Gender and development People

Posted November 1998

Women's Role in Rice Farming

by Tiina Huvio
Associate Professional Officer, Gender and Environment
Women in development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division


In their Rome Declaration on World Food Security, produced at the World Food Summit held in Rome in 1996, Governments reaffirmed the right of all people to have access to safe and nutritious food. Governments clearly acknowledged the fundamental contribution to food security by women, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, and the need to ensure equality between men and women. They also declared that their sustainable development policies would promote the full participation and empowerment of people, especially women. Overall, they noted that efforts to attain food security should happen within the framework of sustainable management of natural resources and the elimination of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.

As one crop contributing to overall food security, rice is the staple food of more than half of the world's population, most of whom live in less developed countries. In terms of global food security requirements, it has been argued that rice production must be increased by 70 percent to support the needs of the world's population by 2025 (Riveros, 1994). At the same time, new or improved technologies are also needed that support sustainable agricultural development and that make rice production efficient, cost-effective, and suitable for resource-poor farmers. In keeping with the goals and objectives of the World Food Summit, the policy environment and technology development related to rice-production must therefore respond to the realities of the critical people involved in producing, providing and managing food supplies – both men and women.

Throughout the world, rural women historically have played, and continue to play an important role in rice farming systems. Their roles and those of rural men are conditioned by several inter-related socio-economic (including class, ethnicity, age, religion), political and environmental factors and are known as “gender roles”. However these roles are dynamic and can change over time depending on changes in other factors noted above.

This paper attempts to highlight a few key issues of concern in terms of gender-differentiated needs and priorities in rice production that must be addressed both at the policy and project levels: i) technology assessment and development; ii) gender division of labour; iii) access to, and control over production resources and services; and finally, iv) research and policy implications. It builds on examples from various regions that highlight some of the different roles and responsibilities of women and men in rice production. It is only through an improved understanding of these gender concerns and their inclusion in policy and planning that rice production will more effectively and sustainably meet the food-security needs at all levels and for all people.

Technology assessment and development

The Green Revolution, with its package of improved seeds, farm technology, better irrigation and chemical fertilisers, was highly successful at increasing crop yields and augmenting aggregate food supplies. However, while it may have contributed to overall global food security, it did not necessarily address specifically the food-security needs at household and community level. In fact, research has shown that it had differential (and sometimes negative) impacts on resource-poor smallholder farmers, many of whom are women (FAO, 1996).

Studies on the impact of the Green Revolution have shown that technological change can generate major social benefits. Yet at the same time they can also generate significant costs for particular categories of rural women that are different in kind and in intensity from those experienced by rural men. For example, the introduction of high-yielding varieties of rice in Asia has had a major impact on rural women's work and employment by: i) increasing the need for cash incomes in rural households to cover the costs of technological inputs which has forced women to work as agricultural labourers; ii) increasing the need for unpaid female labour for farming tasks thus increasing women's already high labour burden; and, iii) often displacing women's wage-earning opportunities through mechanisation (FAO, 1996).

From the many lessons learned over the Green Revolution experience, FAO and others now recognise the need to develop more equitable and sustainable technologies that respond to gender-differentiated needs and priorities identified and that aim to improve food security for all, both at the household and national levels. Technologies and tools introduced to communities to improve productivity or efficiency are often based on rural men's needs and perceptions, which can substantially differ from those of women farmers. This is due in part to the fact that agricultural research, technical training, and extension programmes have been targeted primarily at men (FAO, 1996). Research on the gender-related impact of technological change in all areas of agriculture has shown that the development of new or so-called improved technologies must consider the intra-household divisions of labour, income and access to land in order to fully assess possible impacts. This holds true also for rice-farming systems as shown below.

