Women take over farmingMale out-migration and gender norms driving feminisation of agriculture in Madhes
Krishna Kumar Sah
Agriculture is the main livelihood for Nepali men and women, but it is more important for women. The share of women in agriculture has increased significantly compared to past years. Almost 66 percent of working-age women are engaged in farming compared to 53 percent of working-age men. More women are taking over agricultural production and becoming the primary supporters of the household. However, women have less access to productive resources and technical knowledge.
Between 1991 and 2001, agricultural employment among men and women exhibited a downward trend, but it remained high. The trend changed in 2001, but the increase among women is markedly sharper, implying a feminisation of agriculture. The inability of subsistence agriculture to fulfil basic household needs has pushed people to seek alternative income generating activities off the farm. In the absence of decent non-farm employment opportunities in rural communities, massive migration of working-age adults has been taking place, which is the key driving factor behind women’s increasing role in agriculture.
Although gifted with high levels of groundwater and large tracts of cultivable land, the Madhes-Tarai region ironically houses large concentrations of the poorest people living on fragmented, fallow lands which are largely under-irrigated and agriculturally inefficient. Recent studies indicate new agrarian crises, in particular, a ‘feminisation of agriculture’: Outmigration of young men from these poorly performing agrarian economies leaving behind women with restricted access to services, infrastructure, institutions and markets to manage productive and reproductive responsibilities.
There are various factors that have further added to agrarian stress in the Terai region. Unpredictable climate with frequent dry spells has created a drought-like situation, adversely contributing to sustainable agricultural development in the region. Striking climatic demands have brought changes in agricultural practices. Increasing dependence on fertilisers and use of modern technology in farming, including lifting ground water for irrigation, has substantially amplified the production costs in farming. This has resulted in decreased interest among young male farmers to engage in farming.
As a result, a majority of farmers are compelled to keep large tracts of land fallow, further adding to low agricultural production in the area. This rising insufficiency in agricultural production due to agrarian stress has raised concerns over food security. It has compelled locals to adopt other occupations. Among many options, one of the best alternatives that labour intensive youth find is temporary migration.
More recently, growing male out-migration has resulted in new patterns of gendered vulnerability, with women often facing an increased workload, economic insecurity when remittances are sporadic and limited capacity to independently adapt to climatic and non-climatic stresses. There are complexities, though, in the feminisation discourse. In several countries around the globe, agriculture is feminising, either because men move out of agriculture or because women engage in different types of agricultural employment. Rural women’s employment in the sector characterises agricultural feminisation. The types and quality of the jobs and activities that women undertake are equally important.
The expanding role of women in agriculture in many countries around the world has not being paid adequate attention in significant debates on rural transformations and changes in family farming. In the process of rural development and transformation, employment in the agricultural sector is expected to decline. Yet, while men may move out of agriculture, in many developing countries, women stay and their roles in agriculture may actually expand.
In the absence of male agricultural workers, farming in rural villages is turning into a women’s realm. A large number of women being engaged in agriculture is transforming the agency of women. Increasingly, women becoming the head of the household. A quest to contribute to income has led women to explore new income generating opportunities. As a result, economic empowerment of women has risen considerably. Women find new enterprise-based opportunities, and manage finances while their husbands are abroad. Particularly for women, access to savings and credit through microfinance is encouraging which allows them to become engaged in small enterprises. These opportunities are transforming livelihood options as well as gender relations at a time of agrarian stress and out-migration.
Sah is the project manager at the Nepal Madhesh Foundation