Across the developing world, rural women play a crucial role in agriculture and farming. In Bangladesh, where women exceed 50 percent of the agricultural labour force, this is no exception. In recent times, the participation of rural women in general is increasing in agricultural work due to changes in values and norms. Traditionally, women have played an important role in ensuring food security for marginalised rural families. Due to their traditional role in storing and preserving seeds, they also show awareness and competency in storing food for natural disasters and lean seasons. Despite this, women tend to be “invisible” in the agricultural sector of Bangladesh owing to the assumption that women are not involved in agricultural production. Such a predisposition according to Naila Kabeer is a result of cultural norms that value female seclusion and undervalue female labour.
Nowadays several projects are being implemented by both Governmental and non-governmental authorities to extend crop production and allied activities that will involve women in the production and process of high value crops and food grains. Women are expected to participate in nursery plantation, through vegetable cultivation, production and preservation of seeds, and post harvest activities and irrigation through these projects.A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that increasing women’s control over resources has beneficial effects on a number of important development outcomes. Women’s share of cash income and assets, particularly farmland is seen to increase budget share on food expenditure. Considerable evidence shows that greater control over resources of mother has positive influence on children’s’ nutrition and education.
A Study on Women Farmers
Recently, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) with the support of Rosa Luxemourg Stiftung (RLS), conducted a study to incorporate perspectives from marginal and small farmers, food gatherers and producers, including women, adivasis, Dalits who had historically contributed to agriculture.
Four groups of 15 women farmers were formed in the four villages: the villages of Berakuthi and Joychandi in Nilphamari and Bongshipur and Dhumghat in Satkhira. A small survey was conducted on all the women participants in order to gauge the characteristics of their households and living pattern. Focus group discussions were held among women farmers in each village to get supplementary information regarding their daily challenges and issues.
The following findings of the research are based on both the short survey of participants as well as from the FGDs conducted during field work.(a) The transformation of agricultural work of women farmers
Agricultural work of women farmers in general have transformed over the years. Many of the transformations were situational and environmental. Women said that increase of population has resulted in the fragmentation of land. Environmental changes were also visible to many. Rice was cultivated only once a year before in some localities. Now it is cultivated twice a year. Irrigation technology has become more mechanised.
The nature of work for women farmers have also changed. Processing rice, drying seeds in the sun and storing them in earthen pots or transplanting was the usual trend. Now rice is threshed in the mills and stored in polythene bags. Rice tastes different now and not as good as before. Rice is threshed no longer by dheki, but by rice mills. Dhekhi was used to grind grains into rice. It was the task of women. “It was known as Lokhhi (symbol of fortune) to older persons. Now people use rice mills to do the work.”
Women described the kind of activities that they performed now and some of the changes that had taken place over the years in such work. They usually engage in gardening in homesteads and adjoining lands, transplant rice, cultivate vegetables like okra, brinjals, arum greens, flat beans, spinach and chili. They often fish in local ponds and lakes (beels) for subsistence and raise cattle, goat and poultry. In regions where cattle rearing is a predominant occupation women are involved in selling of milk and milk products like ghee (clarified butter). Income from trees such as lychees, mangos, lime and betel nuts are also lucrative.
The introduction of technology has also impacted on women’s work. Before, women were employed during rainy season for weeding; now pesticides are used for that. There is an increase in the supply and marketing of artificial pesticides and fertilisers. But sometimes the pesticides are not effective enough.
Seed conservation used to be almost the sole prerogative of women. They conserved seeds of rice, pumpkin, dhundol (a kind of courgette), jhinghe (ribbed gourd). It was a technique usually learnt from elder women and passed down through generations of women in the family.
Now seeds are usually bought in the market, commercially dried and packed in polythene or sacks. Because of the rise of hybrid variety of rice, the practise of seed conservation and storage has declined. Before, seeds were usually stored in earthenware pots.
Remarking on the changed nature of their existence, women farmers claimed that there are no longer cattle driven ploughs to be seen. Hence, fewer cows were to be seen, less milk is produced, few old varieties of rice, vegetable seeds, fewer traditional species of fish, turtles and crabs.
Women in the south near the Sundarbans said that their fathers used to bring eggs, mangos and fish from the forest. “Before, local rice varieties were available, like jamaibhog, badshahbhog,etc., now we eat hybrid.” added a woman. The variety of fish has also diminished: before there were local shrimps, shole, koi, boal, maagur, ilish and now we get silver carp, pangash, tilapia, rui, mrigel, Japanese puti.”
Weather too has changed. Before it used to be very cold during winter and now we have to use fan, it is so warm. One reason could be that there are more factories than before. Because of the sudden change in weather conditions, people often feel sick. Before, there were no banks or NGOs. Now there are many NGOs who give microcredit.
