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A census counts a man's cattle, but not the hours his wife spends tending them.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

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Invisible farmers

Women have always known who weeds the sorghum, transplants the rce seedlings, picks the beans, tends the chickens. In fact, it has been estimated that their labour produces half of the world’

But it has taken a long time for the rest of the world to discover these facts. In Africa, for example, three-quarters of agricultural work is done by women. They are half of the agricultural labour force in Asia. And even in Latin America and the Middle East (where men tend to deny that their mothers, wives, daughters do any work outside the home) detailed questioning reveals that women are doing a substantial amount ot’ the farming there too.

In Egypt, for example, the 1970 census discovered only 3.6 per cent of women doing agricultural work. But local investigations revealed that in the South half of wives plough and level the land, and between 35 and 40 per cent are involved in planting, tilling and harvesting.

But it is not only husbands ashamed of their wives working that means women’s farming activity is underestimated. As with their domestic work, much of women’s agricultural work tends to be overlooked because it is unpaid. In Malawi and Botswana, for example, over three-quarters of women work unpaid on the land. Even when unpaid work is taken into account, however, women’s agricultural workload still tends to be underestimated. This is largely because so much of it takes place away from the fields and the pastures. One study in Pakistan, for example, found that women’s ‘invisible’ agricultural activities - like their vegetable garden beside the house - took just as much time as the ‘visible’ ones, like weeding and hoeing, usually counted as agricultural work.

It is not only in developing countries that women’s farm work is underestimated. The traditional European ‘farmer’s wife’ - who just bakes bread, churns butter, feeds a few hens, and clears up after her mud-spattered menfolk - may be no more than a myth. Surveys in Turkey and Spain found farmers wives working up to 70 hours a week out on the farm itself.

Modernisation for men

That women farmers in the developing world have been made invisible is only too evident from the statistics for agricultural innovations and projects. Information collected from 46 African countries showed that only 3.4 per cent of trained government workers providing agricultural advice to people in rural areas were women. Other research puts the figure still lower, at just 2.9 per cent. In other parts of the world the situation is the same. In Nepal, for instance, studies show that women provide between 66 and 100 per cent of the labour in many agricultural activities and make 42 per cent of agricultural decisions - choosing which seeds to plant, deciding how much and what kind of fertilizer to apply. But a review of government projects in 1983 discovered that, of all the agricultural advisers trained to help villagers, only one was a woman - and she had been trained in ‘home economics’, not agriculture.

This tendency - to help women farmers only with those skills that are associated with their domestic role - has been found in many other countries too. In Ghana, where women grow half the food, around a third of cash crops like cocoa, rice, sugar and cotton, and manage two-fifths of the coffee farms, over 70 per cent of agricultural workers assigned to help women were only trained to teach about nutrition and the preparation and storage of food.

But it is not only training and advice about agriculture that has been directed more at men. When new technology is introduced it usually helps men with their traditional tasks of ploughing, irrigation and harvesting, but leaves women to continue their backbreaking work of weeding, thinning, transplanting by hand or with primitive knives and hoes.

The rain-watered rice grown by women in Gambia, for example - which makes up 84 per cent of the country’s entire rice harvest - covers 26 times as much land as the irrigated rice grown by men, but receives only one twenty-sixth of government spending on rice projects. In Sierra Leone the tractors and tillers introduced to help with swamp rice cultivation made men’s working day shorter, but increased women’s workload by 50 per cent because they allowed more land to be cultivated.

FAO sums up the situation: ‘In all regions the introduction of modern agricultural technology is primarily aimed at male tasks and used almost exclusively by men

Costs and benefits of development

Agricultural development has advanced at a different pace and in different ways through the various regions of the world. Two major global trends can be distinguished - towards large-scale commercialisation and the growing of cash crops for export - but the picture in each major area of the world is slightly different.

In Latin America an existing pattern of grossly unequal land ownership - with a few powerful families owning huge farms and a majority of people either without land or working very small plots - has begun to be reshaped by a mixture of incomplete land redistribution and increasing control by multinational corporations of large tracts of prime agricultural land.

With the exception of a few countries - such as Peru and Nicaragua, where land redistribution programmes have been widely applied - the dominant trend in this region is for the gap between rich and poor to widen as the new commercial farms swallow up smaller plots of land and evict people from their homes on the latifundia or family estates.

Here the tradition is to employ men as farm labourers, and they far outnumber ~ women in paid agricultural work in this region. In Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Chile and Colombia, for example, the ratio is ten to one. Women tend only to be hired when extra hands are needed at harvest time. For the most part they work unpaid on their family’s land or migrate to the towns in search of paid employment.

Even the restraining hands of land reform - which have cushioned the impact of these changes on some of Latin America’s rural poor have tended to leave women unguarded. In Honduras. though a survey showed that one in eight village households were legally headed by women, they were only allocated land in the new settlement schemes if they had a grown son living with them.

In Asia - with the exception of China and Vietnam - a general pattern of development packages’ (including high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat seed, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and tractors) has been superimposed on an existing picture of land scarcity and increasing landlessness.

Here the maxim ‘to him that hath shall be given’ applies only too well and the changes have tended to benefit only those who are relatively well-off - who can afford to experiment with a new type of fertilizer, or who have enough land to risk a few hectares trying out a new seed variety. Those with smaller plots of land, unable to compete with their richer neighbours, fall into debt and are eventually forced to sell up.

The result of these changes for Asia’s women are mixed. The high-yielding seeds require more work (more weeding, more spraying, more planting and transplanting) and it is women who tend to be employed on the big farms to do these jobs. Though their average earnings are less than men’s (with 56 per cent of women in rural Java earning under 3,000 rupiahs a month compared with just 14 per cent of men, for example), these increased job opportunities are some consolation. On the other hand, if the seeds are grown on her own family’s land, the chances are that a woman will have to do all that extra work herself - without pay.

In sub-Saharan Africa a recent and troubled colonial history, poor soil, low population density and traditional or communal rights to land, have been overlaid by a general move towards replacing subsistence crops like yam and sorghum with export crops like cotton and coffee.

Here, as in all regions, it is men who have been encouraged and helped to grow the new crops - despite the fact that in Africa, more than any other part of the world, it is women who do most of the agricultural work, and despite the fact that large numbers of men have migrated to the cities in search of work, leaving many households run entirely by women.

Unlike most other parts of the world, traditional land rights in parts of Africa have guaranteed women’s independent access to land. But these rights have tended to be undermined - first by colonial land policies, and then by development projects, which have allocated land ownership to men. In Burkina Faso, for instance, until the sweeping reforms initiated by the new government in the last year, all new tenancies - for both food and cash crops - were given to men, despite women’s tradition of growing all the family’s subsistence food. And in Kenya a woman now only has access to land if she has a husband or son alive.

Land, loans and the law

The sweeping changes in agriculture in recent years have - with the exception of just a few countries - worsened the situation for the poorest and least powerful of the worlds people. In a world that harvests enough each year (1.798 million tons in 1983-84, for instance) to feed its population adequately twice over, an estimated 450 million people one in ten - are malnourished.

People go hungry when food is available for two simple reasons: because it is not their food in the first place, having been grown on land they do not own, and because they do not earn enough money to buy it. So increasing landlessness without an adequate income is a potent cause of hunger. An estimated 600 million people in the rural areas of the poor world have no land.

In many parts of the world it is new laws and competition with big commercial farms that have caused many millions of men to lose their laud. But women regularly lose their land rights under some of the oldest laws in history: the laws of marriage and inheritance. So complete is this disinheritance of women, that it has been estimated that they own less than one-hundredth of the world’s property.

Under Islamic law, for example (which operates in much of North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia). daughters inherit only half of what a son inherits and a widow gets just one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she has children, one quarter if she is childless. In Peru. Bolivia and Brazil too, married women are restricted in their ability to administer property without their husband’s consent. And it has already been explained how land reform has tended to exclude women. In Asia almost all women are landless because of inheritance and divorce laws which prevent women gaining access to a man’s land. Even where women can inherit - under the customary laws of the Hindu Mitakshara. Parsee and Christian sects in India. for example, or under Sawlawi law in Sri Lanka - they receive smaller shares than male heirs. Even in Africa. that one region where women have had, until relatively recently, traditional rights to land on a large scale, customary laws still tend to discriminate against women. In Sierra Leone, for instance, where an estimated 40 per cent of rural households are without an adult man. chiefs tend to allocate women a plot of communal land that is only a third or half the size of plots allocated to men.

