Friday, 2 February 2018

Extending agricultural policies to women

By Hussain Bux Mallah

Women picking cotton in Sanghar
Photo credit: Collective team

Pakistan’s employment trends show a steady feminization of the agricultural sector. Almost three-fourths of the female labour force is employed in agriculture, and the proportion of women working in agriculture has increased more than 10 percent from 2001-02 to 2012-13. However, the agriculture sector is not very friendly to women, especially to pregnant and/or lactating mothers. The health status of mothers working as agricultural labour and their children is alarming. Women who work in agriculture are far more likely to be underweight and to have children who are wasted and stunted than women who do not work in agriculture.  According to DHS 2012-13, out of all mothers who are working in the agriculture sector, 29 percent are underweight, 13 percent of their children are wasted and 52 percent are stunted.

With clear data on the impact of agricultural work on women and their children, why hasn’t more been done to improve outcomes?

In Pakistan, the Agriculture Extension and the Livestock and Fisheries departments are managed as separate administrative domains and provincial subjects, and are engaged in various development projects with the help of domestic and foreign funding. However, most of these projects seem to be focused more on improving yield and productivity rather than the workers themselves. In Sindh, the Agriculture Extension department is investing in farm-level irrigation management, and improving the quality of seeds and land fertility. The Livestock department is working with foreign funders on the maintenance of veterinary hospitals for animal healthcare, breeding and maximizing milk produce.

In addition to this focus on productivity, another issue arises from gender disparities in hiring at the departmental and local field levels. Both the Agricultural Extension and the Livestock and Fisheries departments are comprised of predominantly male officers and field assistants at lower-level administrative units. In Sindh, these departments often advertise field based jobs with no preference for women’s employment. This results in agricultural policies and programmes that are often framed for the benefit of male farmers, ignoring the conditions of the female agricultural workers. 

In Pakistan’s typical customary laws, land entitlements mostly concern men, who are the authorities in handling agricultural business such as water management, decisions on types of crop planted, purchasing inputs and marketing. Women in sharecropping tenant families often do unpaid work on farm land and in caring for livestock, and women in labourer families are seldom paid directly for their paid work. It is a conspicuous fact that women farmers/agricultural workers are not even modestly recognized as stakeholders in the Agriculture Extension or Livestock and Fisheries policy realm.

I think it is time that the public Agricultural Extension and Livestock and Fisheries departments, in their advisory service capacity, engage with women farmers and workers as key stakeholders so that their provincial services can be progressively feminized. Explicit recognition of women farmers/agricultural workers as stakeholders can lead to rapid changes in the status of women at the community level, and this outcome can drive agricultural extension policy paradigm to be more gender and nutrition-sensitive. 

*This blog was first published on the Agrilinks website on 27th July 2017: