The invisible face of agriculture

Though women are involved in economic activities of the cropping system but their role is negligible in household decision making and participation (Image: PxHere)
Though women are involved in economic activities of the cropping system but their role is negligible in household decision making and participation (Image: PxHere)

“Female labour participation has been declining across India from 1990 to 2019. 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. A shift in economic activity has been observed as more women were engaged in the manufacturing and service sectors. This shift is evident in the World Bank’s World Development Indicators which indicates that the percentage of male and female employment between 2000 and 2018 has declined in the agriculture sector while rising in the services and industrial sector,” says Prof Surabhi Mittal.

Mittal was speaking at a webinar on ‘Gender gaps in agriculture sector: Issues, challenges and the way forward’ organised by Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI). This shift is termed as a development path and is a characteristic of all the countries across the globe.

The labour market is faced with a wage gap 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. Mittal highlighted that this gap is much wider in the non-farm sector.

While addressing the myths in the agriculture sector, Mittal says “there is a myth that women don’t have a major role in agriculture, except in rearing livestock. 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 own only 13% of the land.

The Economic Survey of 2017-18 shows that the growing rural-urban migration by men for jobs has led to the ‘feminisation’ of agriculture increasing the number of women in the agricultural labour market. 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 three states, which are the major producers of wheat in India, Mittal observed that in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, both the genders devote almost equal hours of the day to produce wheat. In Bihar, women devote more hours per day than men.

The women are involved in economic activities of the cropping system but their role is negligible in household decision making and participation, irrespective of the gender of the head of household.

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

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

While narrating her field experience from 2012-15, Mittal noted 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 are swift to apply them in practice. Bridging the information gap between men and women will empower women-headed households, which will help women further to put the information into practice. Consequently, their role in decision-making increases.

Another myth is that technology is gender-neutral. The use of technology is perceived differently by men and women. Women, having small landholdings, deprived of technical know-how, and without enough income to hire labour to operate machines would always find it difficult to adapt to modern technologies.

Technology has created a bias where women are largely involved in manual works. So, mechanisation will land women more jobs that entail drudgery. Labour Saving Technologies (LST’s) will indeed reduce the burden of work, but the gender lens of these technologies is important. New technologies may increase yield and thus incomes, consequently, impacting women’s livelihoods.

National agricultural data sources do not provide information that can help us to understand the extent of the gender gap, thus indicating a data challenge in agriculture. Agriculture lacks activity-wise time use data. In the absence of data, showing access to food in terms of availability and affordability, disaggregated by sex, gender gaps cannot be identified effectively.

“There is a need to empower women through better ownership of resources, tools and technologies, awareness creation, and greater involvement in decision-making in agriculture. This would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and society,” says Mittal.

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 by 12-17%

“Women should be recognised as equal and an important aspect of agricultural farmer community. This behavioural change will reduce the gender gap in agriculture,” says Mittal.

“There has been a decline in the number of people reporting agriculture as their primary occupation in the last decade. This shows the feminisation of agriculture as well as the agriculturisation of the female workforce because of the lack of work in rural areas. The picture of the feminisation of agriculture, where the 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,” says Dr Amrita Datta, Assistant Professor, Institute of Technology (IIT), Hyderabad.

“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,” says Pankhuri Dutt, Public Policy Consultant, NITI Aayog.

“The role of women in agriculture is underestimated and under-recognized as a part of the deeply entrenched systemic patriarchy of our country. The mainstreaming of gender issues in the curriculum of agricultural education at the college and university level is lagging. It is important to ensure that the lingo is gender-neutral,” says Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director at IMPRI.

“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,” says Prof Govind Kelkar, Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram while chairing the session.

She emphasised four factors:

  • Access doesn’t necessitate 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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