Without land, property or a substantial regular income (collateral in banking terms) it is almost impossible for women (or men for that matter) to get loans. Only five per cent of the money lent by African commercial banks goes into agriculture at all, and almost all of that goes to men.

The FAO puts it like this: in the Third World agricultural productivity cannot be substantially increased, nor can rural poverty be alleviated, unless women’s access to key productive resources and services is substantially improved. The consequences of patriarchy for agricultural productivity are very expensive. Developing countries cannot bear their heavy cost.’

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Famine in Africa

The heaviest of the costs to which FAO is referring is famine. It is now becoming clear that the acute food shortages in Africa, while dramatically and tragically exacerbated by drought and war, may be due in large part to the way women have been systematically excluded from access to land and from control of modern agriculture in that region.

The processes are subtle but are beginning to prove devastating. And the devastation is greatest in Africa because this is the region where women do a greater proportion of agricultural work - between 60 and 80 per cent - than in any other continent. In Africa the pressures that bear down on rural women all over the world are magnified and mount up, one upon another, to force Africa’s food production down.

Even in 1980 - before the current drought blew its scorching winds across the continent, searing crops to dust - Africa was only 86 per cent self-sufficient in food.

Part of the problem is the sheer amount of work African women are expected to do. In Malawi, for example, women do twice as much work as men on the staple maize crop and an equal amount in the cotton fields, plus their domestic chores at home. And in Zambia, Ghana, Botswana and Gambia, studies found that the amount that was harvested depended, not on what the land could yield, but on the amount of work women could fit into the daylight hours.

Another reason for declining food production in Africa is the introduction of cash crops - to men. In the Ivory Coast, for instance, a shortage of food staples resulted when the government encouraged men to grow cash crops, because some of the best land (where women had previously been growing food) was claimed by their husbands for the new cash crop and because wives had to spend so much of their time working on their husbands’ fields, And the failure of plans for Gambia to become self-sufficient in rice by 1980 led to an increase of nearly 300 per cent in rice imports between 1966 and 1979, because, although Gambian women grow 84 per cent of the country’s rice, the agricultural advice and investment was given to men alone.

The combined results of factors like these is a gradual reduction in per capita food production in Africa over the last two decades. As FAO points out: ‘Despite the well-documented, crucial role that women play in food production in this region, agricultural modernisation efforts have excluded them, leading to negative consequences for food production and the perpetuation of rural poverty’.

Passive resistance

Women have not submitted lightly to their loss of land and livelihood. Some are objecting in the only way they can. They dare not actually go on strike: married women risk divorce and loss of their access to land if they defy their husbands, and mothers are prevented from withdrawing their labour completely through fear for the welfare of their children. But they are refusing to co-operate. When government pricing policies sent men’s maize profits soaring in Zambia and led to more land being put under maize, women kept working doggedly in their own groundnut fields and refused to turn them over to the more lucrative maize: because they - and not their husbands - kept the money from sales of groundnuts. A similar situation is seen in northern Cameroon. where women without husbands (who can therefore keep the income from selling the rice they grow) are found to work far harder than wives, who have to see the reward for their work go straight into their husbands’ back pockets.

Investing in women

It is a tragedy that women are forced into conflicts like these, because the evidence points to the fact that, given the same kind of help, encouragement and incentives as men, women are actually better farmers. In Kenya. for instance, where 38 per cent of the farms are run by women, those women manage to harvest the same amount per hectare as men, despite men’s greater access to loans, advice, fertilizers, hybrid seeds, insecticide. And when women were given the same level of help, they were found to be more efficient than men and produced bigger harvests.

The key, according to FAO, is to ensure that women can acquire and hold on to independent access to land and loans - independent, that is. of men. All-women co-operative farms and rural credit schemes appear to be the most promising way forward. And these have been tried with some success in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh. and India. But, laments FAO, Policy-makers and international experts have persistently resisted the idea of all-women’s co-operatives’ - even in West Africa where such co-operatives are traditional. And country-wide agricultural projects aimed specifically at women have not yet been implemented in any country, forcing FAO to conclude that: ‘No successes at the national level can be reported at this time’.

Yet when women are able to profit directly from their work in the fields, they are not the only ones to benefit. Studies in Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Swaziland have indicated that when women do have time or money to spare they use it to improve the health and well-being of their children.

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