One of the critical factors emerging that affects gender roles in rice production appears to be the farming system used. There are regions, which use traditional methods in rice farming, but new methods, and technologies are gradually spreading, particularly once other changing factors make their impact, such as changes from subsistence to cash production. Traditional methods, which are very labour intensive, involve the use of non-mechanical and very simple tools such as hoes, cutlasses and sickles. Usually these methods are employed in small fields, and particularly in those cultivated by women. (FAO 1984, Kumar 1985)

There are stories of success where women farmers' needs have been recognised and duly incorporated into rice technology development, for example in post-harvest technology design. Such stories, and the processes undertaken in identifying the gender-differentiated needs can act as models for both decision-makers and technology developers concerned with rice production. For example, in the Philippines, the Agricultural Engineering Division of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) designed a small dehulling machine, which became a success. This study was undertaken to look at women's workloads in the village and it was noted that dehulling was the most time-consuming and laborious activity of women's post-harvest duties. The dehulling machine reduced women's time on this activity as it did the same work in a few minutes that earlier had taken several women hours to do by hand. Subsequently, women formed a group to further improve the machine to meet their needs (Mowbray, 1996).

In the development of new technologies for rice production, local perceptions and must often be considered, and sometimes challenged as in the following case. Culture is not “static”, but dynamic; cultural “norms” also change over time depending on other socio-economic factors influencing a community (i.e. changing economy, etc.). A recent IFAD/FAO/FARMESA (1998) study in African countries found that in some communities the physical working position of a woman was indicative of whether or not the woman was perceived as a good worker. Certain tools, which would have made work easier for women were not acceptable by those interviewed, as they gave the impression that the woman using them was lazy. However, this example also indicates the importance of community discussion and the participation of both women and men in technology design and assessment, to indicate constraints to technology development and follow-up adaptation by women and men farmers.

Gendered division of labour in rice farming

Gender roles are the socially, not biologically ascribed roles of women and men, which can vary between different societies and cultures, classes and ages, and throughout different periods in history. Gender-specific roles and responsibilities are often conditioned by household structure, access to resources, and the specific impacts of the global economy, and other locally relevant factors such as ecological conditions (FAO, 1997). An analysis of the gendered division of labour within a household indicates how much time different household members devote to different tasks and why; and how these tasks change according to the season and the time of the day.

Women and men farmers' different responsibilities in agricultural production systems, including rice-farming systems, is in part due to the type of local ecosystem and farming system. Rice is typically produced in four ecosystems: irrigated land; rainfed lowland; upland; and deepwater and tidal swamps. Irrigated rice constitutes about half the total harvested area but contributes to more than two-thirds of the total production. All these ecosystems have different requirements and they face different constraints (Riveros 1994). In many areas, activities related to planting, weeding, harvesting and processing of the crop are the domain of women.

Overall, women's involvement in rice farming varies from region to region, and even within regions as shown by an example from West Africa. The percentage of labour supplied by women for rice cultivation varies, from 3% for floating rice cultivation (using animal traction) in Mali, to 80-100% in mangrove swamp rice cultivation in the Gambia and Liberia. In the latter case, women participate in most of the activities and usually undertake post-harvest processing of the crop. (Nyanteng, 1985). In some parts of West Africa, where rice is cultivated on small plots of land for household subsistence needs, the role of women in rice cultivation is critical.

Again in West Africa, in countries like the Gambia and Liberia, there is a clear division of labour between crops according to gender. A case in point is the Gambia, where swamp land farming is completely women's duty. Men cultivate cash crops and their fields are usually larger (FAO, 1984). Also in Mali rice was traditionally grown only by women near the rivers or wetlands (Synnevag, 1997). In much of Africa, women hold the responsibility for producing subsistence food crops for household consumption on their own plot or on the communal household fields.

In almost all rice growing areas of Asia, men traditionally undertake such activities such as land preparation, ploughing, irrigation and field-levelling. Women, on the other hand, are responsible for sowing, transplanting, weeding and crop processing (FAO 1997).

