South Asia reporting the highest gender gap; men also own larger holdings. Male operational holdings in Bangladesh and Pakistan are double the size of those of women. Female land ownership is 2 percent in Pakistan, 9.7 percent in Sri Lanka, 10 percent in Bangladesh, and 13.5 percent in India. Even among women who do own land, they do not always have control over such land. Bhutan is the only country in South Asia where more women own land: 70 percent of farmland is owned by women. This is attributed to matrilineal inheritance practices and a strong legal environment. 

Analysts have found various obstacles that limit women’s rights over land in South Asia, and the primary ones relate to patriarchal social norms. In many South Asian countries, families prefer sons who are expected to be the future caretakers of elderly parents; this sits at the core of why women’s land rights are limited. The fact that abuse against women is somehow linked to land ownership rights seems very shocking and alarming to read. Women, both in rural and urban India rarely enjoy land ownership and the cases of physical and verbal abuse have been recorded highest amongst those who didn’t hold ownership of any land(ancestral or marital) in their name. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is a vehement supporter of granting land access to women and argues that economic empowerment is a critical step to realise the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Needed more gender-sensitive policies

Gender mainstreaming of agricultural development requires including women’s voices and incorporating women’s concerns throughout the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation stages of agricultural policies and interventions. For eg. the Mizo tribe of Mizoram is one of the only seven sister states in India which observes a large number of participants from its women farmers in the rugged terrain of this hill state.  Closing the gender gap in agriculture would require designing and implementing gender-sensitive policies. In South Asia, most of the policies are gender-blind and do not account for the unequal power relations between men and women that are dictated by tradition and social norms.

To begin with, imparting legal literacy to women, improving women’s educational attainment, and sensitising the community on the developmental benefits of women’s land ownership can help modify restrictive gender and social norms. Furthermore, Authorities need to review legislations related to land and the associated legislations dealing with inheritance, marriage, and property to eliminate loopholes for gender discrimination.

Thus, closing the gender gap and improving the quality of participation of women in agriculture are potential pathways to addressing issues of hunger, food insecurity, and poor nutritional outcomes in South Asia. Globally, institutions have started to believe that women farmers’ participation is vital not just for yield but is also significant in preserving local agro-biodiversity.

 (The writer, a researcher-writer, is a political science graduate from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India. Views are personal. She can be contacted at anubham95@gmail.com)

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