To quote Amartya Sen, “empowering women is key to building a future we want” (UNDP). In Pakistan, despite their extensive involvement in various agricultural activities, several barriers inhibit women farmers from operating inherited or transferred land. It is pertinent to sow the seeds of gender parity; this will unleash the potential of millions of women and lead to significant advances within the country’s agricultural sector.
As in other major sectors of Pakistan, women play a significant role in various processes within the realm of agriculture. According to the Agriculture Census of 2010, 5.68 and 4.34 million women were working full time and part time, respectively, on their family’s holdings. It is critical to note that a significant chunk of women go unreported in these censuses as well; therefore, the actual count of these workers lies beyond a few millions.
They perform several notable activities such as sowing, transplanting, harvesting, weeding and storage of crops. They also undertake the back-breaking work of planting rice and picking cotton in the harshest of weathers. Moreover, according to the Finance Division, they actively participate in activities pertaining to livestock by feeding animals, cleaning their sheds, milking and preparing dung cakes; this contributes to 52.2% of the overall value of agriculture. Even when male members of the household are forced to attain off-farm employment in urban areas, women take on the dual responsibility of carrying out full-time work in fields while simultaneously performing household duties.
However, despite their extensive involvement, women remain systematically disadvantaged in several notable aspects. Women in agricultural households are expected to do a fair share of work along the male workers. Consequently, the line between activities carried out for economic gain and merely additional household chores continues to be blurred. Even in the case of agencies, the participation of these invisible workers is not acknowledged, and they undergo extreme exploitation in the forms of less than minimum wage, abuse and discrimination.
Due to rigid patriarchal beliefs and the authoritative role of male workers, the gender disparity in access to agricultural resources persistently widens. The productivity of women farmers is impeded due to their limited ability to attain training and extension services, access credit facilities, purchase necessary inputs, and use basic technologies on the fields. As this inhibits them from producing sufficient output, their dependence on male workers increases.
It is also vital to consider the case of contract farming, which entails a pre-agreement between the farmers and buyers on aspects like timing, quality and price of the output. This system exhibits differential effects on women as it is based on a unitary model of household. This means that the decisions of a single individual determine the entire household’s behavior. Consequently, contracts are only made with males, who are more likely to focus on commercial agriculture and consider non-food crops as inconsequential.
The aforementioned contrast in the social roles, rights and opportunities of men and women has an adverse impact on the latter in the case of the large-scale land deals. More often than not, marginal lands or ‘waste lands’ are offered; these are of significant importance to women as they use them for grazing and to collect firewood, medicinal plants, and wild foods.
Most importantly, the poor conditions of women farmers are further exacerbated by the increased concentration of land holdings in the hands of males. Women are not allowed to inherit agricultural property or land. Even the plight of widows remains unheard; they cannot control any land they might inherit from their deceased husbands, and it passes on to the sons or other male relatives.
With the growing discourse on gender disparity and rise of feminist movements like the Aurat March, the discussion on allowing women farmers to independently operate inherited or transferred land is pertinent. This will lead to three main benefits.
First, this would contribute to the country’s food security. Empirical evidence by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that if women farmers were given the same access to productive resources as their male counterparts, they could increase the agricultural yields on their farms by 20 to 30%. With this boost in production, global hunger could decrease by 12%.
Second, this would lead to better nutrition of these women, their children and the wider community. According to the National Nutrition Survey of 2018, four out of ten children under 5 years of age are stunted while 17.7% suffer from wasting. By enabling women farmers to attain an increased ownership of land and better access to inputs, there will be a positive impact on dietary diversification and calorie intake. Several studies note that nutritional status is higher in households where women hold assets or have decision-making power in agricultural work. This autonomy will enable them to reserve a proportion to grow nutritious food for household-consumption. Moreover, as a result of increased yield in farms, their economic empowerment would lead to pro-nutrition consumption choices.
Third, this will strengthen their role as guardians of biodiversity in agricultural regions. Women farmers are less likely to restrict themselves to monocropping and production of commercialized cash crops. They have an intimate relationship with local seeds and plants; they utilize their specialized knowledge of the diverse use of domesticated crop species and wild plants. Through this, they can better respond to food shortages caused by droughts and erratic rainfall. Moreover, to create a favorable micro-environment and efficiently manage the available space, they inter-crop complementary species and practice mixed farming.
Therefore, it is crucial to break down obstacles impeding women farmers from operating land and accessing agricultural inputs. Apart from these benefits, application of non-discriminatory policies on the operation of land will encourage women farmers to enter the formal sector, thereby strengthening the country’s overall agricultural system.
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