The invisible women farmers

IMG_1138 women road lowresOver the last year of my engagement in the farming sector, I have come across a curious fact – the paradoxical invisibility of women in agriculture.

When I drive through farming areas, I see women working in the fields, planting, weeding, and harvesting crops. However, when I meet farmer groups, all I see are men. When I talk to organizations running agriculture extension programs or market-linkage activities, all I hear about are male farmers.

So I wanted to understand: Are women are marginal contributors to agriculture or do they constitute a significant portion of the workforce?

I found reports and publications (even from reputable sources) listing numbers ranging from 18% to 60%, and sometimes even 80%+. So I did what by now seems ‘the usual’, which is dig into the original reports published by NSS and other government bodies.  Here’s what I discovered:

Total labour force in India:  The overall labour force participation rate in 2009-10 was 60% (84% of men aged 15-59, 35% of women worked (or searched for work). Total labour force in India = 430 million, out of 1.17 billion total population in 2009-10.

Total agri workforce:  53% of the working population, or 228 million people, are engaged in agriculture.

Women in agri workforce:  83 million women work in agriculture.  In rural areas, about 50% of the women participate in the workforce (all occupations combined), compared with about 25% in urban areas.

Percentage of women in agri workforce:  37%, or roughly 83 million.

It turns out that newspapers, and foundations citing statistics often mention incorrect numbers either because they misinterpret the data or don’t pay attention to details.  Is 53% of working population engaged in agriculture or 53% of total population? If we say that 80% of rural working women are employed in agriculture (which is true), that does not mean that 80% of agri workforce is female.


Summary: Agri-women by the numbers

  1. 18% of farming households are headed by women
  2. 37% of agri-labour is women
  3. 69% of all working women in India work in agri (but only 35% of working age women work)
  4. 83% of rural working women work in agri (and about 50% of rural women work)


Why does this matter?

Agricultural extension services are designed to help farmers make better decisions and also adopt better farming practices.  They are typically targeted at farmer groups and progressive farmers, all of whom are male.  Very few initiatives focus on reaching the women, who contribute 37% of the workforce in agriculture.

In a patriarchal society such as India, we can argue that in most cases the farming decisions are made by the men anyway, so maybe reaching out to men is sufficient and even more cost-effective.

Imagine a small production unit, with 20 employees.  The owner is a man, as are the majority of the employees.  The owner’s wife, daughters and sons also work in the factory.  Every training program held by the government and NGOs to help the factory improve its production takes in only the male owner, his sons and male relatives and male labour force.

It doesn’t take us long to see that this is simply absurd. Yet, for decade after decade, this is exactly what we’ve practiced.


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