Thursday, 18 September 2014

Voicing the needs of women farmers

“Women farmers are vital, in the poverty-ridden Eastern Gangetic Plains of South Asia”, says Dr Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, of the ANU.

ACIAR, with DFAT, funded a report by Dr Lahiri-Dutt highlighting the ‘feminisation of agriculture’ and the challenges facing women-headed farming households, in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. This is one of the poorest parts of the world – marked by male out-migration and deteriorating livelihoods.

Social and economic factors, and the need for off-farm income, have seen men increasingly move away from rural areas, to the point where up to 70% of South Asia’s agricultural work is done by women.

Dukhni Safi runs a farm of less than a tenth of a hectare in the Madhubani district of Bihar, India.
The farm is now so small it can only provide 4–5 months of the food required yearly for the household.

Women have emerged as the key producers, performing a wide range of tasks related to planning, cropping, managing, processing and marketing, in and around the agricultural fields.

The resulting women-headed farming households are often poor with small landholdings. These families and their livelihoods are further constrained by the lower levels of education and training afforded to women, and the discrimination to which they are subjected when accessing agricultural technologies.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report is based on a detailed survey of the serious constraints being faced by women living in this extremely poor setting. She knows this region and its challenges for women farmers intimately. Dukhni Safi and Sajjan Devi are farming women whose voices can be heard in two short but insightful case studies featured in the report.
Dr Lahiri-Dutt canvasses the opinion of these women – of their perception of obstacles and constraints, and of possible local solutions.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt recommends a series of strategies, that are gender sensitive, to improve education for women-headed farming households – for example, introducing women to more productive agricultural methods and extension services.

The burden of work on women is exemplified by the case of 30-year-old Sajjan Devi, a widow, pictured here with two of her three young children.
She also sees knowledge sharing among peers, and in group situations, as a necessity. Dr Lahiri-Dutt suggests that these informal and safe peer groups could evolve into cooperatives, aimed at securing training and improving access to money, resources and equipment.

In the Eastern Gangetic Plains region gender roles have significantly shifted in the past 50 years. Feminisation holds implications for agricultural productivity, food security and gender equity issues. It’s of interest as much for agricultural scientists as it is for development agencies.

Ultimately, Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report adds substantially to the field of agricultural knowledge by incorporating the voices of women. It will assist agricultural scientists and development agencies alike, in ensuring their programs and project activities are in tune with the actual needs expressed by women.
To reiterate, and as Dr Lahiri-Dutt says, the need to empower these women in their farming households is vital.

By Mr David Skinner (ACIAR Program Support Officer) and Dr  John Dixon (ACIAR Principal Adviser)

More information and further reading

ACIAR publication TR083 - Experiencing and coping with change: women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains

Dancing with the River: People and Life on the Chars of South Asia by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Gopa Samanta (Yale University Press, 2013)




  1. "Social and economic factors, and the need for off-farm income, have seen men increasingly move away from rural areas" I wonder a) why they don't take the women with them, as "we" would do "in the West" and b) why there are no programs suggested to bring some of the men back too by improving overall conditions conducive to earning a decent income by farming or as craftsmen etc.? Isn't it strange that half the population in a third world region moves out and in ... moves the Westerner to study?

  2. Women farmers are really important but they are not given that much concern and so it is essential that someone should stand by there side to raise voice.


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