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Rural women in household production: Increasing contributions and persisting drudgery

Rural women throughout Asia and the Pacific region make critical contributions to household production and consequently to household and national food security. Although the specific nature of their contribution varies among the various Asian and Pacific countries, clearly the majority of rural women take on an increasing share of household labour and their lives are characterized by mounting drudgery. Various studies produced in different countries in the region provide important findings on gender roles to guide policies and programme interventions that will improve the productivity of rural households. The lack of a systematic synthesis of the findings hinders efforts to build a realistic scenario of rural women’s roles in household food security. However, a general pattern of gender roles emerges from these studies indicating that both rural men and rural women in Asia and the Pacific contribute to farm and home production. Gender roles vary within and between countries determined by agro-ecological systems and crops grown, farming systems adopted, linkages with livestock and fish production and opportunities for off-farm occupations in the rural economy.

This analysis of rural women’s situation in household production synthesizes information from diverse sources into a framework portraying the diversity and complexity of rural women’s contributions. The framework presents linkages among gender specific contributions, drudgery and resource access constraints within the household and community setting. Rural women’s role in household production is considered in terms of farm production, home production, off-farm production and community production. The foundations of rural women’s contributions can be seen in terms of labour and managerial inputs, as well as local and traditional knowledge and expertise. Rural women’s gender roles, the community and household factors that affect women’s roles and responsibilities and that affect their access to food and resources are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Rural women in household production: Segments, tasks and access to food and resources

Source: Adapted from R. Balakrishnan. Widening Gaps in Technology Development and Technology Transfer in Support of Rural Women. In Human resources, agricultural and rural development. FAO, 2000.

In the context of economic, political, sociocultural and ethnic diversity in Asia and the Pacific region, the factors shaping rural women’s work and their economic and social contributions can be grouped in two broad categories, namely those imbedded in the community and those embedded within the household. In the nexus of a community, the economic production base determines rural women’s work in the various segments of production. In most countries, rural women actively contribute to community production thus improving social linkages and kinship relationships and facilitating resource exchange in times of need.

In the household nexus, the traditional gender role ideology, founded on culture and religious tenets, determines rural women’s participation in household production. Contributions made by women within the household increasingly are affected by changes external to the household. For instance, rural poverty has acted as a push factor whereas new economic opportunities outside the household have emerged as pull factors encouraging rural women to cross customary gender role boundaries and to participate in the economy outside the household, often in farm production and off-farm production. Yet although recent trends in agricultural diversification accompanied by commercialisation and marketisation have generated opportunities for off-farm paid work, rural women’s poor educational attainment, inadequate training and social immobility often have prevented them from responding to these opportunities. Even though short-term internal migration induced by subsistence economies and seasonal dimensions of agriculture production sometimes bring new work patterns for rural women, certain gender roles in household production tend to remain inexorably fixed. Across the region, work inside the home space that involves family care giving is almost always seen as women’s work. The women are primary care givers and domestic workers within the household space in every stage of the life cycle and this responsibility of care giving is expanded to serve the community’s needs too.

Rural women’s increasing economic contributions

In general, rural women’s work patterns are marked by change and continuity as well as flexibility and rigidity (Gurung, 1999). Change and flexibility are characterized by women taking on new roles in farm production, off-farm production and community production to ensure the family’s access to food and household resources. Continuity and rigidity relate to social norms that define gender roles and dictate that rural women and girls should assume home production responsibilities in rural households. The intrahousehold decisions on allocation of labour often are biased and relegate domestic tasks to women and girls. In the region, tradition driven socialization defines the tasks and taboos in the economic and social spheres among rural women. Increasingly, faced with economic pressures, gender roles may become flexible to enable women to engage in work traditionally regarded as belonging in the male domain. However, the rigid gender role definitions dictate that men should not perform household tasks. A pattern of gender roles marked by diversity in flexibility and change as well as convergence in rigidity and continuity is described with illustrations from various countries.

South Asian rural women

South Asian

In Bangladesh, participation in economic activities varies considerably according to gender, the type of activity and the place of residence. Rural women traditionally have played an important role in a wide range of income-generating activities. These rural production activities include post-harvesting, cow fattening and milking, goat farming, backyard poultry rearing, pisciculture, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, cane and bamboo works, silk reeling, handloom weaving, garment making, fishnet making, coir production and handicrafts. A significant number of rural women, particularly from extremely poor landless households, also engage in paid labour in construction, earthwork and field-based agricultural work, activities that traditionally have fallen within the male domain. The tradition of female seclusion is overlooked to provide for the economic needs of the family. Unpaid family workers, among whom women are disproportionately represented, are a major source of labour in the agriculture sector in Bangladesh (Pal, 2001).

One study of intrahousehold organization of rice production (based on a relatively small sample) found that the extent to which male and female household members are involved in irrigated agriculture and irrigation management is related to the amount of land owned by the household and to religion. It suggests that female family labour plays a more important role in rice production than male family labour, and points to differences among households in different economic categories. For instance, a higher percentage of female labourers from middle class households are involved in rice production (mostly transplanting and crop processing tasks) compared to marginal farmer households. In the middle strata, women in Hindu male-headed households contribute 54 percent of all labour in rice production, compared to 31 percent in Muslim male-headed households. When a comparison is made of labour allocation based on tasks, a modified labour pattern emerges. Apart from the traditional crop processing tasks, female family labour also is used for making seedbeds, uprooting seedlings and transplanting, fertilising, weeding and harvesting, all traditional male activities. Women, almost equal to the contribution of male family labour, carry out some 40 to 50 percent of field irrigation and non-farm water management (Jordans and Zwarteveen, 1997).

In Bhutan agriculture is the primary economic activity in rural areas; other dominant activities are kitchen garden and livestock. Rural women engage in main economic activities and are main workers of supplementary activities with some differences among the locations. Certain regions have more women main agricultural workers than men with distinct divisions of labour on gender lines (RGB and UN agencies 2001).

In India, the national rural female work participation rate is 22 percent according to the National Sample Survey Organization (1996). However, as shown in Figure 2, this national average masks significant regional variations among states as a result of diversity among population groups, agro-ecological systems and the social and economic organization of production. The level of mechanization in the agriculture sector also helps to explain the variations in women’s participation in the rural labour force. For instance, in Punjab where the Green Revolution ushered in prosperity and where agriculture is highly mechanized the rural female work participation rate is the lowest. By comparison, Andra Pradesh, which depends on women for labour-intensive crops like cotton and groundnut that are grown in dry conditions, shows the highest level of rural female work participation.

Figure 2. India: Participation of rural women in India in the labour force

Source: K. Menon-Sen and A.K. Shiva Kumar, Women in India: How Free? How Equal?

Social customs, traditions and cultural considerations as well as cropping patterns and cultivation practices affect the type of work performed by men and women in India. A study by IFAD in the tribal areas of Madya Pradesh in 1997 recognized male-female sharing of domestic and productive work. It found that both women and men work in agriculture, collect and sell non-timber forest products during certain months of the year, and engage in wage labour. However, this equality in work activities was not reflected in decision-making concerning income allocation in which men played a dominant role (IFAD, 1997). Another study that covered three ecologically distinct and fragile regions in India concluded that while agriculture is a household enterprise, social norms demarcate the division of labour based on sex and age. In general, land preparation and ploughing are seen as the responsibility of men, and activities like transplanting and weeding are regarded as women’s jobs, whereas both men and women perform activities like harvesting and post-harvesting. However, in certain areas, at times of heavy demand for labour, women also undertake some of the heavier traditional male activities like land preparation. In the case of little millet cultivation in the Kolli Hills, women are responsible for most agronomic practices and post-harvest operations including seed storage, supply and exchange (Rengalakshmi et al., 2002).

In the Maldives, changes in the fishery sector have reinforced the segregation of tasks between the sexes and exacerbated the inequalities between them. Traditionally, men were engaged in fishing and women in small-scale fish processing. The resulting product, known as “Maldives fish”, was recognized as a delicacy in countries like Sri Lanka and exported widely. At the time when “Maldives fish” formed the country’s main merchandise export, the participation of women in the labour force was greater than 50 percent. This was one of the highest rates in the developing world at the time. Since then, modernization of the fishing industry has enhanced opportunities for fishermen, enabling them to increase their catch and sell it directly to collection vessels, which subsequently export it in frozen form or give it to canning factories for processing. Consequently, opportunities for women to engage in fish processing were seriously curtailed, causing the female labour force participation rate to drop to 21 percent in 1985, and 19 percent in 1996 (Dayal, 2001). At the same time, women became more heavily involved in subsistence agriculture, practiced as home gardens in small plots, and seed selection (Kanvinde, 1999).

