More and more discussions about women, gender and their role in agriculture and climate change have arisen in recent years. Although in Europe women may not be widely regarded as doing much of the work of farming, in developing countries, they play a central role in agriculture. Women represent on average 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20% in Latin America to almost 50% in East and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2011) and globally they are taking on larger and more defined roles in food and agriculture, 70 percent of all farmers are women (Think Food Tank, 2014). Women engaged in agricultural systems are often cited as having increased means to ensure food security and improved nutrition of households by 2.5 relative to men, if they have access to 20-30 % of the same resource as men (WFP, 2013). Hence, women generally invest more in the health of their families if they earn more compared to the men, spending the majority of their income to the well-being of their children and family (CGIAR, 2014). Food security and improved nutrition of the household are normally main preoccupations of a woman and even more so in developing countries. I have many times reflected about women’s condition in agriculture. As my interest increased, I became more aware about their role in small scale production, both the Global North and the South. Each woman farmer has a different life story depending on her origins and shaped by the particularities of the upbringing by her societal context.
In Europe, I need not look further for proof of this than within my own family. My grandmother, and indeed all the women from her generation living in rural communities of Moldova, worked hard during the soviet period in the kolkhoz - the collective work farms of Soviet Union. As children, they worked the land side by side with their parents beginning at 3 am and sometimes working more than 16-hour days. From discussions with my grandmother I know that she, as other young rural children, chose to work on collective farms even before finishing primary school (before the age of 16) because the family needed money. All students and workers were working together on these collective farms but were paid individually, depending on each person’s productivity. The agricultural activities in the tobacco, sugar beet and corn fields, as well as in the vineyards, were done mainly by hand from early spring till late autumn. Only after 1960 did the work begin to become mechanized, but the hardest manual work continued to be done by women in the kolkhoz, while the men were working on the tractors, trucks and in the factories. Women were responsible for sowing the tobacco in specially arranged greenhouses, often working by candlelight due to lack of electricity. During the transplanting of new seedlings, women tended to the land and put compost on the field, while men warmed up the water for the irrigation beforehand. Harvesting was done by hand and the tobacco leaves were dried and kept in the house, with their toxic leaves threatening family health. Starting in the 1960s, the factories started to take over the process of drying and pressing of the leaves: in consequence, the families finally avoided the health problems due to tobacco toxicity. After 1991, the transition from Soviet republic to independent state played an important role in land reforms and farm structures. The privatization of farms left the small holders with a tiny portion of land, sufficient only for subsistence farming, while the capital assets from the kolkhoz (the machinery) were not shared. To date, 23 years after the kolkhoz disparities, the working conditions have remained mostly the same: no mechanization on small farms and mostly subsistence farming systems.
These days in Moldova, my grandmother’s generation has aged, has poorer health and is no longer able to work the land, while the younger population is seeking better opportunities in big cities. The lack of income generation from agricultural activities in the rural areas is leading to migration towards more developed countries. In my opinion, globalization is creating more gender gaps and risks for the women. From my own experience as a child in a post Soviet Union country, the wave of migration to the Russian Federation immediately after the independence and, later, on to Western Europe in search of paid labour is mainly pursued by men who leave their wives and children behind to bear the increased responsibilities for agricultural production on top of their traditional household responsibilities. These single women have to cope with heavy agricultural labour to assure the families’ food needs. Sometimes, the women remain all alone in the households when her children leave for schools in the city. Her life turns out to be dedicated entirely to food production, when there are no other opportunities for income earning. Therefore, while the global economic forces may have resulted in improved livelihoods for some, the situation of women in rural areas remains one of additional strain due to lacks in household labour and continued social exclusion.
I encountered another striking observation about women farmers while living in rural communities in Madagascar. There, the social position of women is far from the one they deserve and despite their heavy labour investment, women often lack decision making power and authority; they have limited access to the capital, land and resources. In Madagascar, women are responsible for food production and providing food is a long process, where women have to walk dozens of kilometers to bring water and fuel wood necessary for cooking. They identify a certain division of farm activities between men and women: the rice production is a “woman’s” activity and they are more efficient, while cash crops and income generation activities are the men’s responsibilities. Furthermore, rural women have limited opportunities for off-farm employment and subsistence farming activities do not create new opportunities for development. In order to contribute to development, women need support and access to the resources. They produce 20-30% less compared to men because of lack of resource (WFP, 2013) and thus the responsibility to provide food security for the family with limited resources remains a significant challenge for many women (CGIAR, 2014).
Agricultural activities are more physically demanding for women than for men. For example, I recently read an article about the consequences that the large physical strain that agricultural activities pose to mothers in rural Nepal. The article described one of them losing her child due to the need to continue to perform hard physical work in the fields throughout the last months of pregnancy. This strain is not only endured by pregnant women, but older women also have difficulty in engaging in day to day agricultural activities late into their lives. In my opinion women are the most vulnerable to agricultural and climatic changes, and meanwhile as the ones with the responsibilities to secure food they are often sacrificing their own share for their children and family members.
Younger or old, from the North or from the South, women working in agriculture all over the world face same similar problems, such as social pressure, and less access to information and resources. Often constrained by limited resources and authority, hard working women are principal actors in agriculture that contributes to food security, climate change adaptation and social development. Through capacity building, engaging women in social networks and associations, women could be a powerful force to reducing poverty, improving food security and livelihoods, and to building more sustainable agricultural systems. There are prominent discussions about women’s role in agriculture in developing countries and even more so with the designation of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, so let us continue to keep their contribution in the spotlight. Let us do more than take just one day a year to recognize the profound contribution that women make to our world. Let us thank our mother’s each day for shaping who we are and contributing to the betterment of the world we live in.