Untold story of women’s polygonal role in agriculture Today, as the country pushes to achieve a US$5 billion industry by 2025, it is important to remember Newton’s third law of motion, minus its scientific insinuations, and look at how tobacco farmers’ activities will impact the environment.

Obert Chifamba Agri-Insight

IF ever there was a perfect time to empower women farmers, that time is now!

This is so because agriculture has transformed from just being a vehicle to achieving food security to becoming a serious business enterprise that deserves an equally solemn investment in labour as well as technical knowledge.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that women are champions in the deployment of all of these attributes.

They are responsible for the more time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks of crop and livestock production.

They are the ones who sow, apply fertiliser, weed fields, harvest, thresh, winnow, clean, sort, grade and store grain. It is an undisputed fact that they are a very vital cog in the functioning of rural economies.

Rearing of crucial small livestock units such as poultry and goats is usually their burden while they also make sure 60 to 80 percent of food production processes are taken care of in most developing countries like Zimbabwe.

Understandably, they have since time immemorial become custodians of vital knowledge on crop varieties and various production practices that are in most cases more environmentally friendly than those their male counterparts would have preferred.

Coming hot on the heels of the recent celebrations of the International Women’s Day, this article seeks to pay homage to the millions of women who toil day and night globally to make sure there is food on the table for their families.

Of course, both women and men participate in farming, with men dominating in tasks such as land preparation, ploughing and pest control while women in most cases undertake to execute the more critical ones such as watering (in gardens or even fields), planting, applying fertilisers, weed control, harvesting and marketing.

Women’s activities typically include producing agricultural crops, tending animals, processing and preparing food, working for wages in agricultural or other rural enterprises, collecting fuel and water, engaging in trade and marketing, caring for family members and maintaining their homes.

Aggregate data shows that women comprise about 43 percent of the agricultural labour force.

They play a crucial role in promoting food and nutrition security at both household and national levels, thanks to their vast knowledge of traditional farming practices and innovative approaches that help foster resilience and adaptation to environmental and climatic challenges.

This is despite having to contend with seemingly insurmountable gender-based barriers and inequalities that under normal circumstances should have seen them throwing in the towel. But they have not done that — they have soldiered on.

Women always demonstrate remarkable commitment, expertise and leadership qualities that have set the stage for a more inclusive and sustainable agriculture sector.

And, justifiably, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations was ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’ while the campaign theme was ‘Inspire Inclusion.’ Clearly, this is an acknowledgement of the need to empower women to do what they do best.

This theme calls for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected.

It is a call on governments and powers that be to make it their business to remove all impediments making it difficult for women to explore their full potential in agriculture.

They are an important engine of growth and poverty reduction through farming.

In most cases, agriculture sectors that underperform find themselves in such situations because women will not be readily accessing vital resources they need to perform to optimal levels, which reduces their productivity.

Gender-specific hurdles — such as restricted access to land, inadequate financing, lack of markets, agricultural training and education, unsuitable working conditions and unequal treatment place women farmers at a disadvantage well before they even start ploughing their fields or sow the first seed.

This year’s celebrations reminded all and sundry to stand with women and be part of their fight for equal rights and opportunities if the push to accelerate developmental progress is to succeed.

The theme of the day was also an honest reminder to everyone that it is crucial to support women with all the resources they need and they would have laid the foundation for food security and economic development.

The current push to accord women all the support they need in agriculture will start with ending cultural norms and discriminatory practices that hinder women’s access to land ownership, a critical asset in agriculture.

Women’s lack of control over assets restricts their access to credit, loans, and insurance, rendering them vulnerable to climate-induced losses.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent while the scarcity of a critical resource like water that women need for domestic purposes and irrigation, disproportionately affects them, as the responsibility to collect water naturally falls on the them.

Above all, the unavailability of water can reduce agricultural productivity, impacting both food security and incomes.

FAO further postulates that in the event of extreme weather events and changing disease patterns associated with climate change, women working in agriculture are unfortunately the most vulnerable because they would be exposed to harsh weather conditions that can result in heat stress or other weather-related health issues.

Pregnant women and young children are usually the hardest-hit and will incidentally need other women as caregivers.

This is, therefore, one area where men should encourage the women to adopt adaptive strategies, do income diversification and adopt climate-resilient crops.

It is also important for men to create enabling environments for women to receive training to equip them with new skills that align with emerging economic opportunities to enhance their (women’s) resilience in the face of the evolving agricultural landscape.

During a time like this when climate change is wreaking havoc in the agriculture sector, it is also important for men to ensure women have improved access to weather information and provide training on climate-resilient farming techniques such as crop diversification, agroforestry, crop diversification, water-efficient irrigation and soil conservation practices.

Ready access to weather information will allow women to make informed decisions on activities such as planting and harvesting.

The other important issue is financing.

Women farmers need fluid access to funding to enable them to access all vital services and inputs.

This is achievable through giving them access to microfinance services and insurance products that cover climate-related risks.

They also need the financial capacity to adapt and recover from climate shocks.

It is becoming increasingly critical for land tenure reforms to be fashioned in a way that also prioritises women’s rights and insurance mechanisms tailored to their needs in such a way that they bolster resilience against climate-induced risks.

The long and short of my argument is that it is vital to adopt gender-responsive strategies to address the specific needs of women in agriculture.

This includes ensuring access to resources such as credit, training, and technology, enhancing women’s participation in decision-making processes, and developing policies that promote equitable adaptation and resilience-building efforts.

Facts on the ground easily suggest that when more women work, economies grow.

“Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive development outcomes,” states a publication of the United Nations Women that also points out that conversely, it is estimated that gender gaps cost economies some 15 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP).

The same applies to the rural sector.

A third of women’s employment globally is in agriculture and yet, women farmers have significantly less access to, control over, and ownership of land compared to their male counterparts. FAO has since indicated that women represent just 12, 8 percent of the world’s agricultural landholders.

All attempts to develop agriculture would be useless if this problem is not solved.

A large number of women farmers operate at the subsistence and smallholder level, and sadly, a disproportionate share of the agricultural production is left in their hands.

With little or no access to modern improved technologies, there is a huge problem to secure them reasonable investments in capital, inputs and labour.

In the words of former President of Costa Rica, Mrs Laura Chinchilla on the occasion of the International Forum “Women in Agriculture” in 2010, “…there is no social sector more invisible, less understood and less served, than that of rural women, despite the vital role they play in our rural communities…”

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