While women may be responsible for their own plots (either by right of use or by ownership), they are often obliged to help with the production of other crops, especially if this provides more income to the community. Increased demand for labour inputs, as in the case of irrigation, introduction of different cultivation techniques, or expansion of the land area planted can therefore create conflicts which must be resolved. Irrigated methods of rice farming usually increase the demand for labour, and often detract from the time women can use for their own plots or for other tasks (FAO 1984, Webb, 1985).

This may also be the case where available labour sources become increasingly scarce such as in the rural-urban migration of male agricultural labour. Because of this, women participate more frequently in activities which were traditionally dominated by men (Webb, 1985). As men move away and women remain, rural areas are populated by ever-higher proportions of women

Other factors such as the introduction and diffusion of improved rice production including rice varieties, irrigation, use of fertilisers and herbicides, and direct seeding have impacted the gendered division of labour on farm. MacPhail and Bowles (1989) noted that on irrigated farms in Sulawesi Indonesia, women spent more time on farm duties than in rainfed farms but their relative share of labour and cash earnings was lower than in rainfed areas. They also noted that no matter what techniques were used, men were primarily responsible for the tasks of land preparation, bund fixing, weeding and fertilising; women performed most of the work associated with harvest and post-harvest activities. In the irrigated areas, women's relative labour participation was higher in weeding, fertilising and harvesting tasks and lower in planting tasks, in comparison with rainfed areas.

Tisch and Paris (1994) compared the gendered division of labour between rainfed and partially-irrigated rice farming systems in different households in the Philippines. The study showed that in partially-irrigated systems, because of the introduction of labour-saving techniques, women could work outside the farms. Male family labour was used to substitute for the women's specific rice-production tasks. In households dependent on rainfed rice-farming systems, any increase in workload of the one spouse seemed to also increase the work load of the other. However, they noted that gender roles did not seem to be fixed in either of the rice production systems. Men and women swapped duties when technologies allowed them to do so.

In Bangladesh field-based stages of rice production are traditionally carried out by men. The use of female labour in rice production is higher than male labour in the poorest of families. In middle-class households, rice farming involved male and female labour almost equally. These households used more hired labourers to replace family labour. There is a tendency towards the growing involvement of women in field-based activities, because of male migration and male involvement in off-farm activities. In the past, women's increased responsibilities were not seen to be acceptable, but because of other changing socio-economic factors obliging women to take over men's, this is becoming more acceptable. Field activities are now defined in such a way that they can be seen as part of the overall household duties. (Jordans and Zwarteveen, 1997)

Truong Thi Ngoo Chi et al. (1994) carried out surveys in two irrigated rice farming systems in southern Vietnam and found that irrigation had increased the on-farm workload. Women began to participate in tasks such as land preparation, duties that were traditionally the realm of men. Weeding demanded a lot of women's time as well as irrigation responsibilities. Women also applied fertilisers and pesticides which in some parts of Asia are considered to be traditionally male responsibilities. Women were also predominantly responsible for seed storage. While women knew a lot about seed storage, they had very little information on the use of agricultural chemicals due to a lack of their involvement in training activities.

In many areas of India, weeding is typically women's responsibility whereas harvesting and post-harvesting activities are shared between men and women (Vedavalli and Sharma 1997, Vedavalli 1997, Saradamoni 1991, Sharma, Tripathy and Gurung, 1997). In some areas, including for example that of the Malayali people in Tamil Nadu, most of the tasks are shared by men or women and there does not seem to be any taboo forbidding women to take up any specific activities. Only the storage and preservation of seed material for use in the following season is noted as essentially and exclusively women's responsibility. Men in that area usually are responsible for sowing the seed. The reason for this seem to be that it is usually done in the morning when women are busy with other farm/household activities. Hence it would appear that the gender division of labour of the Malayali may be because of the conflicting demands on women's time (Vedavalli 1997).

