International Women’s Day (March 8) is an occasion for women from all ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political arenas to forget their differences and join hands for common cause.
Nepali women have confronted poverty, violence, racism and sexism for a long time. Due to various constraints, women in general and rural women in particular have not been able to build their capacities. The lives of women farmers in remote villages typify the extent of poverty that Nepalis face.
They are struggling for survival. Their voice is not recognized. They are still inadequately represented in political, economic, and the social structure of the nation. This is because income distribution is very unequal as a result of weak policy. Economic empowerment of women farmers is critical if Nepal is to meet increasing demand for food grains.
Prosperous women farmers mean more employment. So women farmers must have a right to be involved in all economic processes at all levels of decision-making. When women lack title to land or housing they have to face problems like homelessness, poverty and violence. Throughout the world women farmers play a vital role in supporting their families.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, women produce more than 50 percent of the food grown worldwide. This includes up to 80 percent of food produced by women in African countries, 60 percent in Asia and between 30 and 40 percent in South America. But still women are getting poorer. The percentage of women below the poverty line has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, while the comparable figure for men increased only 30 percent.
A recent World Bank study found that if women received the same education as men, farm yields could rise by as much as 22 percent. But women farmers have access to only five percent of all agricultural extension services worldwide. “Because of this gender bias, policy-makers have very little data or analytical tools to measure the true social and economic value of women’s farm labour,” said Marie Randriamamonjy, Chief of FAO’s Women in Development Service. “As a result, rural women are ignored when national agricultural policies are designed. One of the reasons for the decline in women’s access to resources is that both land redistribution and subsidized agricultural inputs are in the hands of men who see women as dependents rather than individuals,” she added.
As land is the primary source of income and employment in Nepal, Women farmers need to have access to and control over land. The other problem that has been existing for decades is the irrigation canal systems. There is practically zero maintenance of such canals. Interestingly, a few hand pumps are the only source of water for a majority of women in the southern plains.
Poverty is closely associated with the lack of opportunities or access to facilities that improves knowledge and skills. It is very difficult for women farmers to have access to resources such as land, credit, agricultural inputs, technology and other services. Lack of easy access to rural financing, poor delivery system of modern agricultural technologies, poor quality of agriculture inputs mainly fertilizer and lack of effective institutions to facilitate agricultural marketing are some of the major causes for the low competitiveness of women farmers. Inadequate rural roads and insufficient electrification are other bottlenecks that have resulted in the increased cost of production of Asian agro-products.
If Nepal increases women farmers’ participation in market management genuinely poor women farmers would be able to sell their goods more effectively. Policy makers need new tools to help diagnose gender issues in irrigation schemes and design appropriate interventions. Trying to ensure all women participating in farming get equal access to irrigation water, without regard to the type or level of participation, is unrealistic and in the end fails to reach even those women whose livelihoods depend on having equal access.
Better regulatory systems, underpinned by effective information and education on crop protection methods, are essential. Women farmers need more aid. Women’s involvement in growing cash crops may be one of the effective ways to increase their income. The payment for cash crops is immediate as vegetables sell at a premium.
However, not all women farmers have the land or the capacity to shift to cash crops as it requires solid investment initially. Women’s access to cash crops also help relieve women’s cash constraints.
The on-going internal war in Nepal has caused major economic disruption. Women farmers have suffered a lot in terms of loss of means of production, household assets and other investments. Peace is the first requisite to improve the livelihood of women and their families in rural Nepal. A healthy and enterprising woman is not only an asset for her family, she is also a leading light for her society and the entire country.