Women, agriculture and the nutrition factor
In much of South Asia, women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce, but what effect does working in agriculture have on the nutrition of these women and their children?
Across the world, women form an integral part of the agricultural sector. In much of South Asia, women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce, but the extent of their contribution often goes unrecognised. They undertake difficult physical labour - working long hours, and are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts - if they are paid at all.
Research under the Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia programme in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan has identified women’s agricultural work in South Asia as a critical mediating factor between household poverty and undernutrition. The recognition of their work and women themselves as agricultural workers were identified as key entry points to leverage agriculture for improving nutrition.
Women’s work in agriculture and the implications for their health, and health of their children emerged as an important theme within LANSA research, revealing policy gaps and priorities to improve health and well-being of mothers and children in the region. Across the region, the steady feminisation of the agricultural workforce, has not been accompanied by nutritional improvement. LANSA research aimed to find out why.
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It’s not just about food
There are a number of ways - some positive, some negative - in which agriculture can impact nutrition. The most obvious is through increasing the availability of nutritious foods, but there is also an effect through increasing incomes of the farmers and boosting consumption through lower relative prices of nutritious foods. The other key pathways are through women’s work in agriculture.
Women working as farmers may gain benefits such as increased income and economic empowerment may have a positive effect on nutrition through better food choices, however, the burden of work, which is often physically demanding may draw on their time thus compromising caring capacity and practices such as breastfeeding, preparing food and seeking health care. If the time and energy expended on additional work, especially during peak cultivation seasons, are not compensated adequately, women’s own health and nutrition might suffer. This may also have a negative consequence on the health and nutrition of their children.
Emerging evidence from Bangladesh indicates that growth of children depends on multidimensional factors, including maternal health and nutrition status and time for child care. Understanding of women’s role in the workforce and the implications for undernutrition has been a key research theme in both India and Pakistan. We found that many women agricultural workers are compelled to work in order to meet their families’ basic needs, but they are either unpaid or underpaid. Also, many of their activities are not recognised as work, by their communities, families, or even themselves. For example, a study in two rural districts in India showed that doing care work did not exempt women from productive labour in agriculture – their days were just busier. In peak agricultural seasons, women spend even more time in productive work, placing constraints on time for care, negatively affecting child and maternal nutrition. This leads to high levels of undernutrition, and seasonal losses in body weight, more severe for women who were already thin.
In Pakistan, a study conducted in rural areas of Sindh found that women who work in agriculture whilst pregnant are more likely to become malnourished and are also more likely to have malnourished children and children born low birth weight. However, the majority of women need to work whilst pregnant, with two out of every three rural mothers doing agricultural work while pregnant, and over a third undertaking physically demanding labour such as cotton harvesting. Women were acutely aware of the trade-off between their work and their children’s care, but many of them simply have no choice.
Same work, different wages
Women working in waged roles can contribute to female empowerment and better control over resources, which has a positive effect on nutrition. However, often women’s work in agriculture is unpaid, or if the work is paid, women’s wages are much lower than those paid to men.
Research in Pakistan showed that agricultural work was highly gendered. There were certain tasks and activities that were associated with men and others with women. Much of women’s agricultural work was unrecognised and unpaid. In some activities such as cotton harvesting where women were paid wages, their rates of pay were lower than men’s wages for comparable work. Women were acutely aware of the trade-off between their work and their children’s care, but many of them simply had no choice in the matter.
In most South Asian rural settings, women’s agricultural work appears to be driven by household poverty and marginality. Women from wealthier households tend to do less farm work, though with growing male out-migration, they are taking on farm management roles. Farm labourers are more likely to be from socially marginalised communities, given the negative association of women’s farm work with the social standing of a family. Women’s work in agriculture in most South Asian settings, therefore, is more likely to be due to a ‘distress sale of labour’ than empowered agency.
So what can be done?
Agriculture is the main livelihood for the majority of rural families in South Asia, and women play a very large role in the process with huge potential to reduce undernutrition, but this is yet to be realised.
Income generation and women’s empowerment are key drivers of better nutrition for women and their children, the key then is how to balance female participation in agriculture as waged employment, with the burden on their time and physically demanding nature of the work.
Policies which recognise female participation in agriculture are key, along with fair wages, fair working conditions and maternity benefits. Agricultural policies and programmes are often framed for the benefit of male farmers. Women agricultural workers, even when they are recognised as farmers, are peripheral to mainstream agricultural policies, despite the fact that they increasingly provide a large part of the low-paid labour, which sustains many agricultural activities. This is increasingly evident in the context of growing male out-migration from poor, rural communities.
Governments must create mechanisms for ensuring that at least some element of public subsidy reach women agricultural workers and recognise their contributions (women’s labour needs to be valued in calculating cost of cultivation and related support prices, and subsidies to crops such as cotton must entail wage support for workers).
Agricultural extension services need to be progressively feminised and engage with women farmers, and asset transfer programmes, including land transfers, must prioritise women beneficiaries.