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Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Towards a new regional agenda: bringing visibility to rural women in South Asia

By Saba Aslam
Women picking cotton in the fields, Sindh province
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar
Across the world, women form an integral part of the agricultural sector. In much of South Asia, women make up a majority of the agricultural workforce, but the extent of their contribution remains unacknowledged in policy and public debates. They often undertake difficult physical labour, working long hours and are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts if they are paid at all. LANSA research identified women’s agriculture work in South Asia as a critical mediating factor between household poverty and undernutrition. The recognition of women’s agricultural work and women as agricultural workers, moreover, was identified as a key entry point for leveraging agriculture for the improvement of nutrition.

LANSA research in India and Pakistan has already made a significant contribution to national debates and policy thinking on women agricultural workers. The ANH Academy Week in Kathmandu in 2017 offered an opportunity for taking this dialogue to the regional level. The advantages were clear. Despite many differences across the region – even within large countries such as India and Pakistan – there are many common strands that cross national boundaries. LANSA had already shown the value of collaborative research across these boundaries. It was also obvious that other researchers working on these issues had adopted comparable approaches and came up with similar findings. The diverse experiences across countries of engagements with policy and political processes also promised to be huge sources of insight and inspiration.

In 2018 LANSA was able to form a partnership with an influential global and regional stakeholder – namely UNWomen – to co-host a regional roundtable Recognizing the Rights of Women Agricultural Workers in South Asia: Roundtable on Policy, Politics and Impact. This was held in Bangkok in October 2018 and brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, including policymakers, representatives from governments, universities and research institutions, international organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs) and grassroots activists. The roundtable provided an exciting opportunity for the sharing of research findings and policy engagement experiences, and brought forward a new regional agenda that brings visibility to rural women’s rights.

A statement of joint recommendations was adopted by consensus by the participants to bring transformative change in the lives of women agricultural workers. This joint statement encapsulates a set of action recommendations that focus on policy, legal and programmatic changes to recognize, protect and promote the rights of women agricultural workers. It mirrors the voice of rural women who are excluded from many policy dialogues and lays out a range of provisions that women should receive from governments.

Legal recognition of women agricultural workers needs to be seen as a starting point, leading to ensuring that rights to equal and living wages, and the provision of social protection in the form of pensions, housing, childcare, free and quality healthcare including sexual reproductive health, education and maternity entitlements are established and enforced. The need to mobilise women agricultural workers and provide them a platform for discussion and articulation of their needs and demands, emerged as a strong component of the joint statement, given the near-total absence of such platforms, be it unions, associations or other forms of organisation.

Women agricultural workers’ voices need to be amplified across different fora – local, national and international. Policymakers, governments of all tiers, international agencies, local and community based organisations, communities and women agricultural workers themselves have to become a part of this regional agenda for women’s rights and benefits to be realized. The regional roundtable was one step towards recognizing the contribution of women agricultural workers and it ended on a positive and optimistic note. There was plenty of energy and commitment for continuing engagement with the issue.

*This blog was originally written for LANSA with inputs from Haris Gazdar and Nitya Rao

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