Family Farming: The Role of Women

JU News Desk
Published: December 2014

Despite forming a huge chunk of work force in agriculture women farmers remain devoid of several benefits


In both developed and developing countries, over 500 million family farms – defined as farms that rely primarily on family members for labour and management – produce the food that feeds billions of people. It’s also true that in a predominantly agricultural country like India, women play a distinctive role in rural economic activities, more so in earning a livelihood for the entire family. However, despite the huge contribution an all persistent prejudice of development planners in treating them primarily as consumers of social services rather than producers, have kept them at bay from the development programmes in agriculture and other such allied sectors. Unlike contemporary work area, men and women have different roles yet they face gender-specific constraints when it comes to agriculture. A 1991 census in India, points out to a mere 22.3% of adult female population being categorized as “workers”. The fact remains that among such census over the years, the figures have been grossly understated, since much of the work that women do, remain unaccounted. Since the role of a woman is complex in different types of work, it is very difficult to examine the women’s contribution to the family income through available employment statistics. There are specific glitches in defining as to what constitutes ‘employment’ and ‘work’ and as to who is a ‘worker’ and who is not. Thus a majority of work done by women at farms remain unqualified for inclusion in GDP and hence remains unpaid. Today, rural women form the most important productive work force in the economy of the majority of developing nations including India. Agriculture, the single largest production endeavour in India, contributing about 18% of GDP, is increasingly becoming a female dominated activity.

The studies conducted so far have indicated that despite the key role of women in crop husbandry, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and post-harvest, those in charge of formulating services and public policies for rural areas have often tended to neglect the productive role of women. Consequently, the developments of technologies tailored to women-specific occupations and the involvement of women in technology development have received insufficient attention from both scientific and administrative quarters.

farmingHowever, over the years, there has been a gradual awareness of the key role of women in development of agriculture and other allied sectors like horticulture, processing, nutrition, sericulture, fisheries etc. In India women form the backbone of agriculture and have been putting in labour not only in terms of physical output but also in terms of quality and efficiency much more than the men. For example, today, there are 75 million women engaged in dairying as against 15 million men and 20 million in animal husbandry as compared to mere 1.5 million men.

Despite the labour-intensive nature of agriculture, women are generally the one carrying with the majority of work share. Not far from the city of Bangalore, 43 years old, Laxmi works on a small piece of land owned by his family for past three decades. Her daily routine begins at five in the morning, much before anybody else in the house. “Depending on the season, the work load is shared by the family. While my husband takes care of selling the harvest and driving the tractor, women at house takes turn to cook food, sow seeds, harvesting the fields and almost everything required in the process; there isn’t an area where we we don’t contribute. It’s more than a duty to me”, says Laxmi. Like her, most of the women are critical to the well-being of farm households. Aside from raising children, women are expected to prepare all meals, maintain the homestead, and assist in crop and animal production, all the while tending to the general health of their families. Perhaps, ironically, but having too many responsibilities could very well be the reason that they have been over-looked by agriculturalists and policy makers – it has been more convenient to label men as farmers and women as child raisers and cooks. In truth, women are involved in all aspects of agriculture, from crop selection to land preparation, to seed selection, planting, weeding, pest control, harvesting, crop storage, handling, marketing, and processing.

In India, women have traditionally been discriminated in their access to productive resources and have been denied ownership of land, cattle, trees, harvest and shelter. While the government can go lengths on counting the projects, loans, subsidies and other such facilities extended to farmers, women have even been discriminated in access to credit and marketing facilities for their economic activities.

farm-qOne of the main reasons for women to be central to stability of economy is the fact that as the family and the farm are linked and co-evolve, they combine not only economic functions but also a range of other ‘hidden’ functions, including environmental, social and cultural ones, often in lieu of state institutions or the private sector. It is therefore no coincidence that family farming predominately is taken care of by the women who directly as well indirectly contribute to the GDP of the country. The multiple motivations that confront women workers, in contrast to their male counterparts, and especially the strong incentive to work for the sake of their own families’ well-being, greatly reduce the requirement for supervision. Moreover, because such family farmers often have intergenerational bonds with the holdings they work, their production also frequently provides continued ecosystem services and care for the natural resource base. For the idea of family farming to succeed, it is essential to develop strategies and mechanism to improve women’s access to agricultural support services. Developing gender desegregated data and gender budgeting are the other key activities which can help bridge gender inequalities.

At the moment, the future of family farming and the role of women in it remains uncertain. However, the choices we make today could very well define a generation of women farmers in the country. What is certain is that due to the predominance and advantages, women will continue to have a significant role to play in the farming sector, while at the same time eradicating poverty, ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources and preserving local cultural heritage. Family farming in low-income economies is often an occupation of last resort, but under the right conditions, could become a country’s backbone of both rural development and national economic growth. Hopefully in the coming years such initiatives, like the International Year for family farming will continue to support family farmers and identify new and better ways to enable them to enhance their prosperity, sustainability and freedom to achieve their own aspirations for a better future.