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Time to Shatter the Gender “Grass Ceiling” in Agriculture

11 Jul 2019, by Informa Connect Insights

Socio-cultural factors like traditional beliefs and practices, relative to policy interventions, may make for stronger determinants in explaining the gender gap in the agriculture sector in the rural population. An instance where social forces prevail over regulations is that while land rights are safeguarded for both men and women in India, less than 10% of the privately-held land is in the name of the women because land rights are still surrendered as a form of dowry which remains pervasive and a deep-seated cultural issue in India despite it being outlawed.[1]

Resorting to blanketed policies characterized by simple Carrot and Stick economics will work no more as it now becomes difficult to pinpoint what the issues are and to nip them in the bud. Or at least, governments and non-profit organizations seeking to tackle the problem would have to look at the system as a whole- addressing social, economic, political and environmental factors effecting the beneficiaries targeted by their aid.

Where are the gender gaps in Agriculture?

Access to agricultural inputs and services

Evidence suggests that female-led farms are generally less productive than male-led farms, and that female participation in cash crop markets is often lower than of male. The productivity gap is largely derived from women’s unequal access to productive resources. In the example of accessing credit; due to women’s lack of access to collateral (e.g. family assets) and support from social networks to be guarantors, they often find it challenging to access loans. Due to their lack of business experience particularly in negotiation, women also lack bargaining power which puts them in a vulnerable situation to harassment and discrimination when they seek help from others.[2]

Going back to the gender gap in agricultural productivity, most of the studies found that the yield differences were attributable to differences in input levels.[3] The gap is negligible once input differences have been accounted for. An econometric study here, which documents the quantitative importance of different factors to explain the gap, shows that correcting credit and labor market failures (off-farm work time and labor market discrimination) are likely to have the biggest impact on female-headed households than the latter.

Accounting for unpaid work done by women

In the regard of off-farm work time, let us also take into consideration the “invisible work” undertaken by women like caregiving and household responsibilities which are unpaid work that is usually not recognized by the economy, although labor is in fact one of the key productive inputs in agriculture. Studies after studies have also shown unpaid household duties takes women away from income-generating activities, and that female-headed households tend to have less labor allotted for farm work.[4]

Women’s participation in agricultural output markets

The question of crop choice is also gendered. The defining feature of cash crop production is that it entails engagement with the output markets. Higher transaction costs deter entry of female farmers into the market. The ability of women farmers to travel long distances to markets is already limited by the time spent on household responsibilities. Given that most women work in the private sphere and their social networks may not be as expansive, they are restricted in their access to information channels and agricultural extension services compared to men farmers. [5] The situation is further exacerbated by their lack of effective bargaining with traders/middlemen for higher prices for their produce.[6]

Why does(n’t) the gender gap matter?

Why do these gaps matter? Is the gap justifiable when men own the lands and women still get to reap the gains from the lands? Is it only a matter of men and women playing different complementary roles within the same household?

It’s easy for us to carelessly assume that rural women in the agriculture sector wants to be lifted out of suppression by men when it’s on the larger social structure that assigns these roles to both men and women; and that policy interventions will not benefit men at all. The talk surrounding women’s rights is also predominated by urban communities, and there is the tendency for us to neglect the diverse experiences of women without speaking to women farmers on the ground. Brandth (2002) addresses the importance of addressing the context where the gender gap is occurring:

What, then, is special about the context of agriculture? That business relations on the family farm are not separate from family relations, unpaid work is not separate from paid work, intimate relations are not separate from instrumental relations? Also, the necessary co-operation between husband and wife in making the farm survive and the small rural communities in which agricultural production takes place are important aspects of the context.”[7]

Given that agriculture is very much shared work between the man and the woman, equalizing women’s access to productive resources and output markets would only help to ease the workload in the household. When women are empowered to make decisions in the farms, it’s been shown that there are significant flow-on effects to the households and this has an important impact on food security.[8] Empirical research conducted in Brazil, Malawi and the Philippines also consistently showed that maternal income has a greater impact on children’s nutritional outcomes than paternal income.[3]

An interesting study here conducted by Akter et. Al (2017) in Southeast Asia shows the impacts of collaboration between husband and wife in the field where family farming is a defining feature within their culture. The study interestingly explicated that both the man and the wife made decisions they preferred when autonomy in decision making (task division) was discussed beforehand, contrary to decisions being made from fear or under social pressure. Henceforth, both the equal access to opportunities and women’s empowerment through decision making can generate massive productivity gains for the family, society and the economy.

How to go about empowering women and building their capacities?

A major barrier we see in many of the issues mentioned above is the cultural perceptions of women in society. That said, it is important that policy interventions seek to engage all stakeholders – women farmers and the community they’re situated in – through bottom-up methods and in an inclusive way. Two aspects to be addressed include:

  • Equalizing access – What or who is disabling access for women farmers, and how do we go about enabling it?
  • Empowering women for more – How do we equip women farmers with the necessary skills to make decisions in farms and/or households?

As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime”. Instead of putting forward reactive measures like cash transfers which tend to be temporary fixes and may be prone to leakages in the system, the capacity for adaption into the local environment should be considered when we think about how solutions can be built for long-term success. Local knowledge, skills and connections may also be capitalized upon to bridge existing gaps in the social and political processes, rather than introducing radically different interventions into the community.

A potential policy solution is supporting grassroot networks for women farmers which is targeted at accumulating their social capital— defined as resources made accessible to the individual through his/her connection to a certain network. Through their participation in these networks say through dialogues engagement, there is a common platform for women farmers to identify networks of collaboration, for resource and information sharing, and better organize themselves to make demands if need be.

While some of these networks or organizations are already in existence and built from the ground-up, they usually lack decision-making power.[9] How can governments and development organizations provide support in this regard? It ranges from having formal institutions recognizing the presence of the networks in the political sphere— getting women’s voices in the larger discussion and consider mainstreaming gender in the local agriculture sector, setting up advisory boards and committees to provide leadership guidance for these networks, to providing mentorship programs and practical trainings to strengthen their capabilities.

The political support for the networks is certainly important for the community to recognize the legitimacy of these grassroot networks and when there is greater visibility of having women farmers making decisions in the public arena, this holds great potential in changing cultural perceptions with time. Of course, there are factors like accountability mechanisms, and other contingency factors that affect the extent of participation by women (and men) and the sustainability of such networks over time.










Why is gender equality vital for sustainable farming? What has been done by both the public and private sector in accelerating progress in this regard?

The Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is a multi-stakeholder partnership to promote resource efficiency and sustainability both on-farm and throughout the rice value chain. SRP was co-convened by the UN Environment and the International Rice Research Institute in December 2011, and works in collaboration with partners in the public and private sectors as well as the NGO community.

Each year, the SRP brings together its members and dialogue partners to discuss collaborative approaches and innovative solutions to critical sustainability challenges facing the rice sector. Themed “Business Unusual” in 2019, the 2nd Global Sustainable Rice Conference and Exhibition is happening from 1-2 October 2019 at the United Nations Conference Centre at Bangkok, Thailand.


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