We regularly hear about the gender wage gap. We know about glass ceilings and barriers to advancement. We wring our hands over leadership roles filled mainly by men. These are all vital concerns. But today I’d like to address a disparity that doesn’t get much press — women in agriculture.
Women farmers embody the merger of two invisible groups, and yet both are crucial to human survival. We depend on the labor of farmers for our sustenance; we depend on the labor of women for the reproduction of our species. Both kinds of labor are devalued and often unpaid. Women comprise a substantial part of the agricultural workforce across the globe, and yet collectively and individually they earn much less than men. Indeed, they are hardly seen as agricultural workers. Farming is still viewed as a male-dominant occupation. This is not true now and it probably has never been true. Anywhere.
Women are of vital importance to rural economies in developing countries. Rearing poultry and small livestock and growing food crops, women are responsible for some 60% to 80% of food production. Moreover, women are the main custodians of knowledge on crop varieties. In some regions of sub-Saharan Africa, women may cultivate as many as 120 different plants alongside the few cash crops that are managed by men.
On average, women make up 43% of the official agricultural labour force in developing countries and typically put in 12 to 13 more hours per week than men. Adding to the work discrepancy, rural women also carry most of the burden of providing water and fuel. In rural areas of Malawi, for example, women spend more than eight-fold the amount of time fetching wood and water per week than men. Collectively, women from Sub-Saharan Africa spend about 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
Women do the majority of work done in small-scale and subsistence farming settings. And since official statistics do not count unpaid work — be it in the garden, in the field or in the household — they insufficiently represent women’s actual share in agricultural work. None of this work is paid and as such very little if any of it counts as “farm labor”. Thus the unpaid contributions of women are also often invisible.
Less than 20% of land-holders are women in developing countries. In North Africa and West Asia, women represent fewer than 5% of all agricultural landowners; while across Sub-Saharan Africa, they make up 15%. This average masks wide variations between countries. For example, in Uganda nearly 73% of households engage in subsistence farming and women represent three-quarters of the agricultural force. But despite women bearing the heaviest burden as primary farmers, they own only 7% of land. Latin America has the highest share of female agricultural holders, which exceeds 25% in Chile, Ecuador and Panama. Remember, almost half of officially counted farm workers in developing countries are women, and women do the bulk of actual farming work. Yet under one quarter of farms in developing countries are owned by the women that work them.
Ownership is vital to farming. There must be stability from year to year in order for land to remain productive and in order for plans to be carried out. Farming takes time. Furthermore, those who work the land and know its needs must be able to make decisions in land management. And this shouldn’t need to be said, but at least farming must continue if food production is to continue.
This problem exists everywhere, but it is magnified in developing countries where the rewards of farming are negligible and the ownership of land is highly disconnected from those who know and work the land. Too often resource extraction will tempt absent or disengaged owners to sell off productive land, to take a short-term reward and get out of farming. Every transaction of this sort further impoverishes whole communities. Every farm that is lost represents an increase in hunger, destitution and disease. And most of this hits women harder than men.
Compared to men, women are more severely affected by poverty, hunger, and disease. When food is scarce, female family members often get the smallest portions. Mothers also suffer most from lack of medical care and balanced diets, and ensuring the survival of their children commonly demands additional sacrifices from them. Even when employed, women are usually paid actual starvation wages, and there are few even of these nominally wage-earning jobs in rural areas.
Do not think that this is a problem only in developing countries. Women farmers in this country may be better off than their sisters in the Global South — they at least do not commonly have to haul water, though hunger is certainly not uncommon in rural communities — but women in agriculture in this country are still far behind men. Moreover women in agriculture are still largely invisible, even as they are essential to farming in this country — women farmers remain an open secret our culture does not wish to examine.
Since 2002, the US has seen a marked increase in the number of farms in the country, the number of farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, and the number of people who are concerned about where their food is coming from; and women are key players in all of these changes. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture women make up 30% of the US agricultural labor force, and nearly 60% of US farms have at least one woman owner. Women comprise over half of the employees and the executive directors of national nonprofits focusing on sustainable agriculture issues. As farm owners, women are tending towards diversified, direct-marketed foods that create relationships with eaters. And yet US farms run by men earn almost twice as much on average as those run by women. Women simply do not have the same access to credit, to markets and to tools as men. Women constantly have to work twice as hard for half the reward accrued to men. And all of us are harmed by this discrepancy.
These statistics can be numbing, especially as it is clear that guaranteeing food-production opportunities for women is by far the most effective means of fighting world hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. When women have the opportunity to self-organize and take part in decision-making, when they are able to provide for themselves and their families, the whole community benefits. Where women can feed themselves and their children, communities thrive. Where this is not the case, communities die.
So if the community’s health is dependent on the ability of women to provide for themselves, the question is how do we make it easier for women to do so? By enabling them to produce their own food, by encouraging them to be farmers, by eliminating the double barrier of discrimination against women and against rural laborers, by rewarding women at least as much as men, and by giving more women access to land over which they have control. When we do that women will nourish the world.
We are the daughters of Eve, after all.
Costa, Temra. Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. 2010. Gibbs Smith: Layton, Utah.
FAO. (n.d.) Women in Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/women-in-agriculture.html on 8 March 2021 at 7:00pm EST.
Kennedy Duckett, Maryellen. (n.d.) Empowering Female Farmers to Feed the World. Retrieved from National Geographic (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/partner-content-empowering-female-farmers) on 8 March 2021 at 7:30pm EST.
Namanya, Sostine, and Bwailisa Christine. 8 March 2021. How Uganda’s Ecofeminists Are Fighting Back Against Oil-industry Land Grabs. Retrieved from Resilience (https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-03-08/how-ugandas-ecofeminists-are-fighting-back-against-oil-industry-land-grabs) on 8 March 2021 at 9:00am EST.
Tanner, Nancy Makepeace. On Becoming Human. 1981. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021