In Jeypore India, the primary centre of origin of cultivated rice Oryza sativa, women have the major responsibility for selection and storage of seed for the next season (Sharma, Tripathy and Gurung,1997). On the other hand in Malayali culture (Vedavalli 1997) and in the Kurichiyas community, Kerala (Vedavalli and Sharma 1997) the decision to grow certain paddy varieties, based on various factors such as nutritive value, tastiness and size of the grain, are reached by both men and women farmers.

There are regions in India where the caste system prevents women from participating in field work. This is the case for example in Bhitarkanik, in the state of Orissa. Under rigid caste codes, women from upper castes are not allowed to be seen outside their houses. On the other hand, women from lower castes are able to move outside their houses, but even they do not participate in rice farming except for boiling the rice before the drying process (Kanvinde, 1997). Religious concepts of purity and pollution prevent women from participating in the selection of paddy seeds and in storing them in the Kurichiyas community. Only occasionally, older women may become involved in seed selection (Vedavalli and Sharma 1997).

There are very few studies on women's and men's different roles in rice farming in Latin America where in many areas, mechanised irrigated farming systems have been used in rice production since the Second World War (Ausberger 1990). Hypothetically, a high level of mechanisation can be seen as a sign of men's dominant involvement in a farming system due to the fact that related technologies, extension services, credit schemes, etc. have typically targeted and favoured men over women. It is noted that women participate in rice farming e.g. in the Peruvian Amazon region, (Ministerio de Agricultura, Peru 1997).

Access to and control of resources

From their work on upland rice farming, Jiggins & Fresco (1986) proposed that when evaluating a rice-based farming system, four issues in particular require attention in terms of resource utilisation:

Some of these issues are discussed in more detail below.

In many regions, both men and women smallholder farmers lack access to adequate productive resources. However, women's access to critical productive resources and services suffers even more limitations due to various socio-economic factors. Their control over these resources is even far-more limited. Both access to, and control over resources such as land, credit, agricultural inputs, education, training and extension services, and research and appropriate technology must therefore be seen within a broad gender and socio-economic context. Within a community, there can be many different views on how resources should be used. These differences often fall along gender lines, but they may also emerge along lines of age, ethnicity, caste, class, etc. A community using traditional farming methods may divide resources among the members of the community based on customary laws or traditions.

While national (and sometimes even customary) law may decree that both men and women may have the right at least to use land, if not own and inherit land, this is not always the case in reality. Carney (1992, 1993) has noted that in the Gambia, for instance, that the introduction of new techniques for rice-farming have negatively impacted women's right to use certain plots. The new techniques increased the value and economic income from rice farming, and men soon took control of both women's plots and their activities therein. Increased economic revenues always raise the value of the farming system and attract men's attention (FAO 1984, Kumar 1985, Carney 1992, 1993).

Access to land and the use of irrigation are intrically linked in many parts of the world. Jordans and Zwarteveen (1997) noted in a study on Bangladesh, that most families who had access to land stated that their incomes and household assets increased with the introduction of irrigation, because of the possibilities to produce two crops each season per year. However, landless households and particularly women without land expressed an increase in constraints in their lives because as irrigation increased the possibilities for higher incomes, rice farming became more popular, thereby creating greater competition for land. Women-only households typically lack access to credit systems and they cannot participate in sharecropping practices, which would give them access to land. Thus their possibilities to cultivate rice and gain financially from improved methods has decreased.

Research and policy making

Improved agricultural technology has been widely recognised as a prime force for improved agricultural productivity, as well as an engine for accelerating rural economic growth. While rural women are knowledgeable about, and use, a large amount of traditional technology, they have very little access to modern technology that could benefit them in their activities. In addition to points highlighted throughout the paper, this is due, in part, to women's exclusion from setting research priorities and from the generation and dissemination of “conventional” technologies.