A substantial proportion of Nepalese women (40 percent) are economically active. Most of these women are employed in the agriculture sector, the majority working as unpaid family labourers in subsistence agriculture characterized by low technology and primitive farming practices. Indeed, with as men increasingly move out of farming, agriculture is becoming increasingly feminized (Acharya, Acharya, and Sharma, 1999). In addition to a culturally based division of labour, women’s work load has increased because of: i) geographic and infrastructure factors; ii) out-migration and iii) new activities promoted under development projects (IFAD, 1997). Important changes in the traditional agropastoral economy and increases in non-agricultural activity have created formal and non-formal employment opportunities in the export-led industrial market which relies heavily on low wage female labour. This new phenomenon has arisen in response to a mix of basic survival needs and new desires generated by increased exposure to the world beyond the village. A nationwide study has identified three resource development strategies - the family farm economy, the local market economy and short term migration - adopted by rural families. About 67 percent of women participate in the family farm economy and 59 percent in the local market economy, whereas 75 percent engage in short term migration. It should be further noted that the strategy adopted by women varies according to busy and slack agriculture periods (Shtrii Shakti, 1995).

“In Nepal, in addition to a culturally based division of labour, women’s work load has increased because of i) geographic and infrastructure factors; ii) out-migration and iii) new activities promoted under development projects.”

In Pakistan, women are key players in the agriculture sector which employs almost 12 million women in the production of crops, vegetables and livestock. The cotton crop, accounting for half of national export earnings, depends heavily on female labour. Women have the exclusive responsibility for cotton picking, exposing themselves in the process to health hazards emanating from the intensive use of pesticides (Bari, 2000). One study on gender in Pakistan found overwhelming evidence of a division of labour based on gender and family status in which men are responsible for “market” work (such as farming, herding and other income generating activities) and women are responsible for “home production” activities (Fafchamps and Quisumbing, 1999).

“South Asian rural women contribute to agriculture and rural production as unpaid family labour in the farm and in the home as well as increasingly as agriculture wage labourers and producers of crafts and processed products. By comparison, in many parts of South Asia (notably Bangladesh and India), purdah and other cultural norms traditionally have restricted women’s movement and limited their participation in fish harvesting.”

Since the days when women from southern India were recruited to fulfil the labour demands of colonial plantations in Sri Lanka and thus become the first wage earners in the country, women have played an important role in the agriculture sector. In 1997, about 42 percent of the female labour force in Sri Lanka was engaged in agricultural activities. Gender roles in Chena (slash and burn cultivation), rice paddies and home gardens vary according to the cultivation practiced in these systems of production. Whereas men participate extensively in land preparation, sowing, the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and marketing, women take on activities related to transplanting, post-harvesting and household level processing of home garden produce (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, 1999). Yet despite the contribution of women to the sector, their role has tended to be seen as secondary to that of men. Consequently, women farmers in Sri Lanka are normally seen as “farmers’ wives” rather than as economic producers in their own right. The failure to develop local industries in the rural sector has further limited women’s access to off-farm employment opportunities (Jayaweera, 1999).

“Women farmers in Sri Lanka are normally seen as “farmers’ wives” rather than economic producers in their own right.”

Southeast Asian rural women

Southeast Asian

According to the Cambodia Human Development Report, 55 percent of the labour force in the agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors is made up of women (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2000). Another report finds that nearly 80 percent of workers in the agriculture labour force are engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture; women comprise 56 percent of the primary workforce in subsistence agriculture and 54 percent of the workforce in market oriented agriculture. Most of these women are unpaid family workers (MWVA, 2004). The organization of labour appears to be centred on household availability of labour, exchange labour and hired labour. As such, men and women share many farm activities (such as carrying water and fuel wood and tending livestock) within the wide variety of tasks carried out by household members (JICA, 1999).

In Indonesia, women represent the mainstay of rural households, providing family as well as farm labour. Agriculture accounts for the highest share of rural employment, with some 63 women working in agriculture per 100 men. Since most rural households control small amounts of land or have no land at all, rural women often seek to supplement household income and food security through off-farm employment in small and medium enterprises, some of which have links to agricultural production (Mugniesyah, 2002). In Bali, women are active in fish marketing, but in South Sulawesi men completely control marketing (Felsing et al., 2000).

In Lao PDR, studies have recorded that women and girls perform 50 to 70 percent of agriculture and productive tasks in addition to household activities. Women farmers produce mostly for household consumption, and rural women obtain as much as 30 percent of the family diet and household needs from foraging (UNICEF, 1996). Gender roles and the involvement of women in household decision-making processes related to agriculture and aquaculture vary by region and ethnic group (Murray and Kesone, 1998).

Malaysia, one of the East Asian success stories, experienced a fundamental shift in employment patterns over the last 15 years. Though previously major sources of Malaysian women’s employment was agriculture, forestry, livestock and fishing, these sectors in 1995 employed just 15.9 percent of female workers and 20.3 percent of male workers. Malaysian women have taken advantage of the economic transformation to move into relatively better paid opportunities in other sectors. At present, the manufacturing sector is the single largest employer of women, followed by community work, the public sector, social services, trade and agriculture (Ahmad, 1998). Agriculture sector data from various studies show different participation levels of women according to different crops (Figure 3). Women are most extensively involved in field crops (working on estates and smallholdings) such as rubber, cocoa, coconut, coffee, tea and other diversified short term cash crops cultivation and mixed farming. Very few are directly involved in oil palms, except to work as labourers for weeding (Masud and Paim, 2004). In irrigated rice cultivation areas, mechanization has displaced female labour to a large extent. A study conducted by Kumi et al., (1996) shows that despite mechanization, male farmers still depend on family labour for certain farm activities. Women’s participation in rice production areas has declined. In other sub sectors of agriculture, however, (apart from oil palm and irrigated, mechanized rice production), the percentage and extent of women’s involvement is still high.

Figure 3. Malaysia: Percentage distribution of employed persons in selected agriculture occupations by sex, 1995

Source: J. Mazud, and L. Paim. Women in Agriculture and Rural Economy: Malaysia.

Findings from a study completed by FAO (Khin Pwint Oo, 2003) in Myanmar, record rural women’s key contributions to household food security marked by diversity in work patterns in agriculture and food production, but there is evidence of gender role flexibility as occasion demands. Traditionally, men’s agriculture activities include land preparation, ploughing and levelling fields, whereas sowing, transplanting, weeding and reaping are women’s work. Post-harvest activities of threshing, winnowing, seed management and transporting grains from field to home is the work of both men and women. Women from poorer households are more involved in agriculture fieldwork than those from less poor families. Poorer women are also heavily involved as family farm workers and agricultural labourers to contribute to family income and food security. Women also participate in the cultivation of secondary crops and work as waged agricultural labourers in cash crop production. Home garden cultivation is the responsibility of women.

The majority of working women in the Philippines - more than 50 percent in 1997 - continues to work in the agricultural sector. Women also dominate the rural informal employment market (APEC North-South Institute, 1999). Data from five rice-growing villages indicate that women tend to work as much as men in both farm and non-farm activities (Estudillo et al., 2001). It is now documented and recognized that the contributions of female family members are higher in rainfed and upland rice farming environments whereas the contributions of hired female labourers are higher in irrigated rice environments (Paris, 2000). The contribution of women to livelihood appears to be evident in the sweet potato-based livelihood systems of the Philippines. They have been known to contribute a more significant part of the labour force in sweet potato production than in any other crop. They also are active traders of sweet potato in local markets (Sister, 2002).

In Thailand, women play a major role in rural production systems and income generation; in 1995 about 40 percent of women worked in agriculture. All members of smallholder households, regardless of age and sex, participate in agricultural production. Yet the participation of rural women in the labour force is highest - approximately 80 percent - among older age groups (30-34, 35-39, and 40-49 years) (Thonguthai et al., 1998). As opportunities for wage and self-employment outside rural households have increased along with economic transformation, the participation of rural women in the economy has begun to resemble that of urban women. A study in one neighbourhood of Bangkok confirmed the importance of women in marketing agriculture produce. A survey of ten agricultural produce markets indicated that about 80 percent of fruit and vegetables stalls were owned by women (Korsieporn, 2000).

