Women run the fieldsAgriculture in Nepal is experiencing rapid feminisation—why isn’t legislation catching up?
The Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation’s ‘Land Use Bill’, which is currently tabled at Parliament, has proposed to impose the penalty of up to Rs300,000 if landowners are unable to cultivate two-thirds of the total farming land constantly for three years. The provision of a fine will discourage landowners from holding unused agricultural land. However, the bill overlooks a crucial community: women farmers. As there is already a shortage of agricultural labourers, the bill will simply increase the work burden of women farmers. It is pertinent, in this context, to discuss the feminisation of agriculture in the country.
In recent decades, Nepal has witnessed a trend of feminisation of agriculture, which has mainly resulted from the migration of male family members in search of foreign employment. As a corollary, women have had to adopt multiple roles in agriculture—including their involvement in planting, irrigation, weeding, harvesting, and storage among others.
On the other side, they must remain at the helm of household duties—from taking care of children and elderly people in the family, cooking, cleaning, fetching water—the list goes on. Due to these multiple roles, it can be argued that women have suffered from ‘time poverty’, which degrades their quality of life and affects the wellbeing of the household.
According to the World Bank, the female labour force participation in agriculture of Nepal remains at 83 percent compared to 72 percent of the male labour force. Even though women devote many hours of their day in farming and household activities, their contribution has not been recognised in the national GDP.
Many female labourers are abject to low pay and severe discrimination in wage for the same job compared to their male counterparts. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (2009), approximately 75 percent of the unpaid family labour force is female.
A study by Sujata Tamang and several other scholars entitled ‘Feminisation of agriculture and its implication for food security in rural Nepal’ also suggests that the feminisation of agriculture has impacted both social and economic fields. According to the study, the feminisation of agriculture is ‘creating conditions for social injustice to women through added burden of agricultural work within male dominant policies, institutions, and technologies.’ The underutilisation of the land is ‘leading to a situation of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition of agriculture-dependent poor and marginalized communities.’
On the flipside, the feminisation of agriculture has also brought positive impacts. For instance, some women have access to increased control over their finances and income apart. However, many of these women still lack access to the wide range of resources such as extension services, technical support, and training as compared to their male counterparts.
Many young women do not turn to careers in agriculture given its low returns. When faced with the choice of migrating to Gulf countries in search of more attractive salaries, many are quick to leave the country.
Invest in female labourers
In this juncture, Nepal also could learn from initiatives implemented in other countries experiencing a feminisation of agriculture. In many African countries, development programmes have placed particular emphasis on the female labour workforce by enhancing women’s skills and investing in their technical training. The phenomena has led to more inclusive and gender-responsive programs in labour-related legislation and has also encouraged more research on the role of women in agriculture.
Donors like the United States United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are also introducing innovative approaches to the agricultural sector in order to respond to the needs and requirements of the diversifying labour workforce across Africa. For instance, the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) project tackles and implements various initiatives including fellowships, training, institutional transformation, and gender in agrobusiness. Within AWARD, the Gender Responsive Agricultural Research and Development programme aims to build ‘a constituency of agricultural research leaders and practitioners who understand and prioritise the importance of gender responsive agricultural research and development’, among others. Nepal also needs to invest in research and leadership skills enhancements of women in agriculture science. These investments will eventually help in reducing poverty and food insecurity.
Similarly, by introducing modern farming technology and training women on their uses, the overall work burden for women could be significantly reduced and their full capacities and potentials could be untapped.
Many female farmers have limited access to land and credits. As mentioned in the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) 2016 report ‘Running Out of Time’, low levels of education has also affected female farmers’ ability to make informed choices with regards to taking loans, purchasing or renting equipment, and implementing new technologies.
In this context, thorough training is required to empower female farmers and entrepreneurs. Efforts to reduce the work burden of female farmers will require commitment from multiple stakeholders including the government, the private sector and non-government organisations
After all, female labourers, who have to overcome various social and economic hurdles in their path to achieve empowerment in the workforce, also deserve rest and leisure like any other human being. If the proposed ‘Land Use Bill’ is passed in the near future without an effective support system for women labourers, a significant portion of the workforce will be adversely affected and may be more encouraged to leave the country in search of other solutions.
To address this issue, the federal, provincial and local governments need to develop action plans that support women by increasing their access to training, credit, skills enhancement, and entrepreneurial opportunities among others. It is important for future legislation on agricultural labour to consider the needs of the growing female workforce.
- Dhital is a freelance journalist based in the United States.