Invisible Role of Women in Agriculture

Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta and Sunidhi Agarwal

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

“Shift in economic activity have been observed as more women engaging in the manufacturing and service sectors. This shift is evident in the World Development Indicators by the World Bank which shows the percentage of male and female employment between 2000 and 2018 both have declined in agricultural sector whereas in the services and industry sector it has increased.”, said Prof Surabhi Mittal in a webinar organized 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.  This shift is termed as development path and is a characteristic of all the countries across the globe.

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Surabhi Mittal_Gender Gaps in Agriculture Sector- Issues, Challenges, and the Way Forward

The labour market is challenged with wage gap which is commonly found in all the 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 non-farm sector.

While addressing the myths in the agriculture sector, Prof Mittal says “there is a myth that women don’t have major role in agriculture except for livestock”. While refuting this, she quoted that agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India of which 33% comprises of the agriculture labor 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 have showed that growing rural – urban migration by men for jobs has ‘feminised’ the agriculture increasing the women in the agricultural labour market. 60-80% of the total food production is being done by rural women. The myth does not recognise the women’s contribution to agriculture.

While explaining her research study on the role of women in wheat production in three states, which are the major producers of wheat in India, Prof Mittal observed that in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh both the genders devote almost equal hours of the day to produce wheat. Though in Bihar, females devote more hours per day than men. The females are involved in economic activities of cropping system but their role is negligible in household decision making and participation, irrespective of gender of head of 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 the markets, which cause a major gender gap in incomes and the agriculture productivity of women. This stems to 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 mind-set is additional challenge for women which creates a paradoxical cycle. Barring women in decision making process denies them technical know-how and knowledge which further excludes them from 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 they put it into practice. They are keen to get information and swift to apply. Bridging the information gap among the females will empower women-headed households which will further help women to put the information into practice. Consequently, their role in decision-making increase.

Technology is gender neutral is another myth as new technologies may increase yield and thus incomes, consequently, impacting women’s livelihoods. Use of technology is perceived differently by men and women. Women, having small land holdings, deprived of technical know-how and do not have enough income to hire labor to operate machines would always find difficult to adapt to modern technologies.

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

National agricultural data sources does not provide information which can help us to understand the extent of gender gap, thus indicating data challenge in agriculture. Agriculture lacks 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 decision-making process within agriculture. This would 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 will be

  • 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 by12-17%

She further says one should recognise women as equal and an important aspect of agricultural farmer community. This behavioural change will reduce 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 feminisation of agriculture, where female workforce participation rate is high is juxtaposed with the 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 for shifting 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 macro level impedes decision-making and policymaking.

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director at IMPRI, said how unfortunate, underestimated and under recognized is the role of women in agriculture which is deeply entrenched in the systemic patriarchy of our country. She stated that the 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 lingo 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 labor economists ignore the productive asset rights instead focus more on workforce participation rate. Thus, there is a need for a paradigm shift in labor economics. She emphasised on the urgency of four factors:

  • Access doesn’t necessitates the ownership and control rights, thus, accessibility should be used along with the latter.
  • Women should not only have management rights but also 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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