Monday, 8 October 2018

Women agricultural workers and their rights

By Saba Aslam

Consultative discussion on Rights and Well-being of Women Agricultural Workers in Pakistan
Photo credit: Waseem Gazdar

The National Commission on the Status of Women and Collective for Social Science Research hosted a consultation on the rights and wellbeing of women agricultural workers and their children in Pakistan. It was held on 29th August 2018 at the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi. The consultation acted as a platform to bring together activists, lawyers, researchers, parliamentarians, women agricultural workers, members from the National and Provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, and policy makers who discussed the issues faced by women agricultural workers in Pakistan, and debated potential ways of moving forward in recognizing and protecting rights of women agricultural workers at local, provincial and national levels.

Dr. Yasmin Zaidi, Director of Center of Gender and Policy studies (CGaPs) presented key findings of UN Women’s recent report on status of rural women in Pakistan. Citing secondary data, Dr. Zaidi provided insights on women’s extensive contribution in the agriculture sector. She said that 53 percent of women involved in agriculture do unpaid work out of which 60 percent belong to the rural areas. Their work is often considered informal, and hence they are not counted as workers. This makes them virtually absent across public policy design and discourse. They are denied basic rights such as public health services, and social security. She suggested that policies and programmes must focus on improving women’s economic empowerment, their participation in politics and their right to access justice against violence.

Mr. Haris Gazdar, Director of Collective for Social Science Research presented findings from a LANSA study on “Women’s Work and Nutrition” stressing the link between women’s work, their health and the health of their children. He discussed associations between women’s work and other exogenous factors such as household food insecurity, mother’s education and household wealth status that could be potential drivers of women’s work in agriculture. His presentation revealed that the nutritional status of women agricultural workers and health of their children was negatively linked to their status of work. For example, women who undertook strenuous work during pregnancy and after giving birth had poor nutritional outcomes.  

Both presentations elicited interesting questions from the participants around land rights, social protection, and health policies highlighting the urgent need to compensate women agricultural workers as most of their work is often unpaid or underpaid.

A consultative discussion with the participants, moderated by Ms. Khawar Mumtaz (Chairperson, National Commission on the Status of Women) took place in the second half of the day. The discussion was around the need to place women agricultural workers at the center of policies and programmes so that their health, wellbeing, and agency within the household can be improved. Participants raised the need for effective implementation of programmes and policies that could directly reach women agricultural workers. They asserted that provision of basic healthcare services such as setting up dispensaries near the villages was needed as many women have limited mobility outside of their villages.

Improving women’s right to access and own productive assets such as agricultural land was also a key concern for participants who have been working with landless women. Provision of social security and microfinance loans to agricultural workers without discriminating on the basis of gender was also brought forward as an important policy priority that needs attention from the state. Participants concluded that much needs to be done at both policy design and implementation levels in order to improve the welfare of women agricultural workers.

After hearing the discussion, I came to the conclusion that provincial governments should establish systems of support for women agricultural workers. Many individuals often challenge previous governments on the basis of ineffective implementation at the grassroots, but one should also look at programmes that have worked and yielded positive results particularly for women.

Dr. Nafisa Shah, Member of National Assembly said that the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) has been a model of success in providing marginalized women with official recognition and direct access to state's resources. It was the first step in allowing women to hold any department and personnel of the state accountable or register a complaint without any male person’s support. There are lessons to be learnt here.