Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Who works and why: Detangling women’s agricultural work

by Sidra Mazhar

A woman cuts sugarcane in Mirpurkhas.
Photo credit: Collective team

Throughout the world, women play a very important role in the agricultural sector. In the last few decades, agriculture has undergone a gendered transformation termed the ‘feminization of agriculture’. National level statistics in developing countries show that there has been an increase in female involvement in agriculture accompanied by a steady decline in men’s participation. It is commonly believed that this increased participation in agriculture empowers women economically and socially. However, our LANSA survey on women’s work and nutrition in rural Sindh, where we surveyed new mothers about their work before, during, and after pregnancy, tells a different story.

Our research shows that women’s agricultural work is associated with household income: women from richer households tend to work less, and the prevalence of agricultural work, both farm and livestock related, declines up the wealth scale. Women from better off households are less likely to have ever done farm or livestock work compared to their poorer counterparts. The same is true for women who work while pregnant, with poorer women more likely to work in this situation.

Fewer women do farm work during pregnancy. However, other kinds of work, such as livestock related work, are generally expected of women regardless of which wealth bracket they come from or whether they are pregnant or not. Of course, rich women are still less likely to have done livestock related work, but pregnancy does not seem to have the same dramatic effect on their likelihood of working with livestock as it does with farm related activities.

We also looked at the relationship between work and pregnancy across educational levels, which displayed similar patterns to wealth. This is not entirely surprising, as education is known to be correlated with household wealth. Women with higher levels of education are least likely to participate in farm work, and also show lower rates of participation in livestock work. Educated women, moreover, are more likely to work in non-agricultural activities than women who have had no schooling. The effect of pregnancy is also the sharpest with respect to farming – very few of the women with above primary schooling work during pregnancy compared with over half of those who did not have any schooling.

In terms of other kinds of work, we found that the patterns for non-agricultural work (mostly sewing and embroidery) are quite distinctive from agricultural activities. While pregnancy seems to be associated with a decline in non-agricultural work across socioeconomic strata (in line with the data for other kinds of work), we found that the poorest and the wealthiest women are the least likely to be involved in this activity as compared to women in the middle of the wealth scale. It is likely that this is because the poorest women have little time for non-agricultural work while the richest have little need to do it themselves.

Our findings appear to confirm the basic feature of Pakistan’s rural economy: that women’s agricultural work (particularly farm-related activity) is not a pathway to empowerment, but merely a sign of ‘majboori,’ and having no other choice in the matter. Women who don’t have the need to work (from better off households), or those who have some level of knowledge and agency (inferred from education levels) generally do not participate in agriculture work. The fact that livestock related work seems to be unaffected by the wealth, education and pregnancy status of women suggests that in addition to majboori, there may be an additional, and much stronger element of a gendered division of labour which transcends social and economic mobility.

This blog draws upon a paper titled “The Hidden Economic Backbone- Women in Agriculture” by Sidra Mazhar, Haris Gazdar and Mysbah Balagamwala, presented at the International Conference on Gender, Work and Society, 22nd -23rd April 2017.