In a study of gender roles and technology needs in six villages of Thailand it was found that rural women in all of the villages played a major role in all aspects of paddy production, including seed preparation, transplanting, weeding, fertilizer application, harvesting and seed preparation (Balakrishnan et al., 2003). Given the lack of appropriate technologies for most paddy farming activities, women perform labour-intensive tasks with the use of simple and traditional technologies. By comparison, men are responsible for those aspects of paddy production that are mechanized such as use of the tractor for ploughing. Similarly, in orchard (such as guava and mango) and cash crop production (such as peanuts and mung beans), women engage in labour-intensive, simple and low prestige tasks, whereas men are responsible for mechanized tasks. For instance, in cassava production women are responsible for weeding, hoeing and digging at harvest time.

“In Southeast Asia countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam, women normally play an important role in processing and marketing fish.”

In Viet Nam, data from the recent Viet Nam Living Standards Survey have demonstrated the extensive participation of women in the agriculture sector. As illustrated in Figure 4, the data show that the contribution of rural women exceeds that of rural men in livestock production, and equals that of men in crop production. The survey data further revealed that in the five-year period between 1992/93 and 1997/98, wage employment increased from 26 percent to 32 percent among male and female adults in the 18 to 64 year age group. Moreover, in the case of women, most of this increase occurred in rural areas; there was no change in urban areas. Another recent study corroborates these findings regarding women’s contributions to rural production systems and reiterates the major role of women in livestock rearing. It found that women’s labour accounts for an average of 69 percent of a household’s total labour (Desai, 2001).

Figure 4. Participation of the labour force in crop production, livestock maintenance and aquaculture in Viet Nam

Source: J. Desai, Viet Nam through the lens of gender: Five years later. Preliminary results of second Viet Nam living standards survey.

East Asian rural women

East Asian

In China, large variations in agro-ecological characteristics, crops grown and livelihood options result in wide differences in the situation of rural women. The pace of economic growth and the move towards a market-based economy has quickened during recent years, bringing a number of changes that have had both positive and negative influences on the lives of rural women throughout the country. Although some rural women have benefited from emerging economic opportunities in the expanding economy, others have encountered threats to their rural livelihoods and a greater struggle in their daily lives.

An IFAD study found that rural women in China spend more time in their reproductive role (56.7 percent) than in their productive role (43.3 percent). It is important to note, though, that there were considerable variations in time allocations among the provinces studied, and that time use patterns varied significantly by age and education. For instance, women over the age of 50 spend most of their day on housework, as physical labour in the fields is considered too taxing. Middle-aged women play a key role in the home and share crop and livestock activities with men. As in many places, younger women often prefer alternatives to farming whenever possible. The study also recognized seasonal differences in time use patterns in rural areas. For example, women might work from 8 to 10 hours in the fields during the busiest agricultural season, and they engage in green house production and other income generating activities during less busy periods (IFAD, 1995).

A case study in the mountainous Yunnan Province found that women perform 80 percent of agricultural work and engage in all activities (including cultivation, crop management, harvesting and marketing) with the exception of ploughing. The involvement of women in agriculture appeared to be determined by their social position in the family. Younger women and middle-aged women are responsible for most agriculture and forestry activities (such as collecting fuel wood, non-timber products and pine leaves for barn yard manure) during the slacker farming season from November to January. Women older than 60 years do not perform any agricultural activities, while girl children help with household chores and look after their younger sisters or brothers. The efforts of boy children are relatively less structured (Jieru, 1999).

“In China, large variations in agro-ecological characteristics, crops grown and livelihood options result in wide differences in the situation of rural women. The pace of economic growth and the move towards a market-based economy has quickened during recent years, bringing with it a number of changes that have had both positive and negative influences on the lives of rural women. Although a segment of rural women has benefited from emerging economic opportunities in the expanding economy, others have encountered threats to their rural livelihoods and a greater struggle in their daily lives.”

A study from a different province in China found that women are not uniformly excluded from off-farm employment opportunities and that economic development does not uniformly increase gender inequalities within Chinese households. It observed that although men are more likely than women to obtain off-farm employment, women’s opportunities for off-farm work improve significantly when the coexistence of local and regional marketisation creates a shortage of male workers and compels employers to hire women. It further noted that the relative size of contributions to household income for male and female non-farm workers narrows incrementally with increased marketisation. At the same time, women who are left to perform agricultural work are more likely to become heads of household, a position that brings greater household decision-making power to female family members (Matthews and Nee, 2000).

Nomadic households in Mongolia play a part in the productive and reproductive economies; rights and responsibilities within households are differentiated by gender. Although traditional nomadic herding maintained clear distinctions between men’s and women’s work marked by a mix of cooperation and specialization, the emergence of privatization has blurred some of the role distinctions with more women and boys taking on work that traditionally was perceived to be in the male domain. Privatization also provided opportunities to increase herd size and expand milk processing, traditionally the work of women in the ger, which in turn has resulted in more work for women. Although the volume of paid and unpaid productive work that is regarded as women’s responsibility has increased, some traditional work divisions are strictly maintained. As a result of this flexibility in some work activities (where women and boys take on men’s work) and continuing rigidity in others (where women’s tasks remain theirs alone despite an increase in workload), the overall work load has intensified for women (UNIFEM, 2001).

Central Asian rural women

Central Asian

In 1998, Kazakhstan’s rural areas incomes predominantly depends on the agricultural sector which employs approximately half of the female rural labour force (ESCAP, 1999). In 1998, women accounted for about 3 513 million of the agricultural population (total of 7 107 million) which accounted for 46.2 percent of the entire female population. The wages for agricultural workers is the lowest among all sectors of employment. Economic difficulties complicate the lives of rural women (Zholaman, 1999).

Economic reforms in Kyrgyzstan affect the economic conditions of rural women. In 1997, female employment in the agriculture sector was 37.5 percent which had decreased slightly since 1991. Home farming helps to ease economic hardship. The self-employment trend shows that women work in home farms, take the produce to market and sell their home garden produce. Most women also take up dairy and animal farming (Kumskova, 1999).

In Tajikistan, provisional official statistics show that women’s relative share of agriculture, forestry and fishing increased from 18.8 percent in 1991 to 29.3 percent in 1998, and that women earned an average monthly wage of just $6 in 1998. The agriculture sector employs 54.1 percent women and 46.2 percent men. Women make up about 8.5 percent of collective farmers. Employment status compared by type of enterprise and ownership shows that under the collective farmer category 29.9 percent men and 40.6 percent women are represented; under the private farm category, 2.2 percent men and 2.4 percent women are included. Women’s low wages are a function of women’s occupational segregation into low paid occupations such as education and health and low skilled occupations such as agriculture (ADB, 2000).

Women in the rural areas of Turkmenistan make up 22.2 percent of the employed labour force. The main areas of employment for rural women are farmer associations, farms and the informal sector. Women account for 64 percent of home farm workers and almost 71 percent of household workers. Hence, widespread home farming and lease of agricultural land result in the use of women and children as unpaid labour (ESCAP, 1999).

In the Republic of Uzbekistan, in 1998, most of the employment was still found in the rural areas with 39 percent employed in agriculture; men accounted for 60.3 percent and women for 39.7 of the total agriculture and forestry workforce. In agriculture, men work as highly qualified machine operators whereas women remain unqualified, seasonal labourers. Female employment in agriculture was high. Privatization has not provided rural income and employment opportunities due to the interplay of complex factors. Women, however, have taken advantage of other opportunities such as food processing and the sale of agriculture products from their home gardening (ADB, 2001).

Pacific Islands’ rural women

Pacific Islands’

In the countries of the Pacific Islands, smallholders represent the largest production unit, producing goods for use in the home, for exchange, and for sale in domestic and export markets. Traditionally, women and girls assumed primary responsibility for food production and family food security by growing crops in homestead gardens, rearing small livestock, producing handicrafts and engaging in other value added activities (such as copra making, fish drying, weaving, coconut oil production, preparation of traditional medicines, planting materials and seeds). Men, on the other hand, engaged in cash cropping. Over time, as cash cropping acquired a higher status for its economic value and contribution to national development, the various kinds of agricultural work performed by women remained associated with food security and were regarded as somewhat lesser in importance in the emerging economic model. Although some reports indicate that agricultural production may be declining in the Pacific, the limited data available show that women’s role in agriculture is increasing throughout the entire production and post production chain, as shown in Table 7.