(b) Women’s contribution of labour and wage structure
Now not only the household head, but everyone contribute to the household economy. Women respondents explained, “In the past there were more mouths to feed; now there are lesser mouths to feed. Before a woman’s time was spent in cooking, now we have to contribute towards agricultural work as well. Not to mention raising poultry and cattle.”
Many women told of their struggles that resulted from the death of the earning member. “My father died at a young age, my mother raised me. Before things cost less, now they have increased. The challenge is to find work.”
Majority of women in the groups were seen to provide labour in cultivating homestead or adjoining land. But in waged labour they face inequalities. The usual wage rate for women was 150 to 200 taka for women in rice cultivation but men got 300 taka for the same work. Although women work as hard as men they face discrepancy in wage. One woman said she cultivated her own vegetable patch. Her husband said he had no time for it. Women also said that because they found themselves cultivating land, they no longer had time for handicrafts such as quilt-making, traditional known as “Katha”.
Wages are mostly in cash but sometimes it includes meals. This trend however is decreasing. In earth work, it is the rule that all will be paid the same regardless of gender. But they say that women cannot use the shovel or the plough the same way as men, therefore women are paid 200 taka and men 300 taka. It is the same during harvest time.
(c) Access to knowledge
Majority of respondents were recorded as going to agricultural input shops for support. Secondly, they consult neighbouring farmers and a few went to the agricultural officer. Women’s response to the question as to whom they go for advice on farming brought on the following responses:
“We will ask the agricultural extension workers when they come to the village; sometimes we go to the nearest office but do not get adequate attention.”
“We get advice mostly from neighbours and shops in the locality selling agricultural inputs.”
Women do not usually know what men farmers discuss. One woman had a mentor in farming who sit in meetings regularly with others and convey to her. Another woman said she learns a little from her uncle.
Another woman said she knew more than men. She and her mother uses vermin compost for production of their crops. Others said their husbands instructed them to use organic compost which they learnt was a healthy alternative.
(a) Women’s access to land and resources
It was found that a large number of women respondents (20) owned 7 to 10 decimals of land adjacent to their homestead. And a considerable number of participants owned land from 1 to 6 decimals. No one owned above 25 decimals of land. Women tended to own land only after the death of their husband or in some cases their fathers gifted it to them. Hindu women do not own land. All women felt that ownership of land gave them power and hence ownership of land also tended to make men compete against each other.
Apart from land ownership rights, women also need access to low interest loans and credit from NGO programs of their locality. The amount of loans they get was varied but understandably more at the lowest range than the upper range in both districts. The sectors that the loan was spent in were also varied. In both districts however the loan was spent in buying agricultural inputs and construction of house. Other common reasons given were leasing of land, mortgaging in land, sanitation work, repaying past loans, family welfare and business. One respondent in the village of Berakuthi mentioned children’s education.
In a society that is caught between the forces of technological, environmental and infrastructural change, and the belief system that is deeply ensconced in centuries of tradition, women farmers in Bangladesh occupy an unique position where they are both repository of traditional knowledge and practices in agriculture, but are also receptive to the forces of change that they find themselves in.
Furthermore, the changing context of agro-ecology has compelled us to revisit many of the developmental presumptions of the recent past in order to handle the major challenges of climate change and sustainability of our lives, livelihood and basic existence. The rethinking of agricultural practices is core to meeting these challenges. The role of women farmers is critical to this rethinking process.
But although the National Agricultural Policy of the Government of Bangladesh, 2018 have mentioned them in the context of achieving gender parity in wages, it is not sufficient to address the needs that has been expressed by women farmers themselves in the current research.
A much fuller understanding of their potential in holistically reshaping the agro-ecology of Bangladesh is the task that lies before us. The current research has hardly scratched the surface in this endeavour. A few pointers are stated to indicate the path that needs to be taken.
Women farmers need to have more institutionalised access to knowledge. Agricultural extension services must be geared up to make both content and form of their service more gender friendly. The potentiality of technology that has already been illustrated needs to be exploited to the fullest extent. Good practices in traditional agriculture, especially those that have traditionally been the repository of women farmers like seed conservation, need to be supported, documented and disseminated so that the knowledge is preserved and spread worldwide.
Women farmers should not only be skilled in new farming practices and knowledge but also involved in innovative interventions that help us to mitigate climate disasters. A movement to include the youth in reviving environmental friendly agricultural practices must be included in the national curriculum. Exposure visits to both disaster zones, as well as, areas that have success stories may be introduced to motivate them further.
Gender parity in a holistic sense (inclusive of human security and dignity) has to be established in rural areas. Critical to such an effort is enabling women to gain control of assets and resources. Special loans maybe established in the short term but long term involvement in restructuring entitlements that enable women’s control over land and other properties must be ensured. In any policy measure, effort must be made to address regional and local variations such as indigenous cultural practices, geological and atmospheric contexts and social cohesion.
The writer is Executive Director, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh and Member, National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh. She is a former student and teacher of Department of International Relations, Dhaka University