On the occasion of the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women taking place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from Monday, 27 February to Friday, 9 March 2012, AFA is re-posting this article that first appeared in the special issue of World Rural Forum’s New Earth in celebration of World Rural Women’s Day on October 15, 2010.
Our world is now reeling from four interrelated crises – food, fuel/energy, financial and climate change. The hardest hit by these crises are the small scale women and men farmers, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples, as they comprise the majority of the world’s most poor and vulnerable. These global problems brought opportunities to re-examine agriculture. Now, after three decades of neglect, agriculture is back in the international agenda. Its role in poverty reduction and sustainable development is again being harped. But it is now agriculture with a much different system and focus , or “away from business as usual” . Respected rural development think tanks and intergovernmental organizations have realized that it is sustainable, integrated, diversified agriculture done by small scale farmers, with a particular focus on women, that is a key measure for longer lasting rural development.
The Many Roles Women Farmers Play
Why should there be a special focus on women in agriculture ? First of all, women comprise around 50% of the farming population in developing countries, since farming is usually a family farm activity, consisting of the husband, the wife and the children. Small scale family farms produce as much as 70% of the foods consumed locally.
Secondly, women do farming too. Generally, when reference is made to ‘farmers’ we say ‘he’. But farming is done not only by men, it is also done by women. In fact, in many developing countries, as much as 50-90% of the work in the farms is done by women. Indeed, in rice farming for example, only plowing is not usually done by women.
Thirdly, women ensure there is food to eat on the table. Before they sleep, they think of what the family will eat the following day, where they will get the money to buy the food or what plant will they harvest . It is their burden, and their task, to perform “some magic” whenever their crops fails, whenever the money is not enough. It is also their burden to fetch water , sometimes from far distances, for cleaning and drinking purposes.
Fourth, women are primarily care givers. When a family member gets sick, it is the mother who will drop other works to pay attention to the sick. They take care of the health and nutrition of their families and communities.
Fifth, women are the teachers. In most families, also in a farming family, it is the mother who mainly helps the children in their schoolwork, who attends the school meetings , and who impart family values and traditions.
And lastly, women farmers are not “plain housewives who just wait for their husbands to give them the money”. Many women are the ones who market the family’s harvests of crops and fish. Many have engaged in various income-generating activities to augment the incomes of the family.
Barriers and Constraints Women Farmers Face
While women farmers perform so many roles as farmers, wives, and mothers, their work is often undervalued, many times unpaid, some even unrecognized , because of persisting stereotypes about the roles of men and women. Ordinarily, women farmers, when asked during statistical surveys about their occupation, will just say “ I have no work, I am just a plain housewife”. Why? Because in many small family farms, women labor is unpaid family labor. When they are paid, they are paid less than the men . For example, in the Philippines, women farmers who do rice weeding and rice planting earns less than the men farmers, even if they worked the same number of hours.
This inadequate recognition about women’s contributions to agriculture had led to inequalities between men and women farmers in terms of access and control over productive resources, services, and facilities as well as in decision-making. In many developing countries, women still cannot own a very basic asset : land. Also, they have poor access to agriculture training and extension. This is mainly because these services have targeted men farmers . Many of the modern agricultural technologies are not friendly or appropriate to women but to men. Agricultural research and development efforts are still inadequate in easing the burdens of women farmers in their household work such as cooking, fetching water, and gathering firewood. With regards to decision-making, women are also poorly represented in leadership positions at all levels of government . Even in the farmers’ organizations where membership is composed of men and women, there are few women leaders .
Women Farmers as Solution Providers
If we are to reduce hunger and poverty in this world, we have to recognize that women farmers have the potential and the solution to bring their families out of poverty; and thus women farmers should be at the forefront of agriculture. If women earn, they spend the money on the family’s basics : food , health and children’s education . There is by now a mass of rigorous research that has demonstrated the gains that can be achieved in terms of productivity and incomes, by focusing development efforts in empowering women and their organizations .
What have been some initiatives of women farmers and their organizations to improve the conditions of their families and communities ? Women members of PAKISAMA, a mixed farmer organization in the Philippines, implemented successful projects on primary health care, established herbal gardens , implemented FAITH (Food Always in the Home ) and BIG (Bio-Intensive Gardening) projects. They are organized as well at the national level, and one of their successful advocacies was a government policy allowing the name of the wife to be placed along the name of the husband in the land titles awarded to the couple under the government’s agrarian reform program. Women members of Farmer and Nature Net, a mixed farmer organization in Cambodia, have trained their members in household management, established community based savings and credit schemes and cooperative stores, and cooperative marketing of produce. The Womens’ Advanced Farmers’ Federation , in South Korea, is advocating to their government for the enactment of an appropriate climate change policy, for systems of early weather forecasting , early warning systems as well as for the development of green growth technology. Women farmers in developing countries continue to keep and breed quality seeds for their farms.
The work of empowerment for women will be a long and tedious journey. But it always starts with helping women reflect on their situation, and then inspiring them by making them realize about their human dignity , their rights, and what other women in similar conditions do . Organizing , capacity building and leadership formation and training will be key programs as well. Also, as farming in many developing countries is a family endeavor, the one important thing also that can greatly help women farmers is the support that they will get from their husbands and male leaders /members of their organizations. In households where both the man and the woman have been sensitized to the dynamics of gender and believe in equal rights and opportunities, the full potentials of a woman farmer are harnessed to the fullest.
As Nancy Smith, in her poem, For Every Woman said, “For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier”.
by Ma. Estrella A. Penunia