The most current data on women and men’s work in the family smallholder system comes from the 1999 Samoa Agricultural Survey, which indicates that women of all ages are engaged in farm management, production and marketing. According to the survey, the overwhelming majority of farm operators are male (17 993) as opposed to female (185); two out of every five farm labourers are female; women are responsible for almost half of agricultural trading and women outnumber men in handicraft production by a ratio of nine to one. Given the similarities with neighbouring countries, this data set reinforces the view that sharing tasks by gender is the norm in family systems throughout the Pacific Islands.

Table 7. Type of weekly farm and craft activity by age and sex in Samoa

Life cycle Age


Farming assistance

Farming sales













5 020

1 481




1 088


1 756


4 487

1 346




1 813


3 057


2 556

1 767




2 470


2 637


2 041

1 839




2 446


2 441


1 448

1 463




1 976


1 861


1 486

1 329




1 927


1 774



1 354




1 838


1 130



1 116




1 276


1 028







1 253









1 394









1 110




















17 993


21 781

13 831

6 100

2 583

2 515

20 303

Source: Samoa Agricultural Survey (1999).

The findings of the Samoa Agricultural Census further reflect the role of women in waged agricultural employment and point to new trends for women to become involved in part-time farming. Women in part-time employment spend an average of 58 hours per month in agriculture, which is close to the amount of time recorded for agricultural workers (63 hours) and more than that of male part-time workers (53 hours). Women in full-time waged employment spend roughly 8 hours per week working in agriculture in addition to their full-time jobs. These trends, which also have been observed in neighbouring Pacific Island nations, may reflect a loss of confidence in agriculture, the desire to spread risks, the need to supplement incomes because of the increased cost of living and/or the low degree of regular or specialized input required. High levels of female participation in part-time agricultural work also reflect unique local factors. For instance, in Samoa those factors probably are tied to the shortage of agricultural labour caused by migration, whereas in Tuvalu they point to the absence of men because of employment on seagoing vessels.

“In the countries of the Pacific slands, smallholders represent the largest production unit, producing goods for use in the home, for exchange, and for sale in domestic and export markets. Traditionally, women and girls assumed primary responsibility for food production and family food security by growing crops in homestead gardens, rearing small livestock, producing handicrafts and engaging in other value-added activities. Sharing tasks by gender is the norm in family systems throughout the Pacific Islands.”

Studies indicate that women in Fiji and Samoa play a significant role in the dairy industry, and that women in Vanuatu are involved alongside men in pasture establishment, weeding and fencing on 73 percent of cattle smallholdings. Studies from Fiji show that among inhabitants of the same village, women recognize and use more plants, which can be explained by their multiple family and community responsibilities (Lechte, 1998).

Worsening economic conditions in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Samoa have stimulated a marked increase by women in informal trading, particularly in agricultural goods (such as crops, marine goods, livestock, handicrafts and cooked foods), which augurs well for family food security. A random sample from the Solomon Islands shows that some 66 percent of women engage in informal trade, compared to 70 percent in Samoa. The survey also underlined the importance of income from informal trading in these countries where it represents the single source of income for as much as 70 percent of families in the Fiji sample, 33 percent in the Solomon Islands and 24 percent in Samoa. Cook Islands’ women’s significant involvement in agriculture is reflected in their extensive role as market gardeners to meet local consumer demand that serves the tourism industry. Women also tend livestock, do subsistence fishing, process fish, make copra and do pearl farming. These women’s role in agricultural activities changed from that of traditional domestic input to small commercial producers within the last 20 years. Many women continue as unpaid workers for family and community endeavours (Kingstone, 1995).

Deep-sea fishing, an essential part of local economies in the Pacific Islands, traditionally was the domain of men; women and girls traditionally gleaned the reef and inshore lagoons for marine foods as shown in Table 8. Recently, increasing global demand for marine products, new technology (for instance in the aquaculture and seaweed industries), depleting fish stocks and the need to earn cash have initiated changes in the traditional gender divisions of labour. Consequently, women now are more involved in fishing than previously, particularly in atoll communities like Kiribati where marine products have become key export goods.

Table 8. Women’s participation in fishing activities in South Tarawa by type of activity and place



Women’s participation (percent)


Fishing rod
Hand lining
Seaweed farming
Lantern fishing

at least 80 in the outer islands


Fishing rod



Drop and deep bottom lining


Source: Tekinatiti T. and Wichman V. SPC Report Materials from Focus Group Meeting, Fisheries Division, representatives of fisherwomen, and Atoll Research Programmes/USP Research Staff (September 1995).

The above review examined the working lives of rural women in various Asian and Pacific Island countries and presents evidence of the crucial contribution by women of all ages to food production and food security across the region. The extensive and diverse responsibilities taken up by rural women in local agricultural and non-farm production systems are established in the community and household nexus in which they function, and are influenced by national and global factors beyond their control.

Persisting household drudgery

Rural women throughout Asia and the Pacific region work long hours and confront drudgery as a reality of their daily existence. Poor women pursue a number of survival strategies to earn enough cash to feed and maintain their families; one indisputable facet of these strategies is the frequent and inordinate extension of working hours inside and outside the home. A review of case studies provides evidence suggesting that poor access to basic services such as water and sanitation, coupled with the need to search for fuel and food supplements, extends and intensifies the typical day of a rural woman, while adding innumerable difficulties.

A case study of mountain women in Darjeeling, India recorded their increased difficulty to find fuelwood in the forest following deforestation, and the consequent addition to women’s workload and the toll on their health (Gurung, 1999). Similarly, women in Nepal take on the double burden of working for the family and on the farm (Acharya, Acharya, and Sharma, 1999). A recent IFAD study found that women in Nepalese hill districts had heavy workloads and high levels of physical vulnerability, albeit with differences between classes and castes, working for about 16 hours per day compared to only 9-10 hours for men. In addition to being overworked, the study found that many of these women also were hungry (IFAD, 1999). In Pakistan, the plight of many rural women and girls is little different. Not only are their responsibilities for water fetching, food preparation, agricultural and other household duties physically demanding, but they also rob girls of the opportunity to attend school (Bari, 2000). At the same time, the “invisibility” of women as farmers means that little attention is paid to perilous aspects of their work such as the detrimental health effects of pesticides on Pakistani cotton pickers who are exclusively female (Nathan et al., 1999).

In China, a village study in Yunnan Province found that women are responsible for fetching fuel wood and typically spend two to three hours per day carrying 70-80 kg of fuel wood from far mountainous areas to their homes (Jieru, 1999). According to a study from the Philippines, rural women work up to 16 hours per day, much longer than men (APEC North-South Institute, 1999). In Mongolia, where the move toward privatization has increased the workload of female herders, lengthening their (already long) working day, women’s labour appears to be over utilized, though no reliable time use data based on systematic study are currently available (UNIFEM, 2001).

In Central Asian countries in transition, the economic reforms have created economic uncertainly and hardship. To provide for their family’s needs, rural women take up additional work in home farms, dairy and livestock sectors. Rural families are characterized by large family size demanding time for care giving tasks. The service sector to assist rural households is yet to evolve adequately. These factors contribute to women’s work load and drudgery (ESCAP, 1999).

Vietnamese men and women spend nearly the same amount of time on income-generating activities (as illustrated by the Viet Nam Living Standard Survey for 1997/98 illustrated in Figure 5), but women spend almost twice as much time as men on household work (as shown in Figure 6). Consequently, the total number of hours worked by women is consistently greater than that of men at each point in the life cycle (Desai, 2001).

Figure 5. Hours worked in income-generation in the past year in Viet Nam

Source: J. Desai, Viet Nam through the lens of gender: Five years later. Preliminary results of second Viet Nam living standards survey.

Figure 6. Hours worked in past year in household maintenance activities in Viet Nam

Source: J. Desai, Viet Nam through the lens of gender: Five years later. Preliminary results of second Viet Nam living standards survey.