One example from Bafoulabe cercle, in Mali clearly indicates how new rice technology is transferred mostly to men. It also shows the rich knowledge of local rice varieties that women hold and pass down from generation to generation. Rice was traditionally grown by women, and only women could identify and describe the local varieties in detail, in other words in terms of their growth cycle, plant growth habit, height, number of stems, grain yield, grain size, form and colour, preparation quality, utilisation and taste of the end product. While women cultivated 30 local varieties, men cultivated none. However, in terms of the four introduced improved varieties, men cultivated three and women only one (Synnovag, 1997).

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Gender Programme, and particularly the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA) have conducted a considerable amount of work in trying to link research carried out in regional and national research institutes to the reality in local communities (DANIDA and CGIAR Gender Programme, n.d.). An example from the Philippines shows that improved varieties which were designed using local knowledge and traditions were the ones accepted by local farmers. There are often complex factors that influence farmers' decisions in selecting seeds for cooking and storage for planting the next season. Previously, varieties introduced from outside had been chosen based on the researchers' ideas of the local farming system. Among other issues, this did not take into account local traditions and festivities which were key to seed selection and therefore improved varieties were not very successful in the communities. Those varieties which were based upon local women's and men's needs and preferences were instead welcomed and subsequent increases in yield also improved the local living standards (Mowbray, 1995).

Improved rice production to feed current and future generations can be achieved only if all stakeholders are considered in policy-making processes. It has been highlighted that the roles, responsibilities, needs and constraints of women, who carry out a considerable part of rice production, remain largely invisible in economic analysis and policy formulation. One of the first steps to improve the situation is to ensure that reliable and unbiased data is collected and made available on women and men's different roles in various rice farming systems. Furthermore, both quantitative and qualitative information must be analysed in a systematic and audience-specific way for use by policymakers and agricultural planners.

To achieve the necessary improvements, there is a need to involve all the stakeholders. Technology development by itself, without the inputs and suggestions of women and men farmers cannot ensure that rice production will be improved in sustainable ways. Their involvement in research, policy-making and planning is essential to ensure that the most productive and effective use of resources meets present and future food-security demands from the household to the global level.


Rice is one of the most important crops in the world. To be able to meet the needs of the future generations rice production should increase 70%. This can be achieved only with new and improved technologies which are adaptable also for resource-poor farmers. But not only technologies can ensure that there will be enough rice for consumers. It is critical to involve people who produce, provide and manage the crop.

It is seen that technical changes which have been planned according to men's needs and perceptions can in some cases even deteriorate women's conditions. One of the critical factors affecting women's role in rice farming is the farming system used. When technological changes are introduced, it is pivotal to understand how these changes can influence women's rights and responsibilities.

A recognition of gender roles and the specific needs of women is key to effective and productive rice farming. This article shows clearly that women's role in rice farming can vary considerably from continent to continent, from region to region and even from village to village. Accurate information on women's, as well as men's, contributions to rice production is essential not only to understand the importance of their work, but to support more effective production planning.

It has been noted that a lack of access to agricultural resources and services, including research, poses a fundamental constraint to women farmers. Improved access to, and control over, all productive resources and services, such as land, labour, credit and equipment for women are required to increase their capacity to generate much-needed income and improve their rice production. Clearly, this calls for more attention to women's participation in decision-making processes at all levels, from the community through district to national levels, and beyond as well as their improved legal rights over the use of resources.

Qualitative research on gender-based roles and relations in rice production systems, together with the use of improved methods for gender-responsive data would provide access to improved gender-disaggregated statistical indicators essential to decision-makers. Gender-responsive policies and planning processes, which take into account the complexities of women's labour, and the importance of their productive activities could overcome some of the constraints in rice production.

Overall, there is a real need to take a more holistic view of rice production systems and offer a framework for policy-makers and planners to better understand the dynamics operating at household and community level. It is only in this way that Governments and their partners will be able to support efforts to improve rice and other crop production in ways that are both sustainable and that meet the food security needs of all people.


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