Valuing Women’s Work in Agriculture

A coffee farmer at work in Cauca, Colombia. (Neil Palmer // CIAT)

Globally, technological advancements have helped agriculture evolve to keep pace with an expanding human population, with more food being produced than ever before to meet world demand. But a less well-known trend has been the shift toward the “feminization” of agriculture, or the increased involvement of women in food production. Although this trend can empower women by providing a source of income and expertise, the dramatic shift in the agricultural workforce also has resulted in a shortage of labor and capital, and increases malnutrition and food insecurity in affected households.

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The feminization of agriculture became apparent in the latter half of the 20th century, as violent conflict, HIV/AIDS, urban migration, and other developments led to a decline in rural male populations. As men’s role in agriculture decreased, women took on more duties in agricultural production and its management. In Latin America, many women are now employed in large-scale agricultural processes, such as staffing packing plants and providing field labor.

In some regions of Africa, rural male populations are shrinking rapidly, leaving women to oversee food production. Between 1970 and 1990, Malawi’s rural male population declined by 21.8 percent, whereas the female population fell by only 5.4 percent. In Nepal, the 2011 census revealed that approximately 9 out of every 10 people who left the country were men. Changing gender composition in rural areas is challenging women to run agricultural operations and households with little male help.

Studies have revealed that, compared to male-run households, households run by females tend to be poorer, have smaller plots of land, and have less access to resources.

Yet women agriculturalists face additional obstacles. In many countries, the cultural norm is to deny women access to education from an early age, creating challenges to managing agricultural operations. Studies have revealed that, compared to male-run households, households run by females tend to be poorer, have smaller plots of land, and have less access to resources. Many women are now participating in food systems and markets that have traditionally been male-dominated, many of which depend on social capital and networks.

United Nations report on the feminization of agriculture in Latin America finds that this trend reinforces traditional gender roles, with permanent jobs reserved for men and temporary jobs available to women. Despite women’s increasing role in agriculture, their work continues to have a low social value, resulting in low wages and a lack of recognition. Social norms and a lack of policy attention to female roles create significant hurdles. In India, for example, women have poor access to land ownership and control over resources, and improved technology is often reserved for irrigated lands generally controlled by men.

In many African communities, there exists a socially determined ownership system, regardless of labor performance. Larger commodity operations, such as cattle, coffee, and tea, belong to men, while vegetable gardens and small livestock belong to women, despite the fact that women often provide more labor in both cases.

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Despite the increased female presence in agriculture, it is difficult to measure the full extent of both this involvement and the challenges that women face, as female participation is underrepresented in surveys and censuses. This leads to “gender blindness” among planners and policymakers, who often work under assumptions that do not reflect reality. In many developing countries, the men in power tend to focus on traditional male roles and male crops, largely ignoring the needs of women, resulting in a dearth of women in positions of power. Local organizations are often closed to females, either due to law or social customs, restricting access to knowledge, training, and resources.

It is imperative that policymakers at all levels of governance recognize the changing nature of agriculture, as well as the impacts that this shift is having on gender dynamics and equality. As women take on managerial roles in agricultural operations, or join men as migratory workers in order to find better wages and avoid landlessness (as in much of Latin America), policies must reflect this new reality.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recommends policies that “eliminate discrimination under the law, promote equal access to resources and opportunities, ensure that agricultural policies and programmes are gender-aware, and make women’s voices heard in decision-making at all levels.” Challenges exist in implementing such policies and in changing social norms to value the work of women—but such changes are necessary to ensure a secure future for all.

Alison Singer | Sustainable Prosperity | September 12, 2012

Homepage image: A groundnut farmer in Ghana's Upper West Region. (Neil Palmer // CIAT)

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