Women workers and their plight

Dhaka,  Wed,  23 August 2017
Published : 17 Jul 2017, 19:30:45

Women workers and their plight

Recognition of women's work in agriculture, with an eye on the prevailing disparity in wages and in accessing agricultural inputs, should be discussed in the national parliament threadbare and polices have to be drawn up to do the needful, writes Abdul Bayes
The Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy (ANH Academy) is a global research network in agriculture and food systems. Its purpose is to serve as a platform for learning and sharing knowledge and research for improving nutrition and health. It is also to build broader partnership to bring together researchers and users cutting across disciplines and sectors to tackle complex nutritional linkages among agriculture/food systems, nutrition, health and environment. One of its activities further is to hold an annual Academic Week with learning sessions and research conference.  The observations made in the following are based on the outcome of the research conference held in Kathmandu, Nepal on July 09-14.

An important component of the Scientific Symposium and Academic Week there comprised a dialogue on women workers in agriculture titled 'Improving Nutrition through Recognising, Protecting and Promoting the Rights and Well-being of Women Agricultural Workers in South Asian countries". Organised by Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) and aptly anchored and moderated by Rachel Lambert of the DFID (Department for International Development, UK), eminent women activists from the sub-continent, such as Khushi Kabir (Bangladesh), Nafisa Shah, MP (Pakistan) and Nitya Rao (India) raised pertinent issues regarding women's work in general and agriculture in particular. 

A session of the symposium devoted to a discussion on women agricultural workers. It seemed to be timely at least for three reasons. First, over time women are increasingly getting involved in agricultural activities in South Asian countries. Some of the women are driven to agriculture out of poverty and destitution, and some are there due to migration of male members from the households. Second, it would serve as a wake-up call for policymakers for a shift in their mindset pertaining to agriculture. And third, agricultural sector is supposed to be more equalising as an occupation for women in particular.

In a country like Nepal, for example, migration of male members tends to put the yolk on women's shoulder. A recent story in the Guardian 'Where the streets have no men: the Nepalese town where women hold sway' is quite revealing and reflects, to a great extent, the realities in other South Asian countries: 

"At first glance, Bhramarpura's dusty, sun-seared streets look like many others in southern Nepal. But there is a conspicuous difference. Nearly everyone making the wheels of this small town turn - selling groceries, carrying grain or pumping water - is female. There is hardly a young man in sight. …Years of migration, fuelled by hope of providing a better life for their families, have drained Bhramarpura of working-age fathers, brothers and sons. Practically every household has at least one male family member working overseas, leaving boys and elderly men as the few remaining males in a town run by women…In a male-dominated country where women are largely confined to household chores, or certain tasks in the fields, Bhramarpura is a notable exception, with women assuming duties usually reserved for men. They are the backbone of the community…"

However, the dialogue was kicked off by a key-note presentation from Nitya Rao on women agricultural workers in South Asia. Cotton picking by pregnant women in Pakistan generally fetches income for the family but at  huge health and nutritional costs fuelled by increased energy expenditure. It seems to be true in case of  brick-breaking or transplanting of paddy in Bangladesh where roughly one-fifths of rural households are women-headed. Women constitute roughly one-fifths of the total agricultural workers, and they are also engaged in agricultural management in the absence of husbands who have migrated within or outside the country. 

The degree and nature of participation of women in agriculture, however, varies across countries in the region. In some countries, women work in agricultural fields far away from households, such as cotton picking in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, women are mostly engaged in home-based agriculture, such as in livestock and poultry rearing or homestead vegetable gardening. Empirical evidences from Bangladesh tend to show that income of households with participation of women in agriculture grows by 10-15 per cent while it goes down by 20 per cent for households without women participation in agriculture. 

By and large, whether in fields or within the fence of homestead, feminisation of agricultural workforce is quite in evidence and households are growingly harping on income generated by women. If the non-priced services provided by women - such as child care or cooking - were taken into due consideration, women's share in total household income could possibly account for one-thirds to one-fifths. And this applies mostly to landless households.

But the comfort of increased income following from women's direct or indirect role in agriculture is cast with clouds. First, mostly men own the household income no matter who earns it. Empirics suggest that majority of women's incremental income is spent on education and nutrition of children as opposed to men's income; second, women tend to face a trade-off between work and child-care thus breeding a tension within households about their functions in a patriarchal society ; third, the total work load thus shouldered results in health hazards requiring more energy intake. For example, cotton pickers in Pakistan are reported to be faced with low BMI (Body mass index, i.e., a measure of body fat based on height and weight) and high stunting of children. Fourthly, under different pretexts, women are paid only 50-60 per cent of men's wage, thus, widening further the existing disparity between male and female wage rates. Finally, the extra burden from agricultural front is not compensated for by a decrease in household activities.  

The policy prescriptions that followed from the deliberations in dialogue provide important insights: First, there needs to be a change in social norms and practices historically hindering women's space in agricultural activities in the fields or markets. Governments, NGOs and other civil society organisations should work hand in hand to expand the sauce.  Second, recognition of women's work in agriculture, with an eye on the prevailing disparity in wages and in accessing agricultural inputs, should be discussed in the national parliament threadbare and polices drawn thereupon. Second, agriculture needs to be gender-sensitive with policies growingly tilted towards creating women agricultural entrepreneurship. And finally, there is a need for social recognition and protection for women involved in agricultural works. By and large, past agricultural policies hitherto orchestrated in a regime of predominantly male workers and managers should take into due cognisance the change of the pilot in agricultural cockpit. The sooner we realise the ramifications of the emerging challenges, the better it is.

The writer is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnanagr University. 


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