In Pacific Island countries, households balance the amount of time spent on subsistence farming and cash cropping with social obligations, domestic duties, and off-farm business and employment commitments. A comparison of women’s and men’s domestic work in Samoa reveals that young men (between the ages of 10 and 24 years) appear to spend more time cooking than women (as shown in Table 9). It is important to keep in view that ceremonial cooking is a male domain task. Because women continue to play a predominant role in child care and washing, both traditional female domains, it is likely that they continue to face drudgery. Women in the Cook Islands continue to carry the work load for multiple tasks comprising food production, domestic work, family care giving, health care, social agents, community and kinship obligations and commercial and religious responsibilities. As economic opportunities expand for women to take up wage work outside the home to help meet family needs, most of the home responsibilities continue to rest with women, thus their work load has significantly increased (Kingstone, 1995).

Table 9. Participation in different types of domestic activities in Samoa by age and sex

Life Cycle Age



Looking after children








6 494

4 109


3 869

1 489

3 163


7 398

5 453

1 022

5 228


3 007


6 241

5 585

1 272

5 364


3 797


4 884

5 290


5 393

1 395

4 228


3 904

4 284


4 257

1 303

3 471


3 103

3 664


3 627

1 191

2 933


2 120

2 726


2 806


1 774


1 260

1 897


2 030


1 281


1 002

1 712


1 928


1 184



1 200


1 381


1 138





1 062


















38 075

37 517

6 415

37 893

9 521

28 266

Source: Samoa Agricultural Survey 1999.

The drudgery of rural women’s work raises gender equality considerations concerning rural women and their efforts to improve household food security. Time is the key resource in women’s strategies to access food and livelihood commodities, yet most rural women in Asia and the Pacific region have insufficient time. A heavy work burden leaves women little time to participate in capacity improvement interventions even if opportunities are available. According to an assessment by the World Bank, women in developing countries generally work longer hours than men and bear a disproportionate share of the responsibilities and time for household maintenance and care activities. The amount of time devoted to such responsibilities frequently means that women have fewer opportunities than men to participate in market-based work or to earn income independently, which in turn affects their bargaining and decision-making power within the household and means they have less time free for rest and personal care (World Bank, 2001). In recognition of these challenges, the World Bank and others have proposed a range of gender-responsive actions to reduce the burden on women’s time. In Cambodia, for example, interventions have been proposed to improve physical infrastructure that will reduce women’s travel time, and to develop users’ groups to reduce the time spent by women on gathering water and fuel and on water resource management (World Bank, 2002).

As agricultural diversification continues to shift labour-intensive activities into the domain of rural women, it is even more important to understand the effects of women’s increased work burden on the well-being of rural households, and to ensure that interventions to empower women also focus on providing for their practical needs to reduce household drudgery. The work burden of rural women also should be reviewed in the context of work intensity and its gendered effects on well-being which affect intrahousehold “bargaining” and the gender division of labour (Jackson and Palmer-Jones, 1998).

Given women’s situation, addressing rural neglect manifested in working women’s inadequate access to water, fuel wood, sanitation and health resources should be an important priority in the gender equality manifesto.

Enduring indifference to rural women’s work and inequity in resource access

An analytical review of rural women throughout Asia and the Pacific region identifies two common determinants of their situation, namely the persisting under valuation of rural women’s work by the community and the household and the inequity in access to resources as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Common determinants of the situation of rural women in Asia and the Pacific

Source: R. Balakrishnan

An outcome of the inexorable indifference to rural women’s work at both the household and community level is that women’s contributions to agricultural and household production routinely are discounted and/or ignored. The combined forces of social ignorance and economic indifference lead to explicit and implicit inequity in women’s access to various resources that are necessary to support and improve their contributions to a wide range of activities. Deep-rooted attitudes further undervalue the worth of women within the household, resulting in gender biases that affect community interactions and the policy arena. The limited availability of data on rural women’s work, coupled with a lack of attention to and value for unpaid work in the agriculture and rural development sector, further perpetuates women’s inequitable situation. Official underestimation of rural women’s contributions, based on inadequate information about the agricultural sector’s human capital potential and constraints, results in policy and programme initiatives that do not reflect the true status of the human resources available for agriculture productivity and rural economic vitality. Indeed, the persisting underestimation of rural women’s contributions results in sector policies and development strategies that ignore rural women and ultimately that undermine national efforts to promote agricultural development and sustainable food security.

Unpaid work: Persisting social ignorance and economic indifference

One of the most persistent challenges hampering a comprehensive understanding of rural women’s situation in Asia and the Pacific region relates to the general lack of reliable, systematically gathered and objectively analysed data. Stephens observes that problems arising from the scarcity of data on rural women often are exacerbated by misleading information on women’s role in agriculture. Thus, women farmers seldom are reflected in development policy and plans and they reap commensurately few rewards for their increasing hours working on the family farm (Stephens, 2002). In particular, the undercounting of women’s participation in agriculture and income-generation production within the rural economy is a common weakness of available macrostatistics in the region. In the case of South Asia, it is stated:

Despite the critical involvement and contribution of women in agriculture, their presence is officially invisible with few statistics reflecting their actual contributions to agricultural output and rural employment, and thereby to the Gross Domestic Product. The data surveys are male focused with little acceptance and understanding of the role women play. The process of measurement itself has numerous flaws (Mahbub ul Hag Development Centre, 2003).

As a result of the prevailing, erroneous social perception of what constitutes work, the majority of rural women workers are invisible to national statistics, which fail to recognize unpaid work in the household, on family land or in family enterprises (such as cooking, cleaning, care of children and the elderly, the collection of water, fuel and fodder) (Menon-Sen, and Shiva Kumar, 2001).

“Work “refers to the participation of individuals in productive activities for which they either receive remuneration (in cash or in kind) for their participation or are unpaid because they are contributors to a family business enterprise. It also includes subsistence production of goods for their own households and non-economic activities such as domestic work, family and elderly care, construction or repair of owner occupied buildings, and volunteer work for which individuals receive no remuneration.”

United Nations. 2000. The world’s women 2000: Trends and statistics. Social Science Indicators, Series K. No. 16. New York.

In Bangladesh, women account for 83.2 percent of the 42.5 percent of unpaid family helpers in rural areas (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 1996). In Cambodia, women account for 66 percent of unpaid family workers in the labour force over 15 years of age. In India, national statistics classified just 22 percent of rural women as workers in 1997. However, national data collection agencies recognized the serious under-counting of women’s contribution as workers, and the National Sample Survey estimated that as much as 17 percent of rural women and nearly 6 percent of urban women were incorrectly recorded as “non-workers”.

One report explained,

In South Asia, female employment rates recorded by official sources are usually low because of arbitrary definitions. If definitions are revised and all activities for which women are traditionally responsible incorporated, a huge difference in activity rates is noted. An undercounting of women’s work is demonstrated in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (Mahbub ul Hag Development Centre, 2003).

This phenomenon of statistical invisibility is illustrated in Pakistan where only 15 percent of women are registered in the Labour Force Survey, even though the 1980 Agricultural Census estimated that 73 percent of women in agricultural households were economically active. The 1990/91 Labour Force Survey reported a female economic activity rate of just 7 percent using the conventional questionnaire. However, this rate increased to 31 percent when respondents were also asked questions about specific activities like transplanting rice, picking cotton, grinding, drying seeds and tending livestock. In countries with cultural norms like Pakistan’s, where women’s waged work is considered a threat to the male ego and identity, women are insufficiently remunerated for their considerable contributions to multiple home-based economic activities (Bari, 2000).

In the Philippines, excessive undercounting of women in the rural workforce largely results from confusion and ambiguity in the definitions of “productive work”, “housework” and “the worker”. However, the main reason that women’s work is excluded in the calculation of the gross national product is that much of it is of subsistence nature and done within the family setting (APEC North-South Institute, 1999). In some other countries, changes in the rural economy have had a fundamental shift in the type of work performed by women, which is reflected in national employment statistics. For instance, in the Maldives, the development of an export-oriented fishing industry deprived women of opportunities to work for a cash income, thus causing them to become invisible unpaid family labourers (Dayal, 2001). Although statistics indicate that women play a vital role in the economies of Pacific Island countries, women in several of these countries struggle to have a say in community fisheries management because their informal day-to-day fishing activities are not recognized as work by governments, industry and banks. As a result, they are less able to receive loans to develop small businesses, less likely to receive skills training in manufacturing positions and less likely to be reached with valuable information about conservation practices (Robinson, 2000).

