Researchers of the Global Development Network (GND) believe that Sri Lanka’s female farmers need more support in order to be productive and indeed respected at the same level as their male counterparts.
Several policy briefs that are part of GDN’s global research project ‘Supporting Policy Research to Inform Agricultural Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia’ that is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was released in Colombo this week.
They point out that empowered women farmers can increase their income, develop a stable rural livelihood, and contribute to ensuring food security. However, south Asian countries rarely focus on this aspect of farming. The brief highlighted an example from Kerala, a state in south India, where 250,000 women farm 10 million acres of land.
In Kerala, the Sangha Krishi experiment shows that if women are supported with land ownership schemes and index-based insurance to become independent food producers, then they can play a significant role in promoting food security.
In stark contrast Sri Lanka has consistently ignored this vital aspect of agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) the labour force participation rate for women in farming is 33.5%. This is nearly half the rate for men, which is 65.3%.
Yet 41.5% of the employed women and 35.4% of employed men are engaged in agriculture and allied sectors. Women have extensive workloads with dual responsibility for farm and household production. Women’s responsibilities for home maintenance and household crop production increased due to the men’s heightened involvement in cash crop production, the FOA pointed out.
Nearly 68% of the women in agriculture, work in plantations and more than 70% of rural women are involved in subsistence production. Cleary they have an active role and are heavily involved in livestock production, forest resource use and fishery processing.
Women contribute considerably to household income through farm and non-farm activities as well as by taking employment overseas, most often in the service sector, but their work as family labour is underestimated and often unpaid.
In fact, 56% of the women work as unpaid family workers. Rural women’s participation in postharvest operations is very high. They constitute more than 50% of the total work force involved in postharvest operations. They perform various tasks, for example harvesting, cleaning, drying, and grain storage, while parboiling of paddy is exclusively women’s work. Rural women are also significantly involved in postharvest operations in maize and pulse grains.
Despite women’s important role in agriculture, customary laws and traditional social norms are generally biased in favour of men. They constitute a barrier to women’s equitable access to productive resources including access to finance and the ability to have independent farms.
Despite Sri Lanka’s generally positive record for gender equality, its lack in agriculture is often ignored and allowed to continue unaddressed. Mostly male policymakers have sidelined their importance and continue to take them for granted. This has had an impact on the country’s agriculture and food security needs, with the equitable distribution of resources also neglected.
Research is of little practical value unless the findings are implemented, and if regions like Kerala can do so, there is no excuse for Sri Lanka not to broaden its horizons as well.