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When 85% Of Rural Women Work On Farms, Why Do We Think Of Farmers As Just Men?

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Written by: Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta and Sunidhi Agarwal, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

Female labour force participation rate across India has been declining from 1990 to 2019. In the last decade, it has declined from 31% to 25% from 2005 to 2010 and then further down to 20% in 2019. This has contributed to employment loss for women.

In a webinar organised by Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on Gender Gaps in Agriculture Sector- Issues, Challenges, and the Way Forward, Prof Surabhi Mittal said:

“Shift in economic activity has been observed as more women engage in the manufacturing and service sectors. This shift is evident in the World Development Indicators by the World Bank, which shows that the percentage of male and female employment between 2000 and 2018 have declined in the agricultural sector, whereas in the services and industry sector, it has increased.”

This shift is termed as development path and is characteristic of all the countries across the globe.

The labour market is challenged with the issue of wage gap, which is commonly found in all spheres of economic activities ranging from agriculture to non-agriculture. Women are paid less than their counterparts for the same amount of work. Prof Mittal highlighted that this gap is much wider in the non-farm sector.

While addressing the myths in the agriculture sector, Prof Mittal said, “There is a myth that women don’t have a major role in agriculture, except for livestock.” While refuting this, she quoted that the agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India of which 33% comprises the agriculture labour force and 48% of the self-employed farmers. In India, 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, but they have only limited access to resources, and hence own only 13% of the land.

The Economic Survey of 2017-18 has shown that the growing rural-urban migration of men for jobs has ‘feminised’ the agriculture, further increasing the role of women in the agricultural labour market. Around 60-80% of the total food production is being done by rural women. The myth does not recognise women’s contribution to agriculture.

While explaining her research study on the role of women in wheat production in the three biggest wheat producer states, Prof Mittal observed that in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, both the genders devote almost equal hours of the day to produce wheat. In Bihar, however, females devote more hours per day than men. Females of a household are involved in economic activities of cropping system, but their role is negligible in household decision-making and participation, irrespective of the gender of the head of the household. This exclusion will have a bleak outcome.

Women in agriculture lack in three major areas – including technical know-how; the context of cropping and access to markets, which cause a major gender gap in incomes; and the agriculture productivity of women. This stems from another myth: since women are excluded from decision-making, thus, they do not require any technical information to work efficiently.

Information gap in terms of literacy, limited access to assets, and cultural barriers and traditional mindset is an additional challenge for women. This creates a paradoxical cycle. Excluding women from decision-making denies them the technical know-how and knowledge, which excludes them from further decision-making.

While narrating her field experience conducted in 2012-15, Prof Mittal discovered that women not only listen to the agriculture information delivered to them over mobile phones, but also put them into practice. They are keen to learn new information and swift to apply it. Bridging the information gap among the females will empower women-headed households. This will further help women to put the information into practice. Consequently, their role in decision-making increases.

There is yet another myth in the agriculture sector: technology is gender-neutral. New technologies may increase yield and thus incomes, consequently, impacting women’s livelihoods. However, the use of technology is perceived differently by men and women. Women, having small landholdings and deprived of technical know-how, do not have enough income to hire labour to operate machines. Thus, they would always find it difficult to adapt to modern technologies.

Technology has created a bias where women are largely involved in manual work, indicating that mechanisation will land women more jobs that are towards drudgery. It is true that Labour-Saving Technologies (LSTs) will reduce the burden of work, but the gender lens of these technologies is important.

National agricultural data sources do not provide information that can help us understand the extent of the gender gap, thus indicating a data challenge in agriculture. Agriculture lacks the data of activity-wise time use data. The data showing access to food in terms of availability and affordability disaggregated by sex does not exist which is inefficacious in identifying gender gaps.

Prof Mittal advised to empower women with better ownership of resources, tools, technologies, spreading information to create awareness, and involvement in the decision-making process within agriculture. This will generate significant gains for the agricultural sector and society. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men then there would be:

two women farmers on agriculture fields

  • increase in the yields on their farms by 20-30%.
  • rise in the total agricultural output in the developing countries by 2.5-4%.
  • reduction in the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17%.

She further said that one should recognise women as equal and an important aspect of the agricultural farmer community. This behavioural change will reduce the gender gap in agriculture.

Dr Amrita Datta, Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Hyderabad, highlighted the decline in the number of people reporting agriculture as their primary occupation in the last decade. This shows feminisation of agriculture as well as agriculturisation of the female workforce because of lack of work in rural areas.

The picture of the feminisation of agriculture, where the female workforce participation rate is high, is juxtaposed with a steep decline in the female labour force. The feminisation of agriculture is more related to poverty and distress in agriculture. Thus, there is a need to shift women away from agriculture in a gender-equal manner.

Ms Pankhuri Dutt, Public Policy Consultant at NITI Aayog, begins by saying that there’s a need to look at the other 80% of the women who are not engaged in agriculture and the reasons thereof. Unavailability of data at the macro level impedes decision-making and policymaking.

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director at the IMPRI, said how unfortunate, underestimated and under-recognised the role of women in agriculture is. which is deeply entrenched in the systemic patriarchy of our country. She stated that mainstreaming of the advancement of women and gender in the curriculum of agricultural education at college and university level is lagging. It is important to ensure that the lingo used is gender-neutral. The best forward to resolve any challenge is to have more and more education to counter the evils in society.

The lecture was followed by the chair of the session, Prof Govind Kelkar, who opined that labour economists ignore the productive asset rights, and instead focus more on the workforce participation rate. Thus, there is a need for a paradigm shift in labour economics. She emphasised the urgency of four factors:

  • Access doesn’t necessitate ownership and control rights. Thus, accessibility should be used along with the latter.
  • Women should not only have management rights, but also have control over the factors and means of production.
  • While one analyses the work participation rate, one should also take into account the unpaid and unrecognised work of both urban and rural women.
  • A change in social norms, patriarchal institutions and masculine attitudes is needed to break the stereotype that only men can perform and take decisions in agriculture.
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