Summarizing the findings of studies completed among mountain women in the Hindu-Kush area of the Himalayas, Gurung (1999) asserts that “suffering from the myopia of labelling women’s subsistence work ‘domestic’ and therefore trivial, development planners have not, until recently, recognized the critical contribution of women’s work to agriculture production and the very survival of the family.” As a result of this short sightedness, the incalculable role and contribution of rural women in the unpaid work sector throughout Asia and the Pacific region continue to be ignored in economic analyses and are undervalued by the society.

Since women’s contribution to agriculture and food security is held in such low esteem, few if any supportive measures are available locally to improve women’s situation and to reduce hardships resulting from discrimination in resource access. At the same time, the general lack of national economic analyses that consider the demonstrable contribution of working rural women results in gender-blind policies and programmes that have negative effects on national productivity. In this context, ambiguities in definitions of work must be clarified so that the contributions of currently invisible women workers are no longer concealed. Indeed, the case of home-based workers demonstrates the need for improved informal sector statistics, as well as a better understanding of the effect of policies on the informal sector and the contribution of the informal sector to national economies (Chen, Sebstad and Connell, 1999). It is important to acknowledge that “[a]ll work is productive work. All work is economic work. All people who perform work, either paid or unpaid, are economically active” (ESCAP and UNDP, 2003).

“All work is productive work. All work is economic work. All people who perform work, paid or unpaid, are economically active.”

ESCAP and UNDP, 2003.

Facets of inequity in rural women’s access to resources

A recent World Bank study highlighted the double disadvantage poor women confront in access to resources and opportunity for articulation - they are poor and women (World Bank, 2001). It is easy to present illustrations of women’s current realties in rural areas of Asia and the Pacific region where inequity in access to resources is intensified by persistent neglect in provisioning of services and infrastructure facilities in rural areas. These persisting inequities are further reinforced by traditional perceptions and attitudes that perpetuate gender biases and discriminate against rural women’s access to community and household resources. At the same time, degradation of the natural resource base is threatening women’s access to subsistence livelihood resources in rural areas. Another growing concern is that the forces of globalization could further marginalize rural women and result in greater inequity in access to resources. New and emerging technologies in both the agriculture and information sectors may well bypass poorly educated rural women and widen their knowledge gaps. The following review highlights the resource access inequities experienced by rural women in the region.

Land assets

Many countries still lack adequate provision for women to hold land rights independently of their husbands or male relatives. Statutory laws often do not ensure independent land rights for women. In traditional or under “customary” practices, women’s direct ownership access to land may be limited, yet they may have greater management and use rights than men. Land ownership in rural areas determines the asset for production as well as access to credit and agriculture support services and the social power to negotiate for resources and membership in decision-making agencies (FAO, 2002). Rural women’s access to land - as owners and users -presents a mixed picture of conflict between legal rights and customary laws, as well as inheritance of property directed by family priorities and personal practices (Agarwal, 1994; Bari, 2000; Tinker and Summerfield, 1999; Meinzen-Dick et al., 1997). In Sumatra the inheritance system is evolving from a strictly matrilineal system to a more egalitarian system in which sons and daughters inherit the type of land that is more relevant to their respective work. Although gender bias is non-existent or small in land inheritance, daughters tend to be disadvantaged with respect to schooling (Quisumbing and Otsuka, 2001).

In South Asia, according to Agarwal (1994), “land defines social status and political power in the village, and it structures relationships within and outside the household. Yet for most women, effective rights in land remain elusive, even as their marital and kin support erodes and female-headed households multiply. In legal terms, women have struggled for and won fairly extensive rights to inherit and control land in much of South Asia, but in practice most stand disinherited. Few own land; even fewer can exercise effective control over it.” In India, women’s land rights are seen as particularly important in the context of demographic changes in occupational patterns, with more and more men migrating to urban areas or looking for non-farm work in rural areas. Given that the relative share of women in the agricultural labour force is higher than that of men, the lack of women’s land rights is seen as a major bottleneck in improving agricultural production (Rao, 2005).

Although an egalitarian trade in resources may prevail in certain societies, most often land laws or their implementation are biased against women. In the rural context, lack of ownership or direct lease rights to land may further prevent women from accessing other resources such as irrigation and credit (Mehra, 1995). For instance, throughout the Pacific Islands family members hold most land in customary tenure under the protection of the family head. Although rights to land may be passed on through patrilineal or matrilineal lines, women tend to have difficulty activating their rights for a number of reasons. Specifically, customary beliefs dictate that women do not need land because agriculture is male work and women are protected by the family support systems. There is also a fear that land given to women is lost land since women marry out of the family. Recently, these and other social customs have been formalized into legal rights, which discriminate against women. The codification of customary laws into statutory laws in Kiribati in the Lands Code[1] stipulates that in the distribution of an estate between sons and daughters, the shares of the eldest son should exceed that of his brothers, and the shares of sons should exceed the shares of daughters.

Natural resource assets

Women are rural agriculture producers, and rural production depends on natural resources as primary assets to produce crops, home garden, fishing, food processing and crafts. Women also collect non-wood forest products for food and production. The forests also offer fuel wood, shelter materials and medicinal plants. Hence, food security and the economic vitality of the local communities are affected by the availability of and access to natural resources. Natural resource degradation has direct consequences for rural women’s productivity and access to livelihood alternatives. “In rural areas the depletion of natural resources by environmental degradation has a significant effect on [the] daily life of a woman and [the] well-being of her family” (Rodda, 1993). Most studies to date have focused on the effect of forest and coastal resource degradation on women’s access to resources, but information on the impact of soil and water resource degradation on female work patterns is very limited. One study has illustrated how the livelihoods of indigenous communities in Northern Sarawak, Malaysia that traditionally have been based on hunting, gathering and shifting agriculture, are being threatened by logging, deforestation and changes in government policies regarding native land. The consequences are severe soil erosion, deterioration in the quality of river water, a reduction in biodiversity and a decline in fish and wildlife populations. The subsequent search for alternative livelihoods induced male migration, leaving women behind to cope with a declining resource base (Heyzer, 1996).

Gender inequalities in access to environmental resources, command over labour, capacity to diversify livelihood strategies and decision-making processes contribute to significant differences in how men and women experience poverty and environmental changes (Masika and Joekes, 1997). Analyzing regional variations and temporal shifts in rural India over a 30-year period, Agarwal (1997) concluded that natural resource degradation, privatization and the appropriation of natural resources by the state have tended to result in particularly adverse implications for female members of rural households. In Northern Pakistan, forest cover has been reduced dramatically in recent years at the same time that agricultural productivity has risen significantly with an increase in livestock farming. In parallel, the workload of women in agriculture has increased. Whereas men spend a greater proportion of their time in income-generating activities, enabling them to monopolize the community’s access to the monetary economy, women are left relatively powerless (Joekes, 1995).

A study in Nepal examined the workload of rural women in the context of availability of environmental goods collection over the past two decades. It found that although all household members spent less time collecting various local resources, such as water and wood, the amount of time women spent on collection fell by the largest proportion and the female share of the total collection time also decreased. Given the large amount of time women in the region spend on collection and the burden it entails, this finding suggests a positive trend, which may be a result of the increased availability of local environmental resources. For instance, each of the sites studied had installed at least one water tap, and some also had noted an improvement in their community forest during the 14-year period in question (Cooke, 2000).

A study on women and food production in the Pacific Islands of Samoa, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands found that the quality of home gardens depended on land availability, amount of land, soils, women’s access to planting materials, training, labour availability and knowledge about pests and diseases. On some atolls, problems of poor soils and garden washout from rain and sea spray also presented difficulties. In each of the countries studied, the women with the most successful gardens belonged to dual income or high status families. This suggests that training alone might be insufficient to achieve family food security (Fairbairn-Dunlop, 1997).

Local groups and social capital

The development of women’s groups is a strategy to expand women’s access to information, increase their comparative bargaining power and create opportunities for collective action to access economic inputs. In reality, however, persisting gender biases, deep-seated community dynamics and women’s time constraints prevent women from actively participating in these organizations which were intended to bring about social capital benefits and female empowerment. The widespread trend to transfer responsibility for irrigation management from the state to communities or local user groups has by and large ignored the implications of intra community power differences on the effectiveness and equity of water management. Gender is a recurrent source of such differences. Despite the rhetoric on women’s participation, a review of evidence from South Asia shows that female participation is minimal in water users’ organizations, in part because the formal and informal membership criteria exclude women (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen, 1998).

Factors that constrain women’s participation in formal institutions for environmental management include rules, norms, perceptions, entrenched territorial claims, the household’s economic and social endowments and women’s individual economic endowments and personal attributes (Agarwal, 2000). For example, women who have primary responsibility for both domestic and farm work have extremely full days and are unlikely to have the time to attend meetings. Some women in rural areas may also lack links to male-dominated and government hierarchies. A Food for Work Programme in Cambodia found that women without husbands and those who were poor tended to be isolated from other villagers because of the amount of time they must spend working alone, foraging for food, hauling water and caring for the home (World Food Programme, 2001).

In Thailand, a study found gender differences in participation in local organizations. Women tend to belong to local organizations that are focused on home economics and household tasks. Men are more likely to join local organizations that seek to improve agriculture productivity and generate income. A minimum level of assets - in the form of land, livestock or human capital - is normally required as a precondition for participation in local organizations. Often poorer households and women lack sufficient assets to be eligible for membership. Additionally, women have less access than men to decision-making processes in local organizations (Balakrishnan et al., 2003). An excessive workload that involves managing multiple tasks as unpaid workers in farm and rural production, domestic work and care giving responsibilities leaves little time for women to be active and effective participants in local organizations. Yet another facet of participation is that although women are visible numerically in the local organizations, they have limited opportunities to articulate their needs and concerns by themselves during the planning process which is dominated by men.

Education: Formal and informal

Gender difference in access to education is a key contributor to inequality in rural women’s access to other resources. Many studies carried out in different parts of the world have documented the importance of women’s education for positive outcomes in child schooling and nutrition. Yet education also is critical for female empowerment. Women must have at least basic education if they are to develop the skills needed to participate in knowledge-intensive agriculture and economic activities. Women who lack access to basic education are likely to be excluded from new opportunities and, where longstanding gender gaps in education persist, they will be at increased risk of falling behind men in their ability to participate in development (King and Alderman, 2001). Across Asia, studies have documented women’s unequal participation in education and training. One such study carried out in 25 villages in Pakistan found that a number of serious supply-side constraints (inadequate primary schools for girls close to villages, lack of female teachers) deny girls access to primary education (Sawada and Lokshin, 2001).

Similarly in South India, research has identified factors that keep poor boys and girls out of the classroom. These include poverty, the opportunity cost of children’s labour and entrenched social and cultural norms that give rise to inequality of caste, class and gender (Subrahmanian, 1997). A survey undertaken by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation found that the time allocated for unpaid work was the major barrier preventing women from improving their skills and training (APEC North-South Institute, 1999). Existing rural disparity in educational infrastructure, combined with inadequate quality control, partially explains lack of access to good learning as well as social perceptions that undervalue the importance of education for girls among the current generation of rural girls. For adult women farmers and producers, literacy deficiency is a legacy in rural areas for cultural and economic reasons held by their families. In the present generation of adults, rural women’s illiteracy is the major barrier to their social and economic advancement; for the future generation of rural women the major barrier is rural girls’ lack of access to formal education.


Rural women in their dual roles as producers in farm and home production and as caregivers need technologies to ease their work stress and improve productivity and family welfare. According to one renowned Indian scientist, “[I]f women are empowered with technological information and skills, all the members of the family will benefit” (Swaminathan, 2001). However, traditional biases, which are internalized by scientists, technocrats and technology disseminators, contribute to the gap between gender differentiated technology needs and actions for gender responsive technology development and technology transfer. Access to technology is not neutral, and is particularly not gender neutral (Balakrishnan, 2000).

“Access to technology is not neutral, and is particularly not gender-neutral. Internalized traditional biases contribute to the gap between gender differentiated technology needs and actions for gender responsive technology development and technology transfer.”

In developing countries, technology development and dissemination programmes have not been responsive to household drudgery associated with different production activities routinely undertaken by women. In particular, these programmes have failed to recognize rural women’s demand for technology that improves their productivity. For instance, in Nepal, little effort has been made to develop and diffuse new and improved agricultural tools tailored to women farmers even though national policies and programmes have sought to promote women’s empowerment (Guatam, 1999). A participatory assessment of the intrahousehold effects of modern agriculture technologies in Bangladesh identified reasons why poor women fail to utilize knowledge of new technologies; those reasons included unfavourable land tenure, gender division of workspace that is validated by purdah and limited size of homestead plots (Naved, 2000).

Most technical solutions in the livestock sector, even those directed specifically at women, have ignored women’s actual needs. Improvements designed to intensify the production system generally have increased women’s workloads. Appropriate technologies should be designed to consider not only women’s workload, but also the potential effect of the technology on their status and the economic control over resources and property (Niamer-Fuller, 1994). Although some efforts have promoted participatory technology development, the participants most often were defined to be male farmers, an error perpetuated by traditional perceptions held by extension service and agricultural education providers. Such a limited understanding by the agents of technology transfer placed a low value on women’s ability to learn and to use technologies, thus making women farmers invisible.

A major finding of the recently completed Asia-Pacific Gender Science and Technology Project in Kiribati, Fiji and Samoa that focused on biotechnology, green health, water, energy and information technology, was that women’s main access to technology is through women’s NGOs such as Ecowomen Fiji, Wainimate and research institutes affiliated to the University of the South Pacific that tend to rely on donor funding. Agricultural research and extension services still tend to direct their attention to men and export crops. Rural infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific region must be improved to increase access to off-farm employment opportunities and to facilitate the adoption of new technologies and information and support services by women farmers (Nathan et al., 1999).


The provision of microcredit - usually collateral-free and group-guaranteed - has provided an important source of capital for rural men and women in Asia and the Pacific region. High economic rates of return have been attributed to the excellent repayment performance of rural women. The group-based microcredit and microfinance approaches have served the short term credit needs of rural households well, improving cash flows where petty trade opportunities have been available (Zeller et al., 2001). In the Asian region, the mixed effects of microcredit have been documented (Kelkar, Nathan and Rownok, 2004). These include the incremental benefits of microcredit on women’s livelihood and social solidarity as well as the potential for changing social relations. On the other hand, negative effects are increased social conflict in the community, the tendency of men to control women’s access to economic assets and women being used as the front person for control over the loans or financial decisions. Most often the microenterprises are based on the existing domestic production skills. Expansion of the microenterprises is limited by the loan sizes and by the poor access to opportunities to improve skills or to cost effective technology and knowledge of market complexity. Microfinance programmes exhibit clear differences in terms of their approach - particularly the commitment to build rural women’s capacity to become self-reliant producers and confident credit holders in their individual right - and the results they achieve (UN DAW and UNIFEM, 2001).

The collective effect of rural women’s small savings on the national economy is not categorically established. The critical relevance of women’s efforts is inadequately acknowledged and women’s due status as partners contributing to local economic vitality and national capital is denied. Women not only contribute to national production as unpaid workers, but they also increasingly are the key economic actors who contribute to the financial flow of the national economy through their participation in microcredit and microfinance programmes. The illustration below conceptualizes microcredit and women’s economic contribution (Figure 8). Women’s small enterprises collectively result in the cash flow within the local economy, and their savings deposited in national banks result in capital formation for commercial investments and middle class loans to support consumption of life style consumer durables. The current rationale of microcredit as an instrument of mobilising women or as an investment in social capital should be re-examined in the light of the economic reality that these women contribute to the national economy by creating capital for other investments including bank loans to urban middle class to support their consumption.

Figure 8. Microcredit and rural women’s economic contribution

Source: R. Balakrishnan

The repayment terms dictated by microcredit tenets (compulsory weekly repayments plus a contribution to savings) and interest rates have not been appropriate to meet the fund needs of agriculture households, which do not normally have a weekly cash flow given their reliance on longer term agriculture production and livestock rearing cycles. Consequently, the women-centred credit model has pressed rural women to pursue additional, alternative income-generating strategies to keep up with repayment schedules, thereby causing an increase in their workload. Recent studies questioned the assumption that microcredit is an effective instrument for women’s empowerment by indicating that, in some cases, women serve as a front to access credit for men in the household, thus lacking direct control over the credit obtained in their name. In short, a preoccupation with performance - measured primarily in terms of high repayment rates - has affected the incentives of those who grant and recover credit, resulting in less attention being paid to whether and how women can have meaningful control over their own investment activities (Goetz and Gupta, 1996).

In the Pacific Islands, women tend to experience difficulties obtaining credit through commercial banks given their lack of collateral and the small size of the loans requested. The fact that banks are normally located in urban areas, coupled with women’s lack of knowledge about banking procedures, further impedes female access to capital. In this context, many women’s groups have developed savings and loans schemes where members make regular deposits and have the option to borrow at reasonable interest rates. However, major constraints associated with these schemes have included management weaknesses as well as the high costs of running small schemes and making them available in rural areas (Fairbairn-Dunlop and Struthers, 1997).

Female-headed households

Female-headed households in rural areas demonstrate specific vulnerability in terms of access to resources, access to social networks to improve their access to development resources and at times the labour requirement to undertake agriculture practices to improve productivity. An assessment by IFAD recognized the feminization of rural poverty in Asia and noted two key dimensions of this trend. Notably, female-headed households in the region usually are poorer than male-headed households, and poverty is more severe and binding for women in that it is more difficult for women and their children to escape it (IFAD, 1999). According to this study, female-headed households represent a significant proportion of households in Cambodia, Nepal and Bangladesh. In Cambodia, 35 percent of household are female-headed; in Nepal and Bangladesh female-headed households are 16 percent of landless and marginal households.

The migration of men and grown children in Cambodia has had both positive and negative consequences. Some men and children who work away from the village may send money home, significantly improving the standard of living for the family there. On the other hand, wives whose husbands leave for long periods may suffer some of the same deprivations as poor women without husbands. For instance, a study by the World Food Programme has shown that women in households with no men have inadequate access to decision-making networks, legitimate knowledge and assets like rice and labour (World Food Programme, 2001). Similarly, the Viet Nam Living Standard Survey identified labour shortage in female-headed households as an important resource constraint in expanding economic assets and agriculture productivity. For instance, in rural parts of Viet Nam median profits of female-operated enterprises are 84 percent of those of men (Desai, 2001).

Specific hardships faced by women in the Pacific Islands include a shortage of family labour as a result of migration and children at school, a reluctance of youth to perform agricultural work, as well as seasonal male labour trends. For example in Kiribati and Tuvalu, men are engaged in waged employment on sea vessels for long periods at a time. At the same time, family support systems that traditionally protected women from negative changes in the economy are being eroded, an increasing number of marriages are breaking up and the number of unmarried pregnancies is increasing, all of which contributes to an increase in the number of female-headed households. In short, such factors substantiate that women are the group most vulnerable to poverty throughout the Pacific Islands today.

Rural women’s resource access inequity matrix

The interlinked, complex relationships among various gender-based inequities vis à vis rural women’s access to resources are highly relevant to achieving sustainable food security and rural economic vitality. These linkages, though simplified, can be visualized as presented in Figure 9 and further elaborated in Table 10.

Figure 9. Gender based access inequities and food security

Source: R. Balakrishnan

The various facets of resource access inequity facing women associated with specific production segments are explained further in Table 10. This matrix illustrates the nexus of inequity and its relationship to sustainable food security across a range of production segments. Major food security risks include limited incentives to improve land and productivity, inadequate opportunities and restricted capacity to diversify income sources, women’s insufficient time to improve agriculture production, poor nutritional gains for rural households, uncertain access to food at times of family crisis, seasonal unavailability and crop loss. These factors have major implications for the availability of sufficient food to ensure national food security.

Table 10. Rural women’s resource access inequity matrix

Households Production Segment

Associated Resource Domain

Access Problem/constraints

Inequity Nexus

Risks to achievement of sustainable food security

Farm Production


• Lack of ownership and access to land
• Uncertain access to productive land

• No legal land rights
• Customary laws and local practices
• Poor implementation of land law legislation granting equal access
• Women’s reluctance to exert land law rights and ownership responsibilities
• Privatization of common property

• Lack of incentives to improve land and productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and national food security

Forest resources

• Lack of access to non-wood forest resources
• Lack of access to pasture space and fodder for livestock

• Forest preservation measures
• Change in community resource use as a result of privatization

• Lack of means to diversify income and access to food

Soil and water

• Lack of good land with fertile soil
• Lack of access to irrigation and water for production

• Degrading quality of soil in limited land available for subsistence production and inability to negotiate access to fertile land
• Poor quality of water and lack of participation in water users’ groups
• Inability to articulate needs and demands within water users’ groups

• Lack of incentives to improve land and productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and national food security

Farm, home and off-farm production


• Lack of access to technology suited to production activities carried out by women
• Lack of access to household technology
• Lack of technology to scale up production and improve quality
• Lack of access to current technologies, production methods and technical information

• Past and ongoing neglect of women’s needs and roles in technology development
• Displacement of women with mechanization given lower female skills and education, and gender biases that favour men
• Assumption that technology for household tasks is synonymous with female domestication
• Neglect of women’s home production technology needs
• Weak and insufficient technology training programmes for women
• Women’s lack of time and education to take advantage of skills training and technology transfer programmes

• Limited means to diversify income and access to food
• Lack of incentives to improve productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and
national food security


• Lack of labour available for agriculture technologies
• Lack of labour to take up domestic tasks

• Increased number of female-headed households because of male migration
• Lack of male labour and small family size in female-headed households
• Change in family structure and kinship networks

• Few available means to diversify incomes and access to food
• Lack of incentives to improve productivity in the agriculture sector with
implications for the availability of food and national food security


• Lack of access to formal credit for agricultural production and for establishing and scaling up enterprises

• Poorly-developed agriculture banking and rural credit systems
• Lack of traditional kinds of collateral (e.g. land or house) means women are seen as unreliable clients for large amounts of credit
• Men are considered as heads of households for official credit transactions

• Few available means to diversify incomes and access to food
• Lack of incentives to improve productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and national food security

Agriculture support services

Institutional resources

• Lack of access to inputs for agriculture production and off-farm production
• Lack of off-farm labour employment
• Lack of access to development organizations and government agencies

• Poor agriculture-support delivery system
• Lack of appropriate information and outreach to rural women
• Traditional bias that ignores the roles of women in agriculture and therefore the need for gender-sensitive farm sector extension programmes
• Limited education and lack of understanding about public sector and programmes among women
• Inadequate investment in rural employment programmes
• Women’s lack of education and appropriate skills to take advantage of new economic opportunities
• Traditional marginalization of women by public sector institutions
• Women’s inadequate knowledge about public sector agencies and services
• Women’s lack of ability to deal with public sector development agencies

• Few available means to diversify incomes and access to food
• Lack of incentives to improve productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and national food security

Market and commercial linkages

• Limited access to reliable markets
• Insufficient links with urban commercial centres

• Poor market infrastructure and limited market information services in rural areas
• Economic and social organizations that use the productive resources of rural producers, but ignore female producers
• Global economic linkages

• Lack of means to diversify income and access to food
• Lack of incentives to improve productivity in the agriculture sector with implications for the availability of food and national food security

Home production

Drinking water, sanitation, health care and child care services

• Lack of access to basic services to manage family care responsibilities

• Poor service infrastructure in rural areas
• Traditional assumptions that women need little and are used to managing the difficult tasks
• Lack of roads and transportation routes linking rural communities to service centres

• Inadequate time and efforts by women to improve agricultural production with implications for the availability of food and national food security
• Poor nutritional gains for rural households

Community production

Formal safety nets

• Lack of access to cash or supportive services at times of family crises
• Lack of access to community organizations
• Lack of access to family networks

• Past and current neglect of appropriate crop/livestock and personal/medical insurance or cash transfer for rural communities.
• Lack of expertise to deal with externally organized community organizations
• Men dominating the deliberations of community organizations and assuming leadership positions
• Women following the tradition of not articulating effectively their needs for resources
• Women’s lack of time and expertise as barriers for active involvement
• Breakdown in extended family system and traditional kinship networks

• Uncertain access to food among rural families at times of family crises and crop loss
• Lack of means to diversify income and access to food

[1] Native Lands Ordinance Cap. 61, Part IX: Section 11-ii-